Gov. Steve Sisolak reports more than $2.4 million in 2020 fundraising ahead of looming re-election bid

Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak has reported raising upwards of $2.4 million for his re-election bid next year, an amount that roughly doubled the size of his campaign war chest to more than $4.53 million.

Sisolak’s 2020 haul, reported to the secretary of state Wednesday, is roughly 50 percent more than the $1.6 million he raised through 2019, though it remains a far cry from the more-than $11.3 million he raised during his contentious bid to win the seat in 2018. 

Sisolak’s fundraising report comes amid national unrest related to the 2020 election and follows several failed recall efforts attempting to oust the governor that came after a number of restrictions were put in place in the earliest days of the pandemic. The report also arrives as the 2021 legislative session approaches and with it, a budget crisis stemming from economic damage caused by coronavirus shutdowns

Though many of the individual contributions made to the governor’s campaign came in small dollar amounts, the vast majority of Sisolak’s 2020 fundraising — $2,356,277 — came in the form of contributions greater than $100, with 124 contributors giving the governor the $10,000 maximum donation. Taken together, those largest contributions total more than half of all the money Sisolak raised last year at more than $1.2 million. 

When accounting for other donations, including those totaling $5,000 (143 total), and $2,500 (52 total), the amount raised through top-dollar contributions alone increases to roughly $2.05 million. 

Of the largest contributions of $10,000, nearly a quarter-million came solely from gaming companies, manufacturers or trade groups, including: 

  • $70,000 from companies or properties owned or operated by Station Casinos
  • $50,000 from MGM Resorts International properties
  • $50,000 from Marnell Gaming companies, properties or individuals (owner of the Nugget in Sparks)
  • $30,000 from Las Vegas Sands properties or companies 
  • $20,000 from Meruelo Group companies or properties (owner of the Sahara in Las Vegas and Grand Sierra Resort in Reno)
  • $20,000 from companies linked to sportsbook William Hill
  • $10,000 from Golden Entertainment (owner of the Strat in Las Vegas)
  • $10,000 from the Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers

Together, the gaming industry formed the single largest industry bloc of the governor’s donors. However, these totals likely only represent part of the overall contributions made by gaming companies or individuals related to the industry, as it does not include contributions made by industry executives or related LLCs. That includes a number of esoterically named holding companies or development companies, which often contribute in smaller amounts.  

Business-related donors otherwise formed the second largest share of Sisolak’s biggest contributors, contributing at least 26 maximum donations for a total of $260,000, while real estate and development related donors formed the third-largest bloc with 18 contributions totaling $180,000. 

Notably absent from Sisolak’s 2020 filing are the state’s largest mining companies, which will likely find themselves at the center of a legislative fight to raise the state’s tax revenue in 2021 — a fight that comes after mining taxes first came back to the fore during a special legislative session last summer. 

Their absence, however, is likely little more than a coincidence of campaign contribution timing. State law limits maximum contributions by campaign cycle, not by year, and several major mining companies — including Newmont and Barrick Gold — maxed out their contributions to Sisolak in 2019

Other notable names for those who contributed the maximum of $10,000 include Marc Badain, chairman of the Raiders; Key and Rory Reid, sons of former Democratic Sen. Harry Reid; Clark County Commissioner Michael Naft, whom Sisolak appointed; and an LLC tied to Elaine Wynn, a businesswoman and philanthropist.

Sisolak also saw major contributions from seven companies linked to Las Vegas Golden Knights owner and Fidelity chairman Bill Foley, as well as a maximum contribution from Foley himself, for a total of $80,000. 

With no campaign to mount through the 2020 cycle, Sisolak reported comparatively little in campaign spending, about $229,900.  

Nevada Independent intern Sean Golonka contributed to this report.

Update, 1/13/21 at 5:35 p.m. - This story was updated to include more details about contributions made to Gov. Sisolak in his 2020 annual filing.

Coronavirus outbreak causes empty Nevada sportsbooks, reduced gaming and hotel revenues

It’s going to be a quiet few weeks inside Nevada’s sportsbooks.

The cancellation of the NCAA Men’s and Women’s College Basketball Championships on Thursday – better known as March Madness – added to the financial burden heaped onto the state’s resort industry by the coronavirus outbreak. Domestic and international travel to Las Vegas has diminished and large conventions have been canceled.

Without the busy four days of March Madness, coronavirus will take another big chunk out of the state's $5 billion a year sports betting industry. 

Between Wednesday night and Thursday morning, the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball put their seasons on hold for indefinite periods as concerns over the spread of the virus made large-scale events a potential hazard. Late Thursday afternoon, the upstart XFL, which gave football bettors a reason to visit the sportsbooks, suspended the remainder of its inaugural season.

Gaming analysts have often said the first four days of March Madness rival the betting activity on the Super Bowl as the biggest event annually for sportsbooks. This year’s Super Bowl wagering hit a near-record $154.7 million.

Nevada gaming regulators don’t break out March Madness betting totals in reports. But to give some perspective, the state took in $498.7 million in basketball wagering – combined college and professional – in March 2019. Several analysts said the vast majority of the total was on college basketball.

“We really have entered uncharted territory,” said William Hill U.S. CEO Joe Asher, whose company operates more than 100 sportsbooks and sport betting kiosks throughout the state. “The difficulty is we just don’t know how long this will last.”

For Nevada casinos, particularly those in Las Vegas, March Madness is more than just an opportunity to place some college basketball wagers.

The opening four days of the tournament – which were scheduled for next week – meant large crowds of both tourists and local residents spending many hours at their favorite casinos, oftentimes gambling on table games and slot machines and spending money in restaurants and at other entertainment venues.

“From a business perspective, the timing was not good,” Asher said. “I spoke with employees today. Obviously, this too shall pass. We’ve been focused on building this business five to 10 years down the line. This is something we will have to manage through.”

Sports betting has continued to flourish in Nevada in recent years, despite competition from 15 other states. In 2019, Nevada sportsbooks took in a record $5.319 billion in wagers, the 10th consecutive year for increased sports wagering total. In 2019, sports betting accounted for $329.1 million, or roughly 3 percent, of the state’s $12 billion in total gaming revenue.

In a statement released by MGM Resorts International, CEO Jim Murren said coronavirus has reduced broader travel demand in Las Vegas and across the globe.

“As a result, our domestic resorts have been impacted in the near term, primarily driven by increased cancellations in our hotel and convention bookings in Las Vegas, particularly during the months of March and April,” Murren said.

Strip hotel room rates have been dropping over the past two weeks.

SunTrust Bank gaming analyst Barry Jonas, in research note late Thursday, said the late-March room prices fell from 31 percent to 48 percent on “pre-coronavirus fear rates.” Last week, rooms rates plunged 26 percent to 30 percent.

“We are also now seeing material sequential declines from April until late May, down now 15 percent to 59 percent, versus last week’s 1 percent to 8 percent (drop),” Jonas said.

Global Market Advisors Partner Brendan Bussmann said the resort industry is adding up lost revenues on room night cancellations, and not just from the loss of the tournament.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which cancelled its April conference, would have brought 90,000 visitors to the city over a five-day period.

“The way this is playing out, we're starting to see another 9/11,” Bussmann said, referencing how the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania in 2001 caused the airlines to shut down for four days and sent Las Vegas visitation and gaming revenues plummeting.

It took more than a year for the resort industry to recover.

“We’re starting to see a lot of empty seats on planes and fares are down,” Bussmann said. “We will see how this plays out.”

Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority spokeswoman Lori Nelson-Kraft said the full impact of the city’s lost business won’t be known until late April, when the March visitation numbers are reported.

“We understand and respect NCAA’s decision to suspend its basketball tournaments,” Nelson-Kraft said. “We recognize this difficult decision by the NCAA will certainly affect leisure visitation as our destination serves as a popular location to watch and wager on the tournaments.”

March Madness has long attracted groups who make annual treks to favorite resorts. Northern California freelance journalist Matt Villano and his group of 12 longtime friends celebrated their 21st such trip to Las Vegas for March Madness last year with a visit to Red Rock Resort.

Coronavirus fears started whittling the group last week, but Villano and a couple of other members of the group still planned to make the trip up until Wednesday afternoon, when ominous signs appeared.

“We had a contingency plan not to play table games that would minimize exposure,” Villano said Thursday. “I was completely devastated once I called and canceled the reservation at T-Bones (a restaurant at Red Rock), and canceled the cabana at the pool.”

Howard Stutz is a freelance gaming reporter for The Nevada Independent and the executive editor of CDC Gaming Reports. He has been a Nevada journalist for 30 years. He can be reached at howardmstutz@gmail.com. On Twitter: @howardstutz

For Phil Ruffin, timing is everything

Phil Ruffin

Over the past few years, Treasure Island owner Phil Ruffin made overtures to MGM Resorts International about acquiring Circus Circus Las Vegas. Each time he was rebuffed.

“I could never bid enough,” Ruffin recalled. “$500 million, $550 million. They weren’t really interested.”

Ruffin, 84, has learned to be patient. He has used that and his keen sense of timing to an advantage in his Las Vegas gaming career.

That began in 1997 when the business entrepreneur from Kansas, who ranks 319th on the Forbes 400 with a net worth of $3 billion, bought the Frontier Hotel Casino for $165 million. He sold the now-demolished Strip property 10 years later for $1.2 billion.

His sense of timing came into play again in October. An investment house told Ruffin MGM was looking to sell Circus Circus as part of a corporate-wide effort to strengthen the casino giant’s balance sheet.

Ruffin, who acquired Treasure Island from MGM in 2009 for $755 million, moved quickly. His $825 million offer was accepted in a handshake deal with MGM Chairman and CEO Jim Murren.

He sheepishly admitted last week that he might have overpaid for the aging hotel-casino. The transaction included $662.5 million in cash and $162.5 million in notes due in 2024.

“It was kind of a pre-emptive bid and it was probably more than everyone else,” Ruffin said in an interview at his Treasure Island office. “They had some other offers, but (the buyers) couldn’t have been licensed for more than a year,” adding that MGM wanted the money quickly. “I’ve been licensed since 1997. We had that going for us.”

Gaming regulators approved the deal in December and the sale closed two months after it was announced.

The purchase included the 25-acre resort site and surrounding land parcels, including 33 acres at the corner of Sahara Boulevard and the Strip used as a festival space. In total, Ruffin now owns 102 acres – a majority of which is undeveloped – on the Strip’s north end.

His purchase comes at a time when the Strip’s north end is the focus of more than $8 billion in expansion and development.

“It’s the last piece of land. I could see the north end getting better and better,” Ruffin said.

Sahara owner Alex Meruelo has spent more than $100 million to renovate his resort. A $1.2 billion expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center – directly across from Circus Circus – opens in 2021. The $4.3 billion Resorts World Las Vegas, which is just south of Ruffin’s property, will open later that year.

New York developer Steven Witkoff is spending approximately $2 billion to convert the shuttered Fontainebleau into the Drew Las Vegas, which he plans to open by December 2022.

“Mr. Ruffin will be able to set the first mark on the north end of the Strip that will see significant transformation in the coming years,” said Brendan Bussmann, a partner with Las Vegas-based Global Market Advisors. “The site is well positioned for growth as well as benefiting from other developments, including the convention center expansion.” 

The east side porte cochere at Circus Circus is seen on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Ruffin’s business empire

Circus Circus added to Ruffin’s real estate holdings, which include strip malls, office parks, and hotels, adding up to roughly 4 million square feet of properties.

“The ability to bring new life to a long-term fixture on the Strip with an old-school Vegas perspective could only get pulled off by few people,” Bussmann said of Ruffin.

Ruffin is best known nationally as President Donald Trump’s business partner in the non-gaming Trump International in Las Vegas, which has hotel rooms and condominiums. The future president visited Las Vegas a decade ago for all the tower’s construction milestones and Ruffin even appeared on an episode of “The Apprentice.” A second tower was planned, but the idea was scrapped during the recession.  

Ruffin already owned a casino in the Bahamas when the Frontier caught his attention in 1997. The Elardi family, which owned the Strip property, were entangled in a lengthy labor dispute with Culinary Workers Local 226 and three other unions.

The strike, which at six years and four months was the longest workers walkout in U.S. history, ended when Ruffin took control of the casino. He renovated the property that was once part of the Howard Hughes casino empire and the former showroom home of entertainers Siegfried and Roy. He brought back the New Frontier name.

When he sold the casino and its 36 acres to an Israeli development group in 2007 prior to the recession, the transaction was considered the most expensive land deal in Strip history at $33.3 million per acre. The site, now owned by Wynn Resorts, sits empty after two failed attempts to develop the location by two different groups.

Ruffin said the current cost to develop from the ground up is one reason he wanted to acquire an existing resort.

“Have you seen the cost of new construction? It’s off the charts,” Ruffin said. “On that land, it would cost $2 million a room. That’s $2 billion. It doesn’t pencil out.”

His return to the gaming industry happened two years after selling the Frontier.

MGM Resorts, strapped for cash toward the end of the recession as it was attempting to complete the $9 billion CityCenter development, inked a deal with Ruffin, who agreed to pay $775 million for Treasure Island. The company discounted the original agreement by $20 million because Ruffin upped the cash payment by $100 million to $600 million.

Ruffin speaks in glowing terms of Murren, whom he called “a very smart man” and “good operator.” Murren has similar praise for Ruffin. He respects him as both a partner and negotiator.

“These are obviously major, complex transactions, but the fact that Phil and I can sit down, shake hands on terms and leave knowing it’s smooth sailing from there is a testament to the mutual trust and respect between us,” Murren said in an email provided by MGM Resorts. “A handshake means everything to Phil, just like it did to guys like (MGM founder) Kirk Kerkorian. I feel the same way.”

Over the last 13 years Ruffin has made numerous improvements to the resort, which was built by Steve Wynn and since renamed TI. The free live pirate show at the resort’s entrance ended in 2013 in favor of restaurants and retail. He has since remodeled the hotel rooms and added other restaurants, including a sports bar.

In December 2018, Ruffin acquired the slot machine-only Casino Miami, which is located less than 20 minutes from downtown Miami and near the city’s international airport. The facility is attached to a jai-alai fronton and has 21 acres for development.

Again, the transaction was good timing. The deal closed before Florida’s Amendment 3 became law in January 2019. The initiative curtails new casino or gaming expansion without approval from voters. William Hill U.S. added a pari-mutuel wagering facility to Casino Miami and Ruffin said he would add a hotel if the state were to reduce its gaming tax of 35 percent, which is more than five times the rate he pays on casino revenue in Nevada.

The live game pit at Circus Circus on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Plans for Circus Circus

The acquisition of Circus Circus doubled the number of rooms Ruffin controls on the Strip – 2,884 at TI and 3,764 at Circus Circus – and employees – 2,500 at TI and 2,200 at Circus Circus. It allows him to consolidate back-of-the house services, such as running payroll and other areas out of TI for both properties.

Ruffin values the long-term potential in Circus Circus, which was built in 1968 by Jay Sarno and taken over by William Bennett and William Pennington in 1974. The pair turned the property into a family destination, marketing its second-floor carnival arcade and live circus acts above the gaming tables to a wide audience.

MGM acquired the casino as part of its $7.9 billion merger with Mandalay Resort Group in 2005, but it was never a focus for the company. Circus Circus wasn’t included in either MGM’s paid parking effort on the Strip nor the company’s players rewards program.

But the resort still contributed to the bottom line. In the first nine months of 2019, Circus Circus reported $196.5 million in revenues, up nearly 2.4 percent from 2018. But it was the smallest provider to the company’s overall Strip casino total of $4.4 billion.

Ruffin told the Gaming Control Board in December he anticipates doing $50 million a year in cash flow at Circus Circus.

“It’s all family business and the volume is great,” Ruffin said. “We’re slow in January and February when the kids are in school. It starts to pick up in March and by summer-time, we blow the doors off.”

Ruffin has a list of plans to improve the resort’s prospects. The sportsbook was turned over to William Hill U.S., and a stadium-style gaming area that has been successful at Treasure Island will be added. He made a public commitment in December to keep THE Steak House, considered by restaurant critics as one of the best dining locations on the Strip.

He plans to renovate the attached Slots-A-Fun casino. He said the small location used to produce $1 million a month in gaming revenue.

“There wasn’t enough foot traffic before to justify (a renovation) and we want to get it there again,” Ruffin said. “The convention (center) will enhance the area and will bring a tremendous amount of foot traffic. We’re going to see a lot more volume.”

Circus Circus’ Adventuredome indoor theme park will be given its first renovation in years. “We’re putting in some stuff that should increase traffic,” he said.

Ruffin plans to close the recreation vehicle park and convert 10 acres into a resort-style pool and beach area. Also, he won’t have to build a theater, as he announced in December for a planned Cirque du Soleil production.

The show will be located in a 1,000-room theater on the property’s second floor that had been boarded up since 1979. The space, which Ruffin didn’t know about when he bought the resort, will be renovated and modernized.

“We didn’t know about it. We just found it,” Ruffin said. Las Vegas architectural firm Bergman Walls & Associates is handling the designs for the theater and the pool area.

The resort’s hotel rooms will be refurbished, but Ruffin said he’s not going to make a large investment. The Circus Circus guest is a value customer who demands a lower nightly room rate, he said. A check of various hotel booking sites found an average price of between $19 and $60 a night at the property, depending on mid-week, weekend, or holiday.

“We can redo all those rooms to Wynn quality, but you’re not get a dime more and you’ll chase off all your customers,” Ruffin said. “Circus Circus is a different demographic than TI. There is always a demand for a lower (nightly room price) on the Strip.”

He also sees value in the one-time festival grounds. The site will be leased to groups, but the tenants are responsible for labor and the costs to put on an event. He said Amazon is paying $50,000 a day to use the site for a multiple day event in December.

Bussmann said Ruffin’s plans will “make an instant impact on the current and future customer to Circus Circus that has largely been stagnant for the last few years.”  

Trump friendship

Ruffin remains a friend and supporter of Trump. When Trump came to Las Vegas in June 2018 to campaign for Republican candidates, Ruffin and his family received a behind-the-scenes tour of Air Force One, the highly classified Boeing 747 used by the president.

He was photographed by journalists as he disembarked from Air Force One along with his wife, Oleksandra, and their two children. Trump was Ruffin’s best man at their wedding in 2008.

Ruffin said he spent New Year’s Eve at Mar-a-Largo in Florida with the president, where the impeachment process was on everyone’s mind.

“He’s going through hell. He said he can take it, but it’s hard for his family,” Ruffin said. “He’ll be cleared of all this, and he’s going to win in a landslide. I think (the Democrats) swallowed a poison pill with this thing. They are off-base. If he just wins the House back, just imagine what he can do.”

Howard Stutz is a freelance gaming reporter for The Nevada Independent and the executive editor of CDC Gaming Reports. He has been a Nevada journalist for 30 years. He can be reached at howardmstutz@gmail.com. On Twitter: @howardstutz

Nevada gaming attorneys caution lawmakers on sports betting; ‘You really have to give it some serious thought’

Four people seated behind tables on a stage

SAN DIEGO – At a weekend conference attended by state lawmakers seeking advice on aspects of casino expansion, a panel of Nevada gaming attorneys tried to tamp down visions of revenues flowing into tax coffers through legalized sports betting.

Henderson attorney John Maloney cited November’s Nevada gaming revenue totals.

Statewide, casinos collected $31 million from sports betting during the month, a little more than 3 percent of the state’s overall gaming revenue figure of $937.4 million.

“You really have to give it some serious thought before taking on sports betting,” said Maloney, who is also licensed in California and represents tribal gaming interests. He pointed out that sports betting revenues amounted to roughly 5 percent of the total wagers placed by sportsbook customers – a single-month record of $614.1 million.

“If you’re treating sports betting as a taxing issue, you need to understand the other side of balance sheet,” Maloney. “Don’t just hand it off to some taxing agency and forget about it and bury your head in the sand. It’s a huge responsibility.”

Kate Lowenhar-Fisher, a gaming attorney with Dickinson Wright in Las Vegas, added the monthly revenues from sports betting can often be “meaningless,” and the activity is often viewed as amenity to bring customers into a property.

“We have history,” she said, since Nevada was the only state for decades offering “wide open” single game sports betting.

“The margins for sports betting are really, really small,” Lowenhar-Fisher said. “Make sure you’re not killing the industry before it gets off the ground by virtue of your taxing structures.”

Fourteen states now offer sports betting at casinos, racetracks and online, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to toss out a federal ban on the activity in May 2018. Another half-dozen states and Washington, D.C. could launch sports betting this year, and a handful of states are considering legislation and ballot referendums governing the activity.

Since the ban was lifted, Americans have wagered $16 billion on sports legally in the past 19 months, according to the American Gaming Association.

However, Maloney, Lowenhar-Fisher and Reno-based Fennemore Craig gaming attorney Dan Reaser raised caution around the lofty figures and projections associated with the activity. They took part in an hour-long discussion on sports betting Saturday during the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States (NCLGS) winter meeting at the Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina.

More than 40 legislators from 20 states attended the conference, along with some 200 gaming operators, suppliers, sports executives, attorneys, analysts, regulators, public officials, and others with a stake in legalized gambling.

Assemblyman Steve Yeager, D-Las Vegas, and Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen, D-Las Vegas, attended the conference along with State Sen. Keith Pickard, R-Henderson, who is the organization’s incoming president.

Former Gov. Brian Sandoval, now a development executive with MGM Resorts International, participated in a panel Sunday on gaming investment. He told the legislators from around the country his main focus has been on MGM’s efforts to land a casino license in Osaka, Japan. But he has also visited Ohio, Michigan, New York, and Massachusetts, where MGM has current operations and is looking to add sports betting.

Reaser said there is room for growth in the U.S. sports betting market, including California and Florida, where it has yet to be legalized. A coalition of tribes in California have proposed a sports betting ballot referendum that would allow the activity at Indian casinos and racetracks but would prohibit mobile sports wagering and betting on games involving California schools and universities.

However, Reaser cautioned lawmakers not to be too quick to jump into sports betting without first weighing the reasons for legalizing the activity. The various rules and regulations need to be prioritized and states should do what is best for their particular markets.

Both Reaser and Maloney touted mobile sports wagering, which is now legal in nine states, including Nevada. A Gaming Control Board spokesman told CDC Gaming Reports last week the state hopes to provide a breakdown of “mobile versus retail” sports wagering totals beginning with January 2020’s revenue numbers, which will be released at the end of February.

“Money is mobile. Mobile is money,” Maloney said. “That’s where sports betting is going.”

Reaser suggested all states allow mobile sports wagering, including remote registration, where a customer can register an account with a licensed operator online. However, patrons would at least have to “show their face” at a casino at least once, “so the casino can verify the person’s identity.”

Nevada companies have benefited from the expansion of sports betting.

Las Vegas-based William Hill US operates sportsbooks and mobile sports betting in 10 states, MGM has signed various marketing and sponsorship deals with the major professional sports leagues and teams and has deals with Buffalo Wild Wings and Yahoo Sports. The company has also launched Roar Digital, a mobile sports wagering platform in partnership with UK-based GVC Holdings.

Maloney said the U.S. sports betting market is still far behind its European counterparts. He said a speech he gave at the International Masters of Gaming Law Conference in September in Munich, pointed out that status.

“I said ‘don’t worry about the U.S. market, because we’re still not even crawling. We’re still in its infancy.’ But great things will happen,” Maloney said.

Howard Stutz is a freelance gaming reporter for The Nevada Independent and the executive editor of CDC Gaming Reports. He has been a Nevada journalist for 30 years. He can be reached at howardmstutz@gmail.com. On Twitter: @howardstutz

Breaking down nearly $2 million of congressional campaign cash

Voter registration forms

Through the third quarter of 2019, more than $1.9 million filled the campaign coffers of nearly a dozen candidates across Nevada’s four congressional districts, according to filings made this week with the Federal Election Commission. 

Roughly $800,000 stayed among the incumbent Democrats looking to defend their competitive seats in the South, with much of the rest flowing to the fractured Republican primary field in those same districts — District 3, represented by Rep. Susie Lee, and District 4, represented by Rep. Steven Horsford. 

Just 10 percent, roughly $200,000, was raised by the other two incumbents in safe districts, Democratic Rep. Dina Titus in Las Vegas’ District 1, and Republican Rep. Mark Amodei in the sprawling District 2 in Northern Nevada.

But with the 2020 race to control the House of Representatives still distant — Nevada’s filing deadline doesn’t come until next March and primary voters won't hit the polls until June — early fundraising through 2019 may prove key in deciding which congressional campaigns, challengers or otherwise, make it over the finish line. 

Below is a breakdown of third-quarter fundraising data by congressional district, in order by the total money raised by declared candidates in that district. 

District 3

Lee led the congressional candidates in third-quarter fundraising, bringing in more than $490,000. Most of that money, about $304,000, came in the form of individual donations. That includes dozens of donations which hit $2,800 individual maximum, including contributions from Wynn Resorts co-founder Elaine Wynn and Walt Disney Studios co-chairman and chief creative officer Alan Horn. 

There were also a number of smaller — though still large — donations from a handful of Las Vegas regulars, including William Hill CEO Joseph Asher ($1,000) and Boyd Group President William S. Boyd II ($500). 

And though the vast majority of Lee’s fundraising was comprised of small-dollar contributions —  including nearly $170,000 brought in through the Democratic fundraising platform ActBlue and another $10,000 from a similar platform called Democracy Engine — she also received a number of large donations from political action committees. 

That includes contributions by pro-choice group Emily’s List ($11,300 bundled together, including earmarked donations funneled through Emily’s List), the New Democrat Coalition, a coalition of House Democrats billing itself as pro-fiscal responsibility ($10,000 total) and the Nancy Pelosi-affiliated “PAC to the Future” ($10,000 total).  

Also among those group-donations was an eclectic collection of corporate, industry and issue-based PACs ranging from Walmart ($5,500) to Exxon-Mobil ($1,500) to the League of Conservation Voters ($2,000) to the national arm of the plumbers and pipefitters union ($5,000).

On the spending side of Lee’s report, tens of thousands went to online ads and digital consulting, including nearly $40,000 to the Colorado firm 4Degrees, Inc. Another $9,000 went to fundraising consulting from Virginia-based Fiorello Consulting, and $6,000 went to Seattle-based Blue Wave Political Partners for compliance consulting. 

Among Republicans vying for Lee’s seat, former Treasurer Dan Schwartz — who also launched an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2018 — held a narrow fundraising edge, bringing in $264,000 in Q3. Only $84,000 of that sum came from individual donations, however, with the bulk coming from $180,000 in personal loans to his campaign. Of those individual donors, 22 gave him the $2,800 maximum.

The other Republican contender, former pro-wrestler and Fox News regular Dan Rodimer, followed closely behind Schwartz, raising $251,000, of which $65,000 came through loans. 

Among those who maxed their contributions to Rodimer, a significant chunk — seven of 23 — came from his one-time home of Florida. Many of those donors also donated additional funds to Rodimer’s hoped-for general election campaign, doubling their contributions from $2,800 to $5,600 — standard practice among large congressional campaigns and something no donor did for Schwartz.

Two other Republican challengers in District 3, real estate agents Tiger Helgelien and Zach WalkerLieb, both quit their congressional bids during the third quarter, filing termination paperwork in October and August, respectively. WalkerLieb had managed to raise nearly $40,000 early in the year, including a $10,000 loan, while Helgelien reported raising roughly $12,000 before ending his campaign. 

District 4

Like Lee, Horsford far outpaced individual Republicans in his district, raising roughly $300,000, or more than double the next-closest Republican fundraiser.  Unlike Lee, however, much of Horsford’s fundraising has come from PAC spending, including about $142,000 in Q3 2019 and more than $637,000 through the election so far — good for roughly 57 percent of Horsford’s total fundraising for the 2020 cycle. 

And much like his fellow Democrats across the country, Horsford raised a sizable chunk of his individual contributions through ActBlue, totaling nearly $112,000 in the aggregate. 

Separately, among his big-money third-quarter donors are the Credit Union Legislative Action Council ($6,500 in Q3 with $10,000 given overall), cable-giant Comcast ($5,000 in Q3 with $7,500 overall) and U.S. Anesthesia Partners Inc. ($5,000)

The largest single chunk of Horsford’s spending was focused on digital consultant Mothership Strategies, which received more than $38,000 between July and September. Horsford also spent an additional $15,000 on the Strathdee Group and more than $12,000 on Woods Strategies, both for fundraising consulting.

Former Miss Nevada and Las Vegas business-owner Lisa Song Sutton led the increasingly-crowded pack of Republicans jockeying for Horsford's seat, hauling in $127,000, with $108,000 individual contributions — the most of any Republican candidate. No PAC money or loans were necessary for Sutton to end the quarter with $99,000 cash on hand. 

She was closely followed by veteran and Las Vegas businessman Sam Peters, who brought roughly $112,000, with $42,000 coming from individual donors and an additional $69,000 from candidate loans for the campaign. And though Peters' filing reported more than $135,000 cash on hand to end the quarter, his actual remaining cash is likely closer to $73,000. That accounts for roughly $49,000 in spending subtracted from about $123,000 in total funds, leaving Peters with the fourth-most cash on hand in the field.

Another veteran, ex-congressional staffer Charles Navarro, raised $80,000, including almost $23,000 in individual contributions. Navarro took out $75,000 in loans for his campaign and currently has close to $77,000 cash on hand. 

Former Summerlin-area Assemblyman Jim Marchant — the top fundraiser among Republicans in Q2 — fell to $58,000 raised, just about half the $118,000 he raised through July. Though he has still raised the most of any Republican so far this cycle, his $92,000 cash on hand now puts him behind both Song Sutton and Peters in the fundraising race. 

Among Republicans, Marchant has become the biggest spender, doling out more than $51,000 through September. Almost half of that money — nearly $21,000 — went to local political consulting firm McShane LLC, while another $16,500 went to North Carolina-based fundraising consultant Saligram and Associates 

Northern Nevada business woman Randi Reed brought in a total of $47,000 from individual donors, without any PAC contributions or loans. As of now, her cash on hand is almost $41,000 with many contributions coming from construction companies.  

Nye County Commissioner Leo Blundo, the only candidate hailing from outside populous Clark County, raised a total of $45,000, almost exclusively with Nevada-based contributions and without any PAC support or loans. His cash on hand now sits at $28,000.

And Nurse Catherine Prato, a late addition to the primary field, raised  $29,000, spent $1,000 and was left with $28,000 cash on hand. More than $8,000 has come from one donor, Todd Lefkowitz, who donated to both the primary and general campaigns. 

District 2

In ruby-red District 2, Amodei has fundraised in the absence of a hard push from either his right or left to unseat him, ultimately pulling in more than $91,000 in the third quarter. 

More than half of his contributions, almost $54,000, were made by individuals, while the remaining $37,000 came from PACs. Notable contributors to Amodei included Dollar Shave Club CEO Michael Dubin ($2,700), Washoe County Commissioner Jeanne Herman ($1,000) and PACs connected to Amazon ($1,000), AT&T ($4,000), Comcast ($2,000), General Motors ($5,000) and Exxon Mobil ($2,500).

Amodei reported expenditures on a variety of typical campaign and fundraising expenses, but he also contributed $500 to Republian state Sen. Heidi Gansert’s re-election campaign, $3,000 to the Douglas County Republican Party to sponsor a BBQ, $214 to former Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s Morning in Nevada PAC for tickets to the annual Basque Fry and nearly $32,000 to a Carson City marketing company for radio advertising.

Still, the congressman maintains the notable distinction of having spent more than he’s raised through 2019, bringing in roughly $288,000, but spending more than $334,000.

The biggest third-quarter beneficiaries of that spending: consultants. Amodei paid $17,000 to Reno consultant Danielle Cherry, another $32,000 to the Carson City marketing firm Wyman and Associates for radio ads, more than $10,000 to the M Group for fundraising consulting and another $10,000 in accounting fees. 

Amodei still substantially outraised likely Democratic opponents, including his 2018 general election opponent Clint Koble. Koble, who is mounting another bid, reported raising more than $23,000 and spending $21,600 during the October fundraising period, and has just $403 in available cash on hand at the end of the reporting period.

District 1

Titus, whose district encompasses the deep-blue urban core of metropolitan Las Vegas, fundraised through the third quarter with no declared challengers, bringing in nearly $99,000 through the end of September.  

About 49 percent of the contributions to her campaign, or $48,250, came from PACs. The largest donation was $10,000 from UNITE HERE Tip Campaign Committee — affiliated with the umbrella organization of the Culinary Union — while the second-largest donation this quarter was $3,000 from Credit Union National Association PAC. Three other PACs including National Elevator Constructors, SABRE Holdings Corp. (whose subsidiaries provide travel technology and booking services) and U.S. Travel Association gave $2,500 each.  

Contributions from individuals amounted to $50,733. The president and CEO of Arcata Associates, a Nevada-based company that supports federal government agencies and commercial aviation companies, gave the largest individual donation of $2,800. The American Association for Justice Politics, the American Hotel and Lodging Association and the Asian American Hotel Owner Association gave contributions of $2,500 each. Former Las Vegas Councilman Bob Coffin contributed $1,000. 

Her campaign committee spent $6,585 each month of the quarter on a fundraising consultant, as well as $6,400 in digital consulting fees over that period. Her campaign also spent more than $400 on event tickets for the Las Vegas Greek Food Festival hosted by St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church. 

Correction - 8:30 p.m. - An original version of this story included fundraising figures for candidate Sam Peters for all of 2019 and not fundraising in the third quarter. It has been updated to reflect Peters' third-quarter fundraising only.

Correction - 10/22, 8:30 a.m. - An earlier version of this story did not identify a misfiling for candidate Sam Peters, who, though he reported $135,000 cash on hand, actually maintains $73,000 cash on hand.

Nevada gaming, tourism officials call on Congress to ignore Trump budget request for Yucca

A miner walking inside the South Portal at Yucca Mountain

Nevada gaming and resort officials, including Las Vegas Sands Chairman Sheldon Adelson and MGM Resorts International chief Jim Murren, wrote to members of Congress on Monday urging them not to fund efforts to store nuclear waste in Nevada.

“We urge you to continue working together to ensure that Yucca Mountain remains part of Nevada’s past and that nuclear waste is never stored anywhere near the world’s entertainment capital and Nevada’s treasured public lands,” the letter said.

In his fiscal 2020 budget blueprint, unveiled last month, President Donald Trump called for Congress to provide $116 million in federal funds to restart the licensing process to build a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. Congress has not provided any funding for the project since fiscal 2012, despite calls for funding in Trump’s two previous budget proposals.

The letter notes that Yucca Mountain sits about 90 miles from Las Vegas and would threaten the city’s booming tourism, convention and entertainment industries. The city hosted 42 million visitors in 2018 and could outpace that figure in 2019. Beyond the city’s visitors the Las Vegas Valley is home to 2.2 million residents, who are employed in those industries.

“The combination of these factors has a profound impact on the amount of revenue generated for Nevada’s general fund,” the letter said. “The impacts nuclear waste could have on our visitors and our employees would unquestionably have severe negative implications for Nevada’s future and economic growth.”

“We are proud to stand together with Nevadans in every corner of the Silver State in opposition to this relic of the past and any attempt to resurrect a project that would so directly imperil the health, safety, and economic future of our great state,” the letter continued.

Yucca Mountain was designated the site for the nation’s nuclear waste repository in a law enacted in 1987.

The letter comes after Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation recently wrote to House and Senate appropriators urging them not to fund the project.

Along with Adelson and Murren, others who signed on to the letter include: American Gaming Association President and CEO William Miller, Jr.; Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mary Beth Sewald; Penn National Gaming CEO Timothy J. Wilmott; Boyd Gaming Corporation President and CEO Keith Smith; Caesars Entertainment President and CEO Mark P. Frissora; Red Rock Resorts President Richard Haskins; Wynn Resorts, Limited CEO Matt Maddox; William Hill U.S. CEO Joseph Asher; Nevada Resort Association President Virginia Valentine; and Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority President and CEO Steve Hill.

Wire Act opinion puts future of online gaming in limbo

To mark the 50th Anniversary of the World Series of Poker (WSOP), Caesars Interactive Entertainment announced a schedule for nine online “gold bracelet” events to coincide with this summer’s tournament at the Rio in Las Vegas.

WSOP.com has hosted online events for the last five years, offering prize money and lucrative buy-ins – up to $10,000 a seat – to live poker events taking place during the eight-week-long tournament that garners watchers from around the world.

One question looms.

Will Caesars legally be able to offer WSOP.com come June?

The website – one of only two legal Internet gaming portals in Nevada – could be shut down or substantially diminished following the recent opinion on the federal Wire Act offered by a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

On Jan. 15, the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel released a 23-page memorandum concerning the 58-year-old law and reversed a 2011 opinion, which had said the act only pertained to sports gambling.

If implemented, the new opinion could apply the Wire Act to any form of gambling information where routing of the data – through various methods including the Internet – crosses state lines. Mobile sports wagering on wireless smartphones, for example, can bounce off towers in multiple states between a Nevada customer’s device and a sportsbook’s server.

Lawyers for Greenberg Traurig’s Global Gaming Practice wrote on Jan. 23 that the new opinion allows the Justice Department “to criminally prosecute a gambling business for knowingly using a wire communication facility” to transmit information.

Legal experts and gaming analysts have said the opinion would wipe out seven years of gaming technological advancements — not just Internet gaming, which is offered in just three states. Wide area progressive slot machine networks such as Megabucks, mobile sports wagering, and the sale of online lottery tickets could all come to sudden halt.

For now, the Justice Department is operating under a moratorium that delays any implementation of the opinion until April 15.

But the ruling has left the gaming industry at a standstill. Publicly, Nevada gaming leaders have taken a wait-and-see approach until the Justice Department makes a final determination. Some quietly hope new U.S. Attorney General William Barr – a state’s rights advocate – will simply opt not to enforce the opinion, just as the department doesn’t opt to prosecute for simple possession of marijuana.

Chris Grove, an analyst with Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, said he doesn’t believe the Department of Justice will ultimately enforce the opinion. He cited several reasons, including “a deep schism” among industry experts as to what the opinion could ultimately accomplish. There is also a belief in the legal community that the opinion won’t survive a judicial challenge.

“It’s an opinion, it’s not the law,” said one Nevada gaming insider. “The gaming industry is laying low. We don’t want to ask a question that we don’t want to know the answer to.”

The Washington, D.C.-based American Gaming Association issued a statement encouraging the Justice Department to “investigate and shut down illegal, unregulated gambling operators.” A spokesman for slot machine developer International Game Technology, which operates Megabucks, said the company “couldn’t provide insight on the Wire Act at this time.”

Caesars, which owns the World Series of Poker and WSOP.com, also declined to comment.

William Hill US CEO Joe Asher, whose Nevada-based company has opened legal sports betting operations in several states that include mobile wagering options, said the business is still engaged in expansion efforts.

“(The opinion) hasn’t really changed what everyone has been doing yet,” Asher said. “It’s business as usual at this time.”

Nevada gaming regulators are taking a similar approach.

“We’re still reviewing the memorandum and looking at potential options,” Gaming Control Board Chairwoman Sandra Douglass Morgan said last week. She added that the agency is working with the state attorney general’s office, which serves as its legal counsel. The attorney general’s office declined comment.

Morgan said the board had not been approached by any Nevada gaming company to take any action against the Wire Act changes.

Former Control Board Chairman Dennis Neilander, now an attorney with Kaempfer Crowell, said, “I’m telling people that until the Justice Department provides further guidance, there is not much we can do.”

But don’t look for Congress to get involved in the Wire Act, said Rep. Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas.

“Most of my colleagues don’t understand this issue,” Titus said.

Written for an audience of one?

Some industry leaders and analysts have pointed fingers at Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson, who for years sought to reverse the 2011 opinion by spending millions of dollars on grass roots efforts and through legislative processes, which failed.

Multiple gaming sources used a similar descriptive phrase when talking on background: that the DOJ opinion was “written for an audience of one,” meaning Adelson, who funded the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling, which supports restoring the Wire Act back to the pre-2011 interpretation.

A law firm headed by Washington, D.C. attorney Charles Cooper, who has worked for the coalition, wrote a detailed memo in 2017, outlining potential changes to the Wire Act. The memo was given to the Office of Legal Counsel that year. Cooper told the Washington Post in February the opinion – which was dated Nov. 2, 2018 – “accords entirely with the analysis my firm undertook and I shared with the DOJ.”

U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland went so far as to grill acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker earlier in February on the topic of who paid his salary from 2014 through 2017 as well as on the possible involvement of Adelson in the DOJ decision.

Raskin called Whitaker’s employer, the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT), a “pass through company” and pointedly asked who funded his salary, then launched into what he called a “theory” connecting Adelson with President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for whom Whitaker was chief of staff when the DOJ ordered a reevaluation of the Wire Act.

Whitaker denied that the process was corrupt and rejected the “premise” of Raskin’s questions.

None in the gaming industry have publicly blamed Adelson or Las Vegas Sands, but some have challenged the timing of the ruling. Lawmakers in several states, including Michigan and West Virginia, have discussed Internet gaming legalization in their current legislative sessions. Pennsylvania legalized Internet gaming last year, but it hasn’t yet been implemented.

Sports betting is legal in seven states outside Nevada, and legislation is pending in more than a dozen states. Much of the focus of new laws has been on regulated mobile sports wagering and placement of wagers over the Internet.

MGM Resorts International Chairman and CEO Jim Murren was the first high-profile gaming leader to challenge the opinion.

“The latest missive from the DOJ is perplexing is an understatement,” Murren said on his company’s Feb. 13 quarterly conference call. “It’s just, we think, an absurdly, poorly written and unenforceable opinion. And I don't think anyone in the industry, the gaming industry, the sports betting industry, feels any differently.”

Scientific Games CEO Barry Cottle had a similar view on the gaming manufacturer’s quarterly earnings conference call a week later.

“We believe the Department of Justice's new opinion is wrong on the law and that Justice actually got it right in its 2011 opinion,” Cottle said. “Unfortunately the new opinion leaves obviously important questions unanswered and shows a little understanding of how the gaming industry operates today. For now, we're continuing to monitor the situation closely and have no current plans to alter our strategy as it relates to (Internet) gaming, (Internet) lottery or domestic sports betting.”

Three states have initiated challenges to the DOJ ruling. New Hampshire, on behalf of its state lottery, filed a federal lawsuit that would halt enforcement. The state asked a U.S. District Court judge to vacate the opinion, confirm that the Wire Act does not apply to state lotteries, and permanently keep the Justice Department from acting on the opinion.

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro asked the Justice Department to withdraw the decision. New Jersey’s Internet gaming business generates $352.7 million in annual revenue and $60 million in direct gaming taxes.

Grewal also filed a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA) seeking records pertaining to the Justice Department’s opinion and communications between the agency that involved Las Vegas Sands and the casino company’s lobbyists.

“Nothing changed in the years since the Justice Department allowed online gaming to move forward, and there was no good reason for the Justice Department to rethink its prior decision,” he said. “Instead, media reports make clear that pressure to reconsider the opinion came from (Las Vegas Sands) and their lobbyists. That is not a good enough reason to reverse course and undermine the online gaming industry. We want to know who Justice Department officials spoke with, and why they decided to change their minds.”

Darryl Nirenberg, an attorney in Washington, D.C. with Steptoe & Johnson, which represents both Las Vegas Sands and the coalition, disputed the challenges.

“This opinion is well reasoned, fastidiously researched, grounded in the canon of statutory construction and appears to be crafted to stand the tests of the judiciary,” Nirenberg said. “We expect it to be enforced, and those who are betting on it being summarily overturned by the courts could find themselves disappointed.”

Las Vegas Sands spokesman Ron Reese did not respond to requests for comment.

Reno lobbyist Robert Uithoven, who has long represented Las Vegas Sands in Carson City, said he registered as a lobbyist for the coalition during the current legislative session, but there is “no particular bill” that he is following.

Let the lotteries fight this battle

Many Nevada gaming leaders are hopeful that New Hampshire’s lawsuit will set back the opinion’s implementation. The 2011 opinion on the Wire Act was written following inquiries by Illinois and New York, which were seeking approval to sell lottery tickets online. Many legal experts believe the lotteries have the strongest case.

In a statement, the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries, said the 2011 opinion allowed the industry to implement “critical enhancements and improvements” within the industry.

Murren said the new opinion could wipe out Powerball, the nation’s largest lottery, which operates in 44 states. Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling leaders, however, disputed claims that lotteries would suffer.

In Nevada, WSOP.com – which pools players from both Nevada and New Jersey online – does the bulk of its annual business during the World Series of Poker because of the number of players drawn to the tournament. Last year’s live tournament attracted a record 123,865 entrants.

World Series of Poker spokesman Seth Palansky said the tournament is “still determining the eligibility for New Jersey players to compete online” because of the uncertainty since the Wire Act opinion was released.

Howard Stutz is a freelance gaming reporter for The Nevada Independent and the Executive Editor of CDC Gaming Reports. He has worked as a Nevada journalist for 30 years. He can be reached at howardmstutz@gmail.com. On Twitter: @howardstutz