MADISON (AP) – Gov. Scott Walker and a host of possible presidential hopefuls for 2016 are headed to Las Vegas for a high-profile Republican meeting at a casino owned by a billionaire who made the second-highest single campaign donation in Wisconsin history.
The Republican Jewish Coalition spring meeting begins Thursday with a golf outing and promises a “terrific weekend of poker, politics, and policy.” It is hosted by Las Vegas Sands Corp. chairman and chief executive Sheldon Adelson, a board member of the RJC.
Adelson, who backed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 2012, is reportedly using this weekend’s meeting, dubbed the “Sheldon Primary,” to vet possible 2016 presidential candidates.
Adelson and his wife spent more than $92 million on Republicans in the 2012 presidential cycle. Adelson wrote Walker a $250,000 check during his recall campaign that year. That is the second-highest campaign donation in state history, behind only the $500,000 that Beloit businesswoman Diane Hendricks gave Walker during the recall.
Normal campaign limits did not apply during much of the recall, which Walker won. Walker used that victory, the first win for any governor targeted for recall in U.S. history, to raise his national profile and put him on the list of 2016 presidential hopefuls.
Walker is scheduled to speak at a Saturday luncheon at the meeting being held at Adelson’s Venetian resort hotel and casino. Other possible 2016 presidential hopefuls slated to be there include New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, a 42-year-old Republican who represents northern Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District, is slated to be the featured speaker during a Saturday dessert reception targeting young Republican leaders.
Walker is headed to the meeting, which attracts considerable national political buzz, even as he’s tried to downplay his 2016 ambitions in the midst of his re-election campaign this year against Democrat Mary Burke, a former Trek Bicycle Corp. executive.
“The governor remains focused on 2014 and sharing his common-sense conservative message with like-minded leaders,” Walker’s campaign spokeswoman Alleigh Marre said Wednesday when asked why he was attending the Las Vegas meeting.
A spokesman for Burke declined to comment on Walker going to the Las Vegas meeting.
Walker is leaving the state on the heels of signing a half-billion dollar property and income tax cut into law on Monday. The governor spent much of the week crisscrossing Wisconsin to tout those cuts, which take effect in the coming weeks and will lower property taxes on bills mailed in December.
A Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday showed Walker with 48 percent support to Burke’s 41 percent. The poll of 801 registered voters, done between March 20 and Sunday, has a 3.5 percentage point margin of error.
Walker has repeatedly said he’s focused on his re-election, but he’s been keeping his name on the national stage as well. He has also refused to commit to serving a full four-year term if re-elected.
Last fall, Walker released his book, “Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge,” which detailed the recall fight and outlined his political philosophy. He’s also visited the early presidential primary states of Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire while also remaining tapped in to big national Republican donors like Adelson.
Wisconsin Democratic Party spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said it was “no surprise that Scott Walker is heading to kiss the Sheldon Adelson ring to curry favor for 2016 while scrounging for out-of-state campaign cash that he can use to try and spin his dismal economic record.”
Walker is going to the meeting while he mulls whether to allow the Menominee Tribe, in partnership with Hard Rock International, to open a new casino in Beloit. That project has been opposed by the Forest County Potawatomi, which operates a competing casino in Milwaukee.
Las Vegas Sands, which Adelson heads, has not been involved in the Wisconsin project.