Politics & Policy

How Jeb Bush Lost the Sheldon Adelson Primary

(Mark Wilson/Getty)

Most Republican presidential contenders are trying to woo GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson, who in 2012 demonstrated his ability to bankroll a campaign almost singlehandedly when he kept former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s presidential prospects alive long after most expected him to bow out of the race.

But in the Sheldon primary, according to multiple sources, one top candidate is already a dead man. That’s former Florida governor Jeb Bush, whose aides have, for the past several months, been making overtures to Adelson in an attempt to get him to open his wallet to a Bush super PAC that is expected to raise record sums. But at this point, it looks like none of that money will come from Adelson.

“I think he’s lost the Sheldon primary,” says the leader of a top conservative group.

The bad blood between Bush and Adelson is relatively recent, and it deepened with the news that former secretary of state James Baker, a member of Bush’s foreign-policy advisory team, was set to address J Street, a left-wing pro-Israel organization founded to serve as the antithesis to the hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

J Street has routinely staked out liberal views anathema to those held by Adelson and his allies. Adelson sent word to Bush’s camp in Miami: Bush, he said, should tell Baker to cancel the speech. When Bush refused, a source describes Adelson as “rips***”; another says Adelson sent word that the move cost the Florida governor “a lot of money.” 

Adelson has long pressed political candidates to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and to pardon Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted of spying for Israel in 1987 and remains behind bars. Gingrich, for one, pledged to move the embassy, while many, including Mitt Romney, have been non-committal on Pollard’s case.

#related#Bush got top billing last year when he addressed the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual spring meeting. He was the guest of honor at a dinner held in a private airport hangar, where he addressed several dozen pro-Israel donors and, according to those present, cautioned against the rise of “neo-isolationism” in Republican ranks.

The tension between Bush and Adelson doesn’t mean the candidate won’t have a chance to raise money from the rest of the pro-Israel crowd. Bush did not attend this year’s RJC leadership meeting, last weekend in Las Vegas, but several of his allies, including Mel Sembler, a top Florida bundler, and Fred Zeidman, a Houston-based fundraiser, were there. His son Jeb Bush Jr. was also in attendance, and his brother George W. Bush delivered the keynote address. Aides to the former Florida governor handed out buttons with “Jeb” emblazoned in Hebrew.

Adelson has said that he won’t make a financial commitment to any candidate for several months, until at least a handful of primary debates have taken place. So there is time for him to warm to warm to Bush, but right now, it doesn’t seem likely.

UPDATE: As spokesman for Bush’s Right to Rise PAC, Tim Miller, tells National Review, ”Governor Bush has a lifetime commitment to defending Israel, we’re proud of the support the Right to Rise PAC has from members of the RJC and will continue to try to earn the support of like-minded individuals. Gov. Bush will continue to discuss the need for American leaders who stand up for allies like Israel as he travels the country.” He also points to Bush’s statement last month that it was ”not appropriate” for Baker to address J Street, but that he was nonetheless honored to count him as an adviser. 

— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.

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