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October 6, 2015

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Casinos hedge their bets when it comes to political spending

Despite all their differences on policy, Republicans and Democrats want to leave Nevada voters with a common message with the start of early voting: This election is about the economy, and they are the party with the solutions to get it going again.

Such directly contradictory political messaging can get confusing. But if the election is all about the economy, then where are the brains behind Nevada’s biggest economic industry placing their bets?

The short answer: all over the place.

The big Las Vegas Strip casinos are putting their political cash behind candidates at every level on the federal ballot, throwing thousands to the presidential candidates, would-be House representatives, and most of all, the two incumbent lawmakers vying for Nevada’s Senate seat.

In this election cycle, the national casino industry is primed to drop more than $50 million on candidates, lobbying and campaign donations, with the bulk of that coming from Sheldon Adelson’s record-breaking soft money donations to PACs backing Republicans, according to contribution totals tallied by lobbying and campaign finance database OpenSecrets combined with newly released filings.

Subtract the $34 million Adelson donated through September and it’s still a pretty healthy sum of money, at least keeping pace with where spending was in 2008, when the industry chalked up $17 million.

For the most part, beyond Adelson, the casinos and their executives are not picking one party over the other, according to contribution totals tallied by OpenSecrets.

In fact, the partisan split in party donations in the 2012 cycle is the closest it has been in a decade, after years where the Democratic Party pulled in measurably more support than Republicans — a reflection of just how close this election is.

“The casinos usually cover both sides of the ticket, just to make sure,” said Mark Peplowski, a political science professor at the College of Southern Nevada. “Whoever wins, they want them to remember: You supported them.”

Strip casinos have their favorites, but they don’t always match up with those of their counterparts in other parts of the country or the rest of their industry.

For example: Nationally, the casino and gambling industry’s No. 1 recipient of political cash is President Barack Obama.

But on the Strip, you’ll be hard pressed to find a casino or a top executive throwing much official money in his direction. A few casino executives outside of Adelson have thrown some cash to presidential challenger Mitt Romney, who ranks No. 4 in casino cash nationally, but it’s chump change compared with how much is being spent on Nevada candidates vying for other federal seats.

“Obviously, they’re playing more of a congressional game,” said David Damore, a professor of political science at UNLV. “Congress is much more important for them because of the regulatory frameworks they need, and because of the push for internet gaming.”

Casinos care about only two things when it comes to Washington, gaming experts said: online poker and taxes.

“At the end of the day, gaming is really a state-regulated issue. So other than issues dealing with online gaming, which crosses state lines ... there’s really not a whole lot of federal involvement, short of the tax policies that are going to affect all businesses, including casinos,” said Robert La­Fleur, a gaming analyst with financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald in New York. “Corporate tax rates, how dividends are taxed — those are the things that are going to affect the decisions all businesses make.”

“They’re looking at the national economy, because a stronger national economy is better for Las Vegas,” said David Schwartz, director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research. He adds tourism promotion and visa waivers to the list of federal issues that would concern casinos. “Ever since the federal government stopped trying to close the casinos down in the ’60s, I think they just want somebody in there who’s going to help foster a strong economy. ... They’re just basically backing who they think is going to be best in that job.”

On issues like online gaming and tourism promotion, there really isn’t that much difference between Nevada Republicans and Democrats. When it comes to taxation, there are differences — but not of the magnitude that would necessarily be a deal breaker for one party or the other.

Senate candidates Dean Heller, a Republican, and Shelley Berkley, a Democrat, rank second and third with the casino industry nationally, being the beneficiaries of a respective $224,350 and $210,832 in the last two-year cycle , according to the most recent count available from OpenSecrets; those totals are expected to rise by tens of thousands of dollars as the latest financial reports are processed.

When it comes to the top Strip casinos, they’re in a similar holding pattern. The Federal Election Commission is still processing the latest figures. But among MGM, Station Casinos and Caesars PACs and individuals, Berkley's campaign raked in $117,900 through midsummer, while Heller's campaign drew in $77,250 — plus generous donations from Adelson’s and Wynn’s PACs and employees that brought his total up to $143,500.

Meanwhile, Nevada’s top casino executives are politically divided over who they want running the Senate: While Adelson and Wynn are donating to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Frank Fertitta, chairman and CEO of Station Casinos, and Caesars CEO Gary Loveman are writing checks to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, aka the committee to keep Sen. Harry Reid in charge. MGM, meanwhile, has contributed to both the Republican and Democratic Senate campaign committees from its official PAC.

At the House level, campaign donations appear a little more erratic. Rep. Mark Amodei, a Republican representing Nevada’s 2nd Congressional District, and former Rep. Dina Titus, a Democrat running to represent Nevada’s 1st Congressional District, are the only recipients of casino money in those districts, because their races are not considered competitive.

But in the two districts where a race is on, the contributions also are pretty one-sided.

In the 3rd Congressional District, Republican Rep. Joe Heck pulled in $67,750 from MGM, Station, Boyd and Caesars, with an additional $55,000 from Wynn and Sands. Democratic challenger John Oceguera, meanwhile, has eked out only $6,700 from their PACs, according to the OpenSecrets ledger of each political action committee’s disbursements (an itemized list of individual contributors from the casinos was not immediately available).

That could be explained by poll numbers — Heck has been polling ahead of Oceguera for the duration of the campaign and is heavily favored to win. But in the 4th Congressional District, casinos are bucking the wisdom that playing it safe by supporting both sides is the smart way to go.

Station Casinos is the only one of the big Las Vegas outfits where some combination of the PAC and top executives are giving money to Republican Danny Tarkanian and Democrat Steven Horsford: The Federal Election Commission tallied $5,000 for Tarkanian and show Station CFO Marc Falcone and chief development officer Scott Nielson contributing $2,000 each to Horsford.

Boyd and MGM are supporting Horsford with $48,000 — MGM’s second-highest contribution after Berkley. But Caesars is betting on Tarkanian alone, with $9,999 in contributions.

It’s an illustration of how much of this can come down to personal relationships — and settling old scores. Horsford incurred Caesars’ wrath during the 2011 legislative session when he scuttled the casino’s efforts to pass a tax to fund the construction of an arena.

“Caesars is (mad) about the arena. They were going to back whomever went against (Horsford),” Damore explained. “What do you think? It’s a town with, like, 10 people in it. It’s a small group of people who have been operating together for a long period of time.”

Lobbyists’ donations to Nevada candidates this cycle have been almost singularly focused on the state Senate race.

At last count, Heller’s campaign drew about $13,500 from paid Las Vegas casino lobbyists, most of it given in the last quarter of 2011. Berkley pulled $8,000 — less than Heller, but then again, she wasn’t the sitting senator who could have potentially been the key to an online poker bill.

As the final pre-election donation figures are processed and released, those numbers are expected to rise — but few experts believe casinos’ proportional giving will change. With so much political parity, one might wonder what, exactly, is the point of pumping all this money through campaigns and congressional offices. Experts point to the history of the casino to explain that it’s to keep the peace with Washington, rather than scoring a political victory.

“Politicians don’t hold a grudge (if you give to their opponent). What politicians resent is if you don’t give them any money,” Peplowski said. “After casinos became corporations and went legit ... they decided to spread the money around because the last thing in the world they want is any kind of federal meddling with gaming regulations.

“The money they’re giving is one of principle. The casinos are saying: ‘Hey we gave — come talk to us later.’”

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