Even as lawmakers perennially tout the strength of their small-dollar fundraising, the driving force of any campaign in any cycle — with few exceptions — is big-money donors.
Often contributing upwards of six-figures across dozens of campaigns, money from these donors often comprises the vast majority of campaign funds, especially in the most competitive legislative campaigns.
However, while all these contributions are reported to Nevada’s secretary of state every quarter, parsing trends from such reports or determining how corporate or PAC donors are spending in the aggregate is no simple task, as each contribution is siloed either under individual candidates or individual donors.
To get at those trends, The Nevada Independent analyzed more than 7,700 individual contributions of more than $200 made to every sitting lawmaker elected in 2020.
That $200 cutoff excludes a small portion of small-dollar fundraising, as well as two lawmakers who were appointed to their seats in 2021 (Sen. Fabian Donate, D-Las Vegas and Assemblywoman Tracy Brown-May, D-Las Vegas) and any fundraising by losing candidates.
What is left is an expansive picture of the spending habits of Nevada’s biggest industries, from unions and casinos to health care giants and dark-money PACs. Over the course of our Follow the Money series, we’ve taken a deep dive into the spending of the state’s 10 largest industries, a group of donors that collectively spent $7.8 million of the $10.6 million in big money legislative contributions last cycle.
Links to all previous installments of this series, including top-line breakdowns of all spending and all fundraising, have been included at the end of this article.
But beyond the largest 10 are the 14 “smallest” industries, according to our categorizations, which still spent upwards of $2.8 million combined. Below is a breakdown of that campaign spending, ordered by industry, from greatest to least.
Spending nearly as much money last cycle as the much-debated Nevada mining industry were a number of alcohol and tobacco companies, which combined to contribute nearly $319,000.
Spendiest among industry donors was tobacco company Altria (likely better known by its former name, Philip Morris Companies, Inc.), which gave 30 lawmakers a combined $95,050. Almost all of that money went to Republicans, who received $75,050 to the Democrats’ $20,000.
Among all legislators, none saw more money from Altria than Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer (R-Minden), who received $9,000. He was followed by Assemblyman Tom Roberts (R-Las Vegas) with $8,750 and Sen. Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas) with $7,000. The remaining 27 lawmakers, including eight Democrats and 19 Republicans, received $5,000 or less.
Other major industry donors include beer-giant Anheuser Busch ($50,500), the Nevada Beer Wholesalers Association ($49,000), alcohol distributor Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits ($33,500) and electronic cigarette maker Juul Labs ($26,500).
Contributing more than $306,000 combined, the state’s transportation industry included a varied mix of donors from car manufacturers, ride-sharing companies, railroads, taxis and associated organizations and individuals.
Biggest of all was the Nevada automotive dealers PAC, NADEAC, which contributed $52,500 in total, split nearly evenly between Republicans ($27,500) and Democrats ($25,000). Most of NADEAC’s contributions were comparatively small, however, and only two legislators saw more than $2,500 — Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) and Sen. Carrie Buck (R-Las Vegas), each of whom received $5,000.
Following NADEAC was electric car maker Tesla — operator of the massive gigafactory battery plant in Northern Nevada — which gave 20 legislators $45,000. Most of that, $34,500, went to legislative Democrats, with the two Democratic leaders — Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) — receiving the most of anyone with $5,000 each.
Other major transportation donors include the Nevada Trucking Association and its president, Paul Enos (a combined $42,500), Union Pacific Railroad ($33,500), rental car company Enterprise ($29,500) and the ride-sharing company Lyft ($21,000).
Twelve telecommunications companies combined to spend more than $300,000 on lawmakers last cycle, with the single largest chunk coming from internet service provider Cox Communications ($120,000).
The largest internet provider in the state with a near-monopoly on internet service in the Las Vegas metro area, Cox’s spending largely favored legislative Democrats, who received $80,000 to the Republican’s $40,000. That includes one maximum $10,000 contribution to Frierson, as well as $8,000 for Cannizzaro.
Communications giant AT&T followed with $82,250, again favoring Democrats ($58,750) to Republicans ($23,500). And here, too, the top recipients were Frierson and Cannizzaro, who received $8,000 each.
Other major donors included internet service providers Charter Communications ($47,500) and CenturyLink ($14,000), as well as satellite TV provider Dish Network ($12,000).
Though the pharmaceutical industry at large contributed nearly $273,000, more than half came from just one donor: the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), which gave 45 lawmakers $140,500.
Among the most powerful industry groups in the entire country, PhRMA’s contributions favored Republicans, who received $86,000 to the Democrats’ $54,500. Among individual lawmakers, PhRMA’s four top recipients were all Assembly Republicans: Roberts ($8,000), Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus (R-Wellington) ($8,000), Assemblywoman Jill Tolles (R-Reno) ($8,000) and Assemblywoman Melissa Hardy (R-Henderson) ($7,000).
Other major donors include the drugmaker Pfizer ($46,250), National Association of Chain Drug Stores ($17,500), and biotechnology company Amgen ($11,000). Nineteen other donors, including major drugmakers such as Merck, Sanofi, Eli Lilly and Johnson & Johnson, gave $10,000 or less.
Though 55 donors in the finance and banking industry combined to contribute more than $214,000, almost two-thirds of that money came from one source: the Nevada Credit Union League (NCUL), the credit union trade association, which gave $86,250 across 46 legislators.
The NCUL’s spending widely favored Democrats, who received $62,000 to the Republicans’ $24,250. Much of that difference was made up by the sheer number of Democrats receiving contributions (30 Democrats to 16 Republicans), but also by three large contributions to Democratic Leaders.
Frierson and Assembly Majority Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno) both received the $10,000 maximum, while Cannizzaro received $9,000. No other lawmakers received more than $5,000 from the group.
Other major donors include One Nevada Credit Union ($25,500) and the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors ($14,500). The remaining 52 donors gave just $9,500 or less.
Unlike some other major industries, technology-related companies and donors gave to lawmakers in comparatively mid-sized or small amounts, with the largest among them — the data company Switch — giving a total of $62,000 to 21 legislators.
That money was evenly split between 10 Democrats and 11 Republicans, who combined to receive $31,0000 each. That even-split largely extended down to the individual level, too, with Democrats Cannizzaro, Frierson and Gansert, a Republican, receiving $10,000, while Republicans Hammond and Buck received $5,000 each. The remaining recipients all received $2,500 or less.
The other significant chunk of technology contributions came from Blockchains, Inc. owner Jeff Berns and his wife, Mary, who combined to give $44,500. Berns was at the center of efforts this session to create so-called “Innovation Zones,” which would have created a semi-autonomous county in rural Nevada supported by the use of cryptocurrency.
As criticism of the concept intensified over the course of the legislative session, Gov. Steve Sisolak backed away from Innovation Zones last week in announcing the proposal would take shape as a study, instead.
The single biggest beneficiary of Bern’s contributions was Assemblyman Jim Wheeler (R-Minden), who received $10,000 each from Jeff and Mary for $20,000 total. Wheeler’s district, District 39, encompasses parts of Storey County, where Berns’ Blockchains company owns roughly 67,000 acres of land that likely would have become the state’s first Innovation Zone, had the proposal passed muster.
Berns also gave $5,000 to Cannizzaro, Frierson and Settelmeyer, as well as a handful of smaller contributions to six other lawmakers, including both Democrats and Republicans.
Other technology companies gave comparatively little, with Reno-based precision measuring equipment firm Hamilton Company following Berns with $15,000, and the tax-software giant Intuit giving $12,500. The remaining 25 donors gave $11,000 or less.
Insurance companies — close cousins to the finance industry — combined to give lawmakers $165,700, with the Farmers Employee and Agent PAC leading all donors with $63,000.
Farmers’ spending was split nearly evenly between the two major parties, with Republicans receiving $32,000 to the Democrats’ $31,000. No lawmakers received the maximum amount from the group, though four — Frierson, Roberts, Gansert and Titus — did receive $5,000 contributions. The remaining 20 recipients received $3,000 or less.
No other single insurance came close to Farmers’ spending. The next largest, USAA, gave just $25,500 (of which most, $17,000, went to Democrats), while small business insurer Employers EIG Services gave $24,000 (including $13,500 for Republicans and $10,500 for Democrats). The remaining 20 insurance donors gave $13,000 or less.
Though the payday lending industry at large gave comparatively little — $128,000 split across 37 legislators — the single largest industry donor, TitleMax, was among the biggest spenders of any industry as it contributed $93,000 to 35 lawmakers.
Most of that went to 20 Democrats, who received $56,500 to the Republicans $36,500. TitleMax’s largest individual contributions similarly went to Democrats, with Frierson and Cannizzaro each receiving the $10,000 maximum. Gansert followed with $7,500, while the remaining 32 legislators received $5,000 or less.
Other payday lending donors gave little in comparison to TitleMax. Dollar Loan Center was next-closest with $23,500 contributed, followed by Purpose Financial with $8,500. The remaining three donors gave marginal amounts, including $1,250 from Advance America, $1,000 from the Security Finance Corporation of Spartanburg and $750 from Community Loans of America.
Breaking down the smaller industries
Dozens of donors categorized as “other” combined to become the 14th largest category, with donors who could not be classified as industry-specific — 357 in all — contributing a combined $247,761. Many of these donors were retirees or private citizens, and most, 262, gave $500 or less.
Lobbyists and lobbying firms were the next-largest donor group trailing payday lenders, with 56 donors contributing $126,401 combined. There were few major donors in that group — all but 10 gave less than $3,000. The only exception was the Ferraro Group, which gave $32,500 spread across 33 lawmakers. The group’s donations were relatively small, however, and the single-biggest recipient — Cannizzaro — received just $3,500.
Roughly three dozen education companies, teachers and other individuals combined to contribute $83,272, with the biggest sums coming from charter school company Academica Nevada ($28,500), education management company K12 Management Inc. ($13,500) and for-profit college University of Phoenix ($11,000). Notably absent in this category are major teachers unions, such as the Nevada State Education Association and the Clark County Education Association, as both of those organizations are covered in our analysis of union spending.
Spending slightly less than they did in 2018 were 15 marijuana companies or related individuals, who combined to spend $86,500 (down from more than $91,000 spent in 2018). Most of that money was concentrated in the three biggest spenders: An LLC linked to The Grove dispensary ($24,750), Nevada Can Committee ($23,000) and a company linked to the Planet 13 dispensary ($15,000).
The remaining two categories were the smallest of all: Nevada tribes, but only the Reno Sparks Indian Colony reported major campaign contributions with $30,500 across 37 legislators, while just seven agricultural donors combined for $10,950 (of which nearly half, $5,000, came from the PAC Nevadans for Families & Agriculture).
Tim Lenard, Riley Snyder and Sean Golonka contributed to this report.
As part of our Follow the Money series The Nevada Independent has published deep dives into the industries that dominated legislative campaign spending in the 2020 campaign cycle. To see any of the previous installments, follow the links below:
A coalition of doctors, hospitals and health insurance providers affiliated with a national nonprofit group that has spent millions trying to kill public health insurance option proposals in other states is staking its opposition to similar legislation in Nevada.
In Nevada, the coalition is being called Nevada’s Health Care Future and is described as a “project” of the national organization Partnership for America’s Health Care Future Action, which, according to OpenSecrets, is a partnership of some of the health industry’s heaviest hitters including the American Medical Association, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Federation of American Hospitals and Blue Cross/Blue Shield.
The group comprises leading doctors, nurses, clinicians, community hospitals, health insurance providers, and hospitals that represent employers in Nevada focused on access to high-quality health coverage, according to an advisor to the coalition.
Providers and health insurers have often opposed sweeping health care reform bills in Nevada and across the country that would upend the health care industry as it exists today.
In a statement, the organization framed the legislation, which was introduced by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro as SB420 on Wednesday, as an “unaffordable new government-controlled health insurance system” that would “make it harder for Nevadans to get affordable health insurance.” Instead, they argue that the state should be focusing on “building on what works today where the free market works together with public programs,” including Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act.
Specifically, the group believes Nevada should be focusing on getting the more than half of the state’s roughly 350,000 uninsured residents who are already eligible for Medicaid or subsidized coverage through the state’s health insurance exchange signed up for coverage. Those programs make health insurance available at little to no cost to Nevadans.
“Reducing costs and motivating more of the eligible but unenrolled population to sign up for already-available health care coverage should be policymakers’ priority. Unfortunately, this bill misses that mark by a mile,” Nevada’s Health Care Future spokesperson Holly Silvestri, who works for the public affairs firm the Ferraro Group, said in a statement.
In Colorado, a bill to establish a public health insurance option being debated this spring is opposed by a similar group, Colorado’s Health Care Future, also a project of Partnership for America’s Health Care Future Action. The nonprofit launched a $1 million ad buy against the Colorado proposal and spent nearly $5 million in 2020 opposing a similar measure in the state in 2020, according to The Colorado Sun.
Nevada’s public option proposal is, however, also attracting support at the national level. The national nonprofit group United States of Care, which backs public option proposals, has been involved with drafting the legislation, and another advocacy organization, the Committee to Protect Medicare, released multiple statements from local doctors affiliated with the organization in support of the legislation on Wednesday.
Dr. Harpreet Tsui, an internal medicine specialist in Henderson, in a statement called the legislation “ critical to improving the health of tens of thousands of Nevadans, regardless of where they live.”
“Nobody should be forced to go without health care, especially during a deadly pandemic, which has caused many Nevadans to lose their jobs and their employer-provided health care,” Tsui said.
Several state-based progressive groups are backing the legislation as well, including Planned Parenthood Votes Nevada, the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN), Make the Road Nevada, Battle Born Progress and One APIA Nevada.
"SB420 is the first step toward driving down the high cost of insurance and addressing Nevada’s persistently high uninsured rate, particularly in Black, Brown, and Native communities across Nevada," Laura Martin, PLAN's executive director, said in a statement.
Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, hasn't yet taken a position on the legislation.
"As is the case with all other bills or bill drafts going through the legislative process, the Governor will review and evaluate any legislation that may come before him," Sisolak spokeswoman Meghin Delaney said in a statement this week.
As drafted, the legislation would require insurers that bid to provide coverage to the state’s Medicaid population to also offer a public option plan. The plans would be similar to existing qualified health plans certified by the state’s health insurance exchange, though the bill would require those plans to be offered at a 5 percent markdown, with the overall goal of reducing average premium costs in the state by 15 percent over five years.
As the sun dipped below the horizon, closing out the seventh to last day before the election, Kamala Harris had a message for the supporters who had gathered on socially distant red, white and blue picnic blankets at an East Las Vegas park to hear her speak.
“You all are going to decide who is going to be the next president of the United States. You will decide,” the Democratic vice-presidential nominee told the crowd, to hollers and applause. “A path to the White House runs right through this field.”
President Donald Trump, speaking at a rally a day later just over the state line in Bullhead City, Arizona, was equally as bullish on his chances in Nevada.
“Six days from now, we are going to win Arizona, we are going to win Nevada, and we are going to win four more years in our great White House,” Trump told the crowd of thousands who had gathered.
It wasn’t just talk. Nevada, of course, mattered to both campaigns this election cycle. It’s why the Trump campaign focused on building out its Nevada operation long before there was even a Democratic presidential nominee. It’s why Joe Biden’s campaign doubled down on its voter outreach this summer when it felt like the contest was narrowing.
By the time the night of the election rolled around, though, it seemed as if, in many ways, Nevada’s importance had been written off. Polls had Biden several points ahead. The prognosticators anticipated Nevada would lean blue. Both Biden and Trump spent their final days in the battleground states that were ground zero for the 2016 election — states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
When results started rolling in on election night in Nevada, Biden had a sizable, if not overwhelming, 3 to 4 percentage point lead at first, as many had predicted. But by early Wednesday morning, as the votes continued to be tallied, Biden’s lead over Trump had shrunk to 0.6 percentage points, or 7,647 votes.
Suddenly, what had seemed like a sure bet for Democrats in Nevada earlier in the evening, wasn’t anymore, and the Silver State was thrust into the national spotlight as the presidential race here remained too close to call.
Of course, it wasn’t really. Over the span of several days, Biden managed to steadily grow his lead as outstanding mail ballots, most of which were in Clark County, the state’s Democratic stronghold, continued to be counted, as anticipated.
But to the rest of the country, which remained on pins and needles as the presidential race nationally also remained too close to call as votes continued to be counted in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona and North Carolina, Nevada’s vote counting seemed impossibly slow, inspiring countless memes across social media.
Finally, four days later, the race in Nevada was officially called for Biden, just about half an hour after some media outlets called the entire race for the former vice president. Though a small number of ballots still remain to be tallied, Biden’s lead in Nevada stands at 2.39 percentage points, or 33,596 votes, as of Saturday.
From the outside looking in, Biden’s victory in Nevada may seem predictable because Nevada looks like a blue state. Its governor is a Democrat, both of its U.S. senators are Democrats, three out of four of its House members are Democrats and both chambers of the Legislature are controlled by Democrats. But neither Republicans nor Democrats here have been willing to concede that Nevada is, in fact, a blue state.
For Democrats, those victories have all come hard fought, some won by the skin of their teeth. In 2016, Catherine Cortez Masto won her U.S. Senate race and Hillary Clinton won the presidential race both by 2.4 percentage points. Though margins of victory widened two years later with Steve Sisolak’s 4.1 percentage point victory in the gubernatorial race and Jacky Rosen’s 5 point victory in the U.S. Senate, Democrats knew that 2020 would look different.
Republicans knew this too. They knew that Trump voters who didn’t turn out to vote in 2018 would show up this year to vote for the president, and they hoped those voters could also be persuaded to vote Republican all the way down the ticket. They also hoped to persuade moderates that overwhelming Democratic control in Carson City wasn’t a good thing.
On that front, Republicans appear to have succeeded. While Democrats celebrated their win at the top of the ticket, they actually lost ground down the ballot in the Legislature. Three Assembly seats that Democrats had picked up in 2018 returned to Republican hands, meaning that Democrats no longer have a supermajority in that chamber, and they lost a key state Senate seat as well, narrowing their majority.
And while Democrats held onto two competitive congressional seats, their victories were narrower than they were two years ago.
Still, Democrats look at the results of this election and see a blue wall. Even with their losses in the Legislature, they still hold majorities in both chambers. To them, the election once again demonstrates that ensuring Nevada votes blue takes work, and a lot of it.
“It should be crystal clear now that Biden would not have won Nevada but for a well-funded ground game ... We win in Nevada because we leave it all on the field — every cycle,” Rebecca Lambe, a longtime Democratic operative in the state responsible for building the Reid machine, said in an email. “We fund communications, we fund mail, we fund field — we knock doors to push our voters to vote.”
Republicans, however, are hopeful in the wake of this election. They see the narrower margins as a sign of hope for the 2022 election. They also look at specific victories, such as the fact that Heidi Gansert, a Republican, was re-elected to her Washoe County state Senate seat even as the county swung decidedly for Biden, and that educator Carrie Buck flipped a state Senate district that has two Democratic Assembly seats nested beneath it as glimmers of hope for the future of their party — that the state might still be more independent than it has in recent years appeared to be.
"The biggest surprise to me in this election was the historic DNA of Nevada — being independent and looking at the person before the party — reappeared,” said Pete Ernaut, a longtime Republican consultant in Nevada. “The idea that there were ticket-splitters was as refreshing as it was surprising."
How Biden won Nevada
Over the summer, some Democrats fretted that the presidential race in Nevada might be closer than anticipated. The coronavirus pandemic had forced them to toss their usual playbook out the window and, as the Trump campaign returned to knocking doors in person in June, their campaign remained virtual, hindering, in the eyes of some, their ability to effectively connect with voters.
Of course, Democrats had been hosting Zoom events, phone banks and text message drives, utilizing the framework of “relational organizing,” or the principle of having supporters tap into their personal networks to turn voters out to the polls. But the face-to-face connection was missing.
Enter the Culinary Union.
The politically powerful labor union, which represents 60,000 hotel workers across the state, has earned a reputation cycle after cycle for turning the tides in favor of Democrats in close elections, most notably in Harry Reid’s 2010 U.S. Senate race. But its membership was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic: Ninety-eight percent of the union’s members were furloughed this spring, and only about half are back to work.
The union’s finances were hit hard, too. It had no money for a political operation. So, for the first time, they set up a super PAC, Take Back 2020, asked for help, and it came, from the Carpenters Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Operating Engineers, the American Federation of Teachers, AFSCME, and more, D. Taylor, international president of the Culinary’s parent union, UNITE HERE, said.
“If it had not been for other unions, individuals, organizations contributing to us, we never could have done this — ever, ever ever,” Taylor said.
The super PAC raised money nationally for Unite Here’s efforts, which included political operations in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Florida. But Taylor said the union raised more than $10 million for its Nevada operation alone, which deployed 500 canvassers in the field who knocked 500,000 doors in Las Vegas and Reno and talked to 130,000 voters, including more than 42,000 eligible voters who did not participate in the election four years ago.
“We didn’t have the money,” Taylor said. “Frankly, even if we had had the money, we still probably needed to set up a PAC. Just here in Nevada, Trump’s campaign was much more robust in 2020 than it was in 2016.”
Plus, there was an extra added benefit: The political operation also helped out-of-work union members put food on the table.
“Up in Reno we had folks come in from our locals in California who were laid off too and other locals besides Las Vegas,” Taylor said. “In Las Vegas a lot of folks were laid off workers who got to earn some money and change the country.”
It represented the Culinary Union’s largest — and earliest — political effort to date. When the union started talking to voters at the doors on Aug. 1, it was the only Democratic-aligned organization in the field. For Our Future, a super PAC focused on grassroots Democratic turnout, launched an in-person canvassing operation on Oct. 1, eventually knocking on 150,000 doors, in addition to making 650,000 calls and sending over a million text messages.
Other organizations focused primarily on virtual or non-face-to-face outreach. Mi Familia Vota, for instance, made nearly 100,000 calls and sent more than 80,000 text messages to Latinos in Nevada on Election Day, while One APIA Nevada dropped literature in five Asian languages at 30,000 doors, in addition to making 180,000 phone calls and sending 6,000 text messages.
The Biden campaign, meanwhile, engaged in a mostly virtual campaign until the final three weeks, when it started in-person door knocking as well.
Combined, Democrats report knocking on more than 1.3 million doors across Nevada this election cycle, while the Trump campaign reported knocking more than 1.1 million.
"It is one thing to get the green light to go knock doors. It’s another to move an entire organization to really take on that challenge and do it in a way that’s safe,” said Shelby Wiltz, the Nevada State Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign director. “In 21 days, really, we were able to put together a massive door-knocking operation and lit-dropping operation across multiple counties to talk to voters that we didn’t have phone numbers for, that we hadn’t reached in the first two months of the campaign, including young people and people of color."
The Culinary Union, for its part, attributes its decision to knock doors so early to the conversations that it had with epidemiologists and industrial hygienists around workplace health and safety as it pushed for employee protection legislation in Carson City over the summer. Using that knowledge, union leaders established health and safety protocols canvassers had to adhere to while out in the field, including wearing masks, requiring those they spoke with to wear masks, and practicing social distancing.
“We said if not us, who? There was no other who,” Taylor said. “We did what we do without a lot of bells and whistles and just did the work.”
The Culinary Union engaged in other kinds of voter outreach, too, sending emails and texts to 60,000 members, mailing 5.6 million mail pieces, making 2 million personal calls and 240,000 automated calls and running digital persuasion ads that racked up 11.6 million views — the kind of outreach that other organizations engaged in as well.
But what set the union apart was the size and scope of its door-knocking operation. Taylor said that where the union’s typical contact rate at the door is usually 7 percent, it was more like 30 percent this year.
“I think that’s been proven over and over and over, and we know that it’s a three-legged stool to move folks,” Taylor said. “One, you have to have the TV stuff, two, you have to have the phone bank and text but, three, it’s the actual conversations with folks.”
Taylor, for his part, does not think Biden would have won Nevada without the Culinary Union.
“I know who we turned out and that was the difference in Washoe and Clark,” Taylor said. “I don’t think Joe Biden would’ve won and I don’t think a lot of Democrats would have won.”
Other Democrats in the state painted the election as a team effort, but acknowledged the decisive role that the union played not just in Biden’s victory but in key down ballot races as well, including Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro’s tight re-election campaign in Senate District 6.
"If Culinary was not out there in a meaningful way starting in August, I think this race would’ve been a lot closer,” said Megan Jones, a longtime Democratic operative in the state. “I think we would’ve eked it out, but we may have lost Nicole’s seat and we would’ve probably lost a couple more Assembly seats."
Democrats believe that Nevada could have easily become the next Wisconsin or Michigan from 2016 if not for the investments in the Culinary Union, For Our Future and other organizations on the independent expenditure side of the campaign, in addition to the Biden campaign’s decision to put canvassers back on doors at the end of the race.
The Biden campaign acknowledges they wouldn’t have been able to win in Nevada if not for the help of those other Democratic-aligned organizations.
"You have to remember that it’s a team effort and that there is institutional knowledge and organizations, like the NV Dems, like the Culinary Union, have been building relationships with voters for many cycles,” said Alana Mounce, Biden’s state director in Nevada.
As far as the tight margin of victory in the presidential race in the state, it doesn’t come as a surprise to Democratic operatives who know Nevada well.
"We knew from very early on that this was going to be a close race. Nevada is a battleground state,” said state Sen. Yvanna Cancela, a senior advisor on Biden’s Nevada team. “The margins haven’t been 5 to 10 point margins, they are 2 to 5 point margins, which means every vote really matters."
Republican gains down the ballot
While Democrats celebrate their success at the top of the ticket, it is Republicans who are finding reasons to be hopeful further down the ballot, including in the four legislative seats that Republicans were able to wrest from Democrats.
To some, it feels like a reset back to the way things were four years ago, before Democrats extended their reach in the last election. The only difference between the makeup in the Assembly this year is that Republicans picked up District 31, giving them one more seat than they had in 2016. In the Senate, Democrats and Republicans have the same split they did in 2016; they have just since swapped control of Senate Districts 5 and 9.
“From the Assembly Republican perspective, we’re happy where we’re at,” said Eric Roberts, executive director of the Assembly Republican Caucus. “We had four seats we were looking at picking up, and we got three of those.”
Perhaps the biggest upset, though, was Republican Carrie Buck’s victory over Democrat Kristee Watson in Senate District 5. Buck had run for the seat four years ago against state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, the term-limited incumbent, and lost by 0.9 percentage points.
This year, Buck won by 0.5 percentage points, even as the two Assembly districts nested beneath the seat swung for Democrats. Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen won her re-election bid in Assembly District 29 by 2.5 percentage points, while newcomer Elaine Marzola won her election in Assembly District 21 by 3.9 percentage points.
“We were fortunate Carrie Buck decided to run again. She ran four years earlier, and it was a close election,” said Greg Bailor, executive director of the Senate Republican Caucus. “Carrie has deep roots in that district being an educator and she really campaigned hard and was able to talk to Democrats and nonpartisans in a way that helped gain that support in the district.”
In many ways, the Republican pickups in the Legislature mirror what happened at the national level, where Democrats lost several key House races to Republicans that they had picked up two years ago.
“Democrats won too much in 2018, if you will. They got farther out than they probably should’ve because there was so much energy on the Democratic side,” said David Damore, a political science professor at UNLV. “In 2020, you didn’t see that. They lost ground or held their own.”
Democrats, for their part, aren’t entirely shocked they weren’t able to replicate their successes from 2018, though the losses still sting. Jones said that, in looking at the data, it is “abundantly clear” that nonpartisans in Clark County did not break for Democrats.
“We're up in Clark County by the amount of Democrats that voted essentially, which means nonpartisans were a wash or we lost a few,” Jones said.
Republicans are also celebrating their successes in Washoe County, including in Senate District 15, where Gansert was able to fend off a challenge from a newcomer Democrat, Wendy Jauregui-Jackins. Gansert won by 3.6 percentage points when Biden won the county by 4.5 percentage points.
“Washoe County as a whole has seen growth and a lot of that growth has come from new constituents and voters that are a little bit more moderate,” Bailor said. “Senator Gansert does have a track record in the community and with her constituents, but she had to reintroduce herself to voters.”
Still, Gansert’s victory this year was narrower than her 11 percentage point victory in 2016, which has some Republicans worried about their prospects down the ballot there moving forward.
“The trend in Washoe is concerning,” Roberts said. “As a Republican, we have to look at that and say, what’s happening here?”
There is also one down-ticket race that political operatives believe was likely specifically affected by the pandemic. Assemblyman Skip Daly, a Democrat, has earned a reputation cycle after cycle for his relentless doorknocking that has allowed him to represent a Republican-leaning district for eight of the last 10 years. But, because of the pandemic, he didn’t door-knock this cycle, and former Assemblywoman Jill Dickman, a Republican, bested Daly by 3.5 percentage points in their fourth head to head in Assembly District 31.
“It’s as close as you can get to a control group of a comparative analysis. Same candidate, same campaign management, it’s the same basic everything from 2018 to 2020,” said Riley Sutton, a Democratic consultant in Washoe County who managed Daly’s race. “The only difference is who is at the top of the ticket and if we knocked doors or we didn’t. Skip didn’t knock doors.”
In the two competitive congressional districts, Reps. Susie Lee and Steven Horsford both faced tighter contests this year than they did in 2018. Lee won by 3 percentage points this year, compared the 9.1 point margin she won by two years ago, while Horsford won by 4.9 points after winning by 8.2 points in 2018.
Republicans attribute the closeness both in the presidential race and down ballot elections, in part, to the decreased Democratic field operation this cycle.
“There still wasn’t the Democrat presence on the doors that I had seen in the past,” Roberts said. “Even when there was, it almost had more of a feel of a lit drop. I didn’t see any Democratic operatives out knocking doors. In past cycles I’ve always seen that.”
But they also point to the successes of an enhanced field operation that they say was boosted by the fact that Chris Carr, a Republican operative with deep ties to Nevada, was political director for the Trump Victory organization this cycle. They also highlight that the Republican operation in Nevada has now existed continuously for four years instead of getting reset cycle after cycle.
“I would say this was the largest field program we’ve had,” Bailor said. “Prior to 2020, 2018 was the largest, and 2016 was the largest before that. We’ve continued to build on that.”
The Trump campaign declined to comment for this article, citing ongoing legal fights. Though it has yet to file a new legal challenge in court since the election, the outcome of any legal battle, even if favorable for the Trump campaign, is unlikely to change the results of the presidential election in Nevada because of Biden’s relatively wide margin of victory in the state. Any legal action could, however, potentially affect close down ballot races.
Trump aside, Republicans believe they’re well-situated headed into the 2022 election, where there will be a competitive U.S. Senate and gubernatorial election in Nevada.
"Republicans won some close races and Democrats won some close races. I think both sides did a really good job and ran good campaigns,” Ernaut said. “The biggest difference was in the last four cycles the Republicans really hadn’t. They really didn’t have much of a ground game and this time they did — and had a good one."
The biggest puzzle that remains about the election in Nevada isn’t why Biden won or why Republicans succeeded down ballot: It’s why even more voters didn’t turn out to the polls in such a high-interest election and with voting easier than ever before with mail ballots sent to every active registered voter this cycle.
That’s not to say that turnout isn’t significantly up: Turnout in Clark County was about 80 percent this cycle, after subtracting about 75,000 inactive voters who should have been removed from the county’s voter rolls, about 5 percent higher than it was in 2016. Washoe County’s voter turnout was about 83 percent this year, up from 80 percent four years ago, while statewide turnout was about 81 percent, up from 77 percent in the last presidential election.
While those numbers are high, they’re not as high as perhaps some had expected.
“When we came out of the blocks this time with the mail and early voting and numbers were coming in, there was a question of, ‘Could we get to 90 percent turnout?'” Roberts said. “Instead, I think we just saw a pretty major shift in how people vote.”
Democrats had predicted a turnout of about 1.4 million based on vote enthusiasm and turnout in past presidential cycles, which ended up being correct with just a little more than 1.4 million ballots cast in the election.
“Given the challenges Nevada faced in terms of the economic downturn and the pandemic, I don't think it's surprising that we didn't exceed that expectation,” Lambe said.
Damore, the political science professor at UNLV, additionally noted that the best predictors of turnout are residential stability, age and education, factors that don't bode particularly well for high turnout in Nevada.
“It’s just part of our culture,” Damore said. “This isn’t a civic engagement state.”
Another possible reason that the voter turnout percentage wasn’t even higher this year is because there were simply more registered voters who weren’t actually interested in participating in the election, since, for the first time this year, Nevada offered automatic voter registration at the DMV. About 57.4 percent of the voting age eligible population cast ballots in Nevada in 2016, according to the United States Election Project, compared to about 65.3 percent in 2020.
As far as why more people didn’t participate on Election Day, Roberts speculates that there just weren’t that many people left who wanted to vote.
“I think people were fearful of the long lines they saw in the primary, which wasn’t an apples to apples comparison,” Roberts said. “I think people prepared for that.”
And while mail ballots split essentially two to one in favor of Democrats this election cycle — largely the result of Democrats encouraging voters to take advantage of mail voting while Trump cast doubt on the integrity of the process — political observers say there’s no reason it needs to be that way in elections moving forward.
"Everybody has the same opportunity to vote, whether it’s mail ballot or traditional absentee or early voting or Election Day. It shouldn’t favor any party. It’s a matter of your strategy, your organization,” Ernaut said. “If one party did better than another in those areas, it’s either because they worked harder or had a better strategy."
The other surprise was the fact that roughly an equal number of Republicans and Democrats took advantage of the state’s new same-day voter registration law, which was passed during the 2019 legislative session. The policy was expected to offer a boost to Democrats, and was staunchly opposed by Republicans, though in the end 22,701 Democrats and 22,886 Republicans took advantage of the same-day registration process this year.
"Whether or not this cycle proves that those who utilize same day weren’t necessarily our voters, I think in the long term same-day registration benefits democracy by expanding turnout,” Jones said.
For those who know Nevada well, the close election results this year don’t come as a surprise. Greg Ferraro, a Republican consultant in Washoe County, recalled working on President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign when he won Nevada by only 21,500 votes, or 2.6 percentage points, over John Kerry.
“It’s not new that these races continue to be close because Nevada still, I think, is fairly evenly divided despite some of the registration differences,” Ferraro said.
Democrats, however, are still considering this year largely a blue wall year.
“There was no blue wave in 2020 anywhere — in fact, quite the opposite,” Lambe said. “Nevada became part of the Blue Wall that secured a Democratic presidential win against increased turnout and enthusiasm for Trump.”
All the same, Republicans are optimistic.
“I think it was going to be a big lift to completely flip the state,” Bailor said. “So to then see the Nevada Legislature hold Republican seats and pick up seats, I would have to say in Carson City it’s not a wave but we definitely got some Republicans down ticket.”
If this election cycle proved anything, though, it’s that it’s not enough for Republican running statewide to run up the ballot count in the state’s ruby red rural counties if they continue to lose by a wide margin in Clark County and a still sizable margin in Washoe County, as they did in the presidential election this year.
The challenge for Republicans, then, moving forward is to somehow translate those down ballot wins into statewide victories. If they can’t find a way to win across the state, the blue wall will continue.
“The question is where their next statewide candidate is coming from,” Damore said. “They’re going to be in that problem of the primaries, the Dean Heller dance that fell flat in 2018. What’s going to happen in 2022? Are you going to put more hardcore Trump folks in statewide races with Catherine Cortez Masto? That’s probably not going to go well.”
As blue as Nevada has been in recent elections, though, this election served as a reminder to still expect the unexpected.
"Nevada works better when it works like this, when it’s not so partisan and not so polarized,” Ernaut said. “Everyone, regardless of whether their candidate won or lost, should feel a lot better about this election than they have about any of the last few."
Local governments and cities spent more than $3.9 million lobbying the 2019 Legislature, according to a state report that found total lobbying spending by governments hit the highest amount in more than a decade.
The report, which was compiled by the state Department of Taxation, is the product of a law that requires all local governments — everything from cities and counties to police departments, school districts and hospitals — to disclose any expenditures above $6,000 on “activities designed to influence the passage or defeat of any legislation.”
After hitting a pre-recession high of $3.99 million during the 2007 Legislature, the $3.9 million spent on lobbying activities in 2019 marked the second highest spending totals reported since the disclosure law was passed in 2001 — good for nearly $32,600 of taxpayer money spent every day of the 120-day legislative session.
Local governments, which in some cases have budgets that rival or even eclipse the state’s budget, say that lobbying expenditures are justified given the vast number of bills — law enforcement, open meeting laws, financial administration and public records — that affect counties and cities. But some critics have raised concerns with allowing governments to use taxpayer dollars for lobbying purposes that may go against the wants of the public.
“What governments are promoting or pushing with lawmakers isn’t always in line with what taxpayers or citizens are going to want, and yet, us taxpayers are still funding it no matter what, even if we disagree with it,” Michael Schaus, a spokesperson for libertarian-leaning Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI) said in an interview.
Initial reporting of lobbying expenditures were due a month after the end of the legislative session, but following several Nevada Independent requests to top lobbying-spenders, the Department of Taxation revised its report and issued a new version this week.
Leading the way are local governments based in and around Las Vegas; seven of the top 10 spending local governments or political bodies during the 2019 legislative session were based in Clark County, which accounted for more than 64 percent of the $3.9 million spent on lobbying by local governments. Washoe County accounted for nearly 26 percent of lobbyist spending, while the state’s 15 other counties accounted for just 9.2 percent of the dollars spent to lobby state lawmakers (eight counties did not report any lobbying expenditures).
Under the law requiring disclosure of lobbying expenses, local governments are required to itemize under categories including transportation, salary and wages, lodging and meals, gifts and other entertainment, and to identify the local government budgetary funds that the expenses were charged against.
State lawmakers passed a near-total ban on gift-giving by lobbyists to state lawmakers in 2015, but the amounts spent on lobbying have continued to creep up over the past few legislative sessions.
In the city of Las Vegas, for example, total lobbying spending was reported at nearly $562,000, the highest of any local government. Although the city had nine people registered as lobbyists, according to Legislative Counsel Bureau records, its primary lobbying efforts came from its in-house city-employed team (Ryan Black, Shani Coleman and Kelly Crompton) and a contracted lobbyist; The Ferraro Group, which has an $80,000 contract with the city government.
City spokesman Jace Radke said in an email that numerous other city employees, including city manager Scott Adams, had registered as lobbyists to work on specific issues that affected city governance. He said that the lobbying team “tracked/engaged” on 394 of the 1,157 bills introduced during the legislative session and worked on the three bills introduced by the city (AB5, AB73 and SB11).
“The lobbying team worked on a variety of proposed legislation that included homelessness, affordable housing, purchasing requirements, workers compensation, cannabis compliance, criminal/civil justice reform, economic development, elections, energy, taxes, public records, public works, transportation and a variety of appropriations within the city limits,” he said in an email.
Several other top-spending local governments also used a combination of contract lobbyists and in-house employees. Henderson employed The Perkins Company — founded by former Assembly Speaker and former Henderson Police Chief Richard Perkins — under a $40,000 contract, plus roughly $215,000 in salaries, lodging meals, airfare and other expenses for in-house lobbyists and staff.
Henderson lobbyist David Cherry wrote in an email that the city was involved in a wide number of bills, including measures affecting the school funding formula (SB543), a Southern Nevada working group on homeless issues (AB73), changes to Open Meeting Law (AB70), removing sunsets on the “More Cops” sales tax (AB443) and an advisory ballot question to switch to ward-only voting in Henderson (AB282).
He also wrote that the city opposed an “overreaching” public records bill, SB287, that was supported by civil liberties groups and press organizations, but staunchly opposed by municipalities and local governments. The bill passed after a last-minute amendment to quell the fears of local governments was introduced and adopted on the second-to-last day of the legislative session.
But the behavior of local governments against the bill elicited concerns from groups such as NPRI; Schaus, the organization’s spokesperson, said that the hiring of lobbyists to oppose a bill nominally supported by the public was one of the ways that local governments influence the legislative process
“It’s not like they were out there legitimately representing the interest of the people they ostensibly should be serving, they were there very much pushing their own interests, their own agenda, even when it ran contrary to what most citizens seem to want,” he said.
But high spending totals don’t necessarily translate into a major — or even unified — lobbying presence. Clark County, which spent more than $514,000 on lobbying expenses, had three in-house lobbyists and no contract lobbyists during the session, but the total also includes lobbyists working for the county public defender’s office, district attorney’s office and District Court, each of whose lobbyists often appeared at odds during the legislative session on various criminal justice bills.
County spokesman Erik Pappa said in an email that the county’s lobbying team tracked more than 630 bills throughout the session, and that although the county’s position on most bills was neutral, it still required vast resources to track the many changes made to bills during the legislative session that affect the many regional services — Medicare and Medicaid funding, health care services — that the county offers.
“Even though a position was considered neutral, it was carefully monitored as the title/subject is of interest to Clark County and an amendment at any step of the process could result in shifting County’s position to opposition or support,” he wrote in the email.
Similarly, Washoe County — the local government with the fourth-highest amount of lobbying expenditures at more than $381,000 — reported spending more than $230,000 on employee salaries to lobby the state Legislature, plus $126,000 in contracts with outside lobbyists (Lewis Roca Rothgerber, Christie’s Alfredo Alonso, Lisa Gianoli and Crowley & Ferrato).
But those totals include lobbyists for multiple branches of the county — more than 20 county employees reported lobbying at some during the session, throughout nine different county departments from the district attorney’s office, sheriff’s office, public defender’s office and even animal control.
“During this session, Washoe County monitored and/or worked on almost 70 (percent) of the bills introduced during the session with a total of 301 bills that passed and were signed by Governor Sisolak which had (an) impact on the county,” county spokeswoman Amy Ventetuolo said in an email.
Even some smaller local governments had a lobbying presence in Carson City. White Pine County, with a population of around 10,000 people, spent nearly $14,000 to hire a lobbying company (The Perkins Company) during the legislative session.
White Pine County Commission Chairman Richard Howe said the decision to hire lobbyists stemmed from one issue; the inability of the county to get the state to pony up funding for an updated county courthouse. The county’s courthouse was built in 1908, and since at least 2003 the county has sought funding for a new courthouse with improved security features to better facilitate the hearings and trials that arise from incidents at Ely State Prison, which houses nearly 1,000 prisoners.
According to documentation provided to lawmakers, the current courthouse’s lacking safety features — prisoners use the same elevator and bathroom as members of the general public and court employees, and the holding cell is in a staff break room — presented a danger to both court employees and the public, as a public library, middle school and senior center are across the street from the courthouse.
An appropriations bill (SB149) sponsored by rural Republican lawmakers giving the county $10 million for a new courthouse got a hearing but failed to ever advance out of a budget committee. But in the waning hours on the last day of the session, members of the Assembly budget committee unveiled an amendment allocating $53.7 million in last-minute spending — including $5 million for a courthouse in White Pine County.
Howe credited the county’s lobbyists, the Perkins Group, for getting the funding in at the last minute (Mari St. Martin, former Gov. Brian Sandoval’s press secretary and lobbyist for The Perkins Company, is an Ely native) He said that the county was able to move some funding around and begin construction on the new courthouse last week — something that wouldn’t have been possible without the state funding and without having a lobbyist present during the legislative session.
“White Pine invested a small amount of money...and got a $5 million return. We got nothing over the other years. We got a lot of lip service, but no actual hard dollars,” Howe said. “We used our heads, and we accepted the fact that there’s some things we can’t do, that other people are smarter and better at it than us. Using a lobbyist, you spend a dime to make a dollar.”
During a legislative session in Nevada, one group outnumbers all others. With more than 1,000 registered paid and unpaid lobbyists arriving at some time or another for the 2019 session, Carson City finds itself again with a lobbyist-to-legislator ratio of more than 16 to 1.
And while the vast majority of lobbyists did not contribute to legislative coffers, the 10 percent who did formed the 10th-largest donor group in the state by total donations. Through the 2018 election cycle, nearly 100 lobbying firms or individual lobbyists gave legislators more than $488,000, or roughly 4.5 percent of the $11.7 million contributed to lawmakers in total.
Together, these four firms spent nearly two-thirds of all the money contributed by lobbyists, all representing dozens of corporate clients with varied interests in the state. Those clients include large companies such as AT&T, NV Energy or health insurer Anthem, in addition to government agencies or private interest groups such as the Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District and the Nevada Mining Association.
Contributions largely flowed to legislative Democrats, who received $349,000 to the Republicans’ $139,000. However, average contributions were nearly identical across the two parties, with the GOP receiving $828 per average donation to the Democrats’ $804, a difference of a little less than 3 percent.
Only three legislators of the 63 received no contributions from lobbyists before a freeze on campaign contributions for the legislative session took effect in January. That group includes appointed Assembly members Rochelle Nguyen and Bea Duran, both Democrats, and Republican Gregory Hafen.
Among the remaining 60 lawmakers, Democratic Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson received the most with $37,298, while former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson ($28,342), Republican Sen. Ben Kieckhefer ($24,400), Democratic Sen. Mo Denis ($20,475) and Republican Sen. Joe Hardy ($18,500) round out the top five.
Comparing total contributions to each legislative chamber, members of the 42-person Assembly received slightly more ($250,783) than members of the Senate ($237,417). Though senators still received much more on average ($945) than their lower-chamber counterparts ($714).
As always, we’ve triple-checked the math. But if anything seems off, feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.