Adelson in 2006.(Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Phantom)

Multi-billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson is giving $5 million to a pro-Newt Gingrich political action group dedicated to taking down frontrunner Mitt Romney, in a surprising maneuver that could complicate the Republican race and even the Republican Jewish establishment, which has largely stayed neutral or backed Romney. One of Adelson’s many beneficiaries is the Republican Jewish Coalition, which does not endorse primary candidates, so one wonders, for example, if its life is made awkward by this turn of events.

To back up: during Saturday night’s nationally televised debate, and then much more on Sunday morning, the five remaining major Republican candidates who are not Mitt Romney—Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, and Rick Perry—attacked Romney. They were led by Gingrich, one of the more unlikely contenders at this point, who in a barn-burner of a speech after the Iowa caucuses made it clear that he loathed the notion of Romneywinning; but Santorum also joined in, as did longtime Romney foe Huntsman (who has staked everything on New Hampshire and is likely to drop out if he doesn’t win second place). Yet even as yesterday drew to a close, the focus was moving beyond New Hampshire—which Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has locked—and to South Carolina’s January 21 primary.

Gingrich’s new critique of Romney, ironically, would be central to President Obama’s case against Romney. To wit: Gingrich claims that while at Bain Capital, Romney repeatedly bought out companies, gutted them, and sold them, laying off thousands of workers in the process. All of this is true; none of it was illegal, and in fact it was positively standard operating procedure in the world of private equity. However, in the current economic and political climate, even a candidate for the pro-business, pro-markets party is vulnerable to a populist attack based on this record. And make no mistake: after Romney wins New Hampshire tomorrow evening, this argument is going to be heard in South Carolina in a big way thanks to a pro-Gingrich Super PAC—an organization barred from a formal alliance with any candidate that is allowed to accept an unlimited amount of money—that just received a $5 million check from Adelson, maybe the most powerful donor in the Jewish institutional world. (Essential profile here.) Already, the group has purchased King of Bain, a movie (trailer here) that makes this case against Romney.

Josh Marshall notes that using this particular line of attack on Romney will damage him in the general election: it represents, Marshall writes, “Republican buy-in to the charge that Romney was a predatory corporate raider and lay-off king.” It’s easy to see why Gingrich will do anything to take Romney out, even at the risk of putting Obama in the White House for another four years: he’s a humongous egomaniac who thinks he’s doing something of world-historical importance every time he goes to the bathroom. (This is why we love him.)

But what of the motivations behind the man who gave us the Venetian and the Palazzo? Adelson’s reasons remain unclear. His right-wing Israel HaYom newspaper has been a crucial backer of Prime Minister Netanyahu. He has donated to a penumbra of Jewish and Israeli causes—some right-wing and some not political. His various foundations have given more than $100 million to Taglit-Birthright. And, as the Forward first reported last month, he is a strong Gingrich backer, despite Romney’s general support among the GOP Jewish donor class (which mirrors the broader Republican establishment). While Adelson’s case for Gingrich, when he has made one, is predicated on Gingrich’s Israel stance—Adelson recently seconded Gingrich’s claim that the Palestinians are an “invented” people—nobody is really saying Romney is bad on Israel. Which makes Adelson’s willingness spend this much money—pocket change in actual capital, a whole lot in political capital—to sink Romney even after Romney has done much to secure the nomination all that more perplexing.

But whatever the reason, Adelson is now central to the Republican race. This insures that his own core issue—namely, securing U.S. support for Israel and backing of Netanyahu—will continue to factor in the primary fight and perhaps the general as well. If nothing else, Adelson’s move is an announcement that he intends to use the super PAC system, newly created by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, to influence the process as much as he can.

Romney Is the Main Target In a Caustic GOP Debate [NYT]
PAC Ads to Attack Romney as Predatory Capitalist [NYT]
Newt’s Friend Antes Up [TPM]
Related: The Brass Ring [The New Yorker]