Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Nevada Democrats are out to prevent a repeat of the massacre they suffered in 2014, when Republicans gained control of the state Legislature and swept the state offices.
Political observers say that's one of the takeaways from campaign finance disclosures filed last week by candidates for this year's election.
The filings shed some light on where candidates are positioning themselves. They reveal who is receiving money and from whom and where those financial resources are devoted. They show who might be trying to edge ahead in a primary or general election or scare potential opponents off with high fundraising numbers. They also offer a glimpse into where support for several ballot initiatives might be come November.
There’s a lot the numbers say, but more that they don’t. Here are some key findings from the hundreds of filings submitted by candidates.
Democrats rake in more money than the GOP in Nevada
The state Democratic Party raised almost twice the amount that the GOP collected last year — $874,000 to $442,000.
Those numbers don't take into account funds raised by the parties' Assembly and Senate caucus funds, which are recorded separately from donations to individual candidates or to the parties at large. The Democrats' Assembly and Senate caucuses collected $347,000 and $270,000, respectively. Those numbers far outstripped donations to the Republicans' Assembly and Senate caucuses — $24,000 and $84,000, respectively. (The totals only include contributions in excess of $1,000, and amounts less than that are not included under total contributions.)
Those numbers reflect a strong push by Democrats in the wake of a Republican sweep in the 2014 election, when the GOP gained control of the state Legislature and all state offices, said Fred Lokken, a political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College.
“Frankly, given the legislative session, given the election of November 2014, given that Harry Reid is stepping down, this is not a year he wants to see his heir apparent or any other Democrat to do poorly,” Lokken said.
By contrast, Lokken said the challenge for Republicans was to mend a fractured party, exemplified best by the recent spat between Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison and Attorney General Adam Laxalt over a lawsuit in support of the state’s school choice program.
Fundraising wars in battle for control of the Senate
Democrats will seek to regain an edge in the state Senate, after losing the majority to Republicans in 2014. Of the 10 seats up for grabs, Democrats currently occupy six and will seek to keep those seats. They are also making a play for state Senate District 6, where the Republican incumbent will not seek re-election and Democrats lead in voter registration in the district.
Some of the Senate districts will see contested elections against incumbents seeking re-election or to fill a void where an incumbent has chosen not to run again. Here’s a look at the finances in some of those races:
In District 5, Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse raised $135,000 while her Republican-endorsed challenger, Carrie Buck, brought in $79,000.
In District 6, Republican Sen. Mark Lipparelli has indicated that he will not seek another term in the office. Instead, the party is backing Assemblyman Erv Nelson in his run for the seat. Nelson has raised $121,000, while the Democratic-backed candidate, Nicole Cannizzaro, has brought in $101,000. Republican Assemblywoman Victoria Seaman, who will challenge Nelson in a Republican primary, has raised $89,000.
In Senate District 15, Republican Sen. Greg Brower also will not seek another term. Former Republican Assemblywoman Heidi Gansert has raised $162,000 in her run for his seat. Nevada brothel owner Dennis Hof said he would seek for the seat as a Libertarian, though Hof has not yet filed campaign finance reports. Democrats do not have a candidate in the district.
Significant show of support for incumbents on the Clark County Commission
Four county commissioners up for re-election this year raked in $270,000 to nearly $1.8 million to keep their seats safe.
Commissioners Larry Brown and Lawrence Weekly brought in $312,000 and $273,000, respectively, in what Lokken called “a typical war chest for a well-funded candidate going into the fall campaign.”
Commissioner Marilyn Kirkpatrick, who was appointed to the commission in August after Tom Collins resigned his post, brought in $612,000 in an effort to ward off her challenger, Las Vegas City Councilman Steve Ross. Ross had announced a 2016 run for the seat before Kirkpatrick was appointed to the commission and raised $528,000 last year. Lokken called those numbers “very large for this point in time” and said with that much money early on, there’s the potential for a “very bloody” commission race.
Those numbers pale in comparison to the amount raised by Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak in 2015 — $1.78 million, more than what the other three incumbents and Ross raised combined. Lokken called that “overkill” for a commission seat and surmised that Sisolak may be building relationships with the donors he would need for a 2018 run for governor.
Campaign contributions may foreshadow future gubernatorial runs
Other politicians also may be looking to 2018, when Gov. Brian Sandoval is term limited and leaves the seat.
Laxalt and Hutchison are not up for election this year. However, their contributions this year position them well to help out other Republican candidates as well as angle for future runs for governor. Hutchison brought in $414,000 in direct contributions, while Laxalt collected $365,000.
“Both are ambitious and represent different parts of the party,” Eric Herzik, UNR political science department chairman. “With the money they raised, a good way to gain future support is to help other Republicans and keep some for yourself.”
Sisolak’s $1.78 million also positions him well for a Democratic gubernatorial run. He declined to run against Sandoval in 2014, saying he wanted to focus on leading the commission and noting it would be hard to catch up to Sandoval’s fundraising numbers.
“I think he sized up the 2014 situation very shrewdly and is going to save his push for what would be probably a more promising election in 2018,” Herzik said.
Early war chest for the background check initiative
Supporters of an initiative to require background checks in the sale of guns outside of a licensed gun dealer raised $1.16 million last year.
A significant portion of that money comes from the national organization Everytown For Gun Safety, which contributed $535,000 in cash to the initiative and $300,000 in staff time, consulting expenses and other campaign support.
NRA Nevadans for Freedom, which opposes the initiative, has raised $44,000.
But the issue of gun control is so divisive that money may not be decisive in that vote, Herzik said.
“Money by gun control advocates has not proven to be as effective by money by pro-gun advocates,” Herzik said. “The intensity of feeling is so much greater by the pro-gun lobby.”
Money in support of marijuana
Political observers are much more optimistic about the fate of another ballot initiative, which would legalize recreational marijuana in the state.
The coalition supporting the initiative raised $125,000 in 2015 — $25,000 each from five different medical marijuana businesses operating in the state. Another group affiliated with the Marijuana Policy Project brought in $1,500.
An opposition group, called Coalition Against Legalizing Maijuana (sic), raised no money last year, according to its campaign filing.
Herzik said those in favor of legalizing marijuana would need more money to get the word out about their campaign, but the lack of a well-organized opposition could position the initiative for success.
Shortcomings to campaign financial disclosures
Though the reports offer a glimpse into the world of Nevada politics, observers have long criticized the amount of transparency they provide.
Nevada was given an F for public integrity last fall by the Center for Public Integrity, including a flunking grade in the category of political financing.
“I would rate the quality of our finance reporting at 1950s levels when the mob controlled the state. It hasn’t really improved from that,” Lokken said. “There’s so much transparency that is needed.”
Notably, candidates do not have to report cash on hand in their contribution and expenditure reports, which makes it difficult to tell how much is saved in the bank. Groups unaffiliated with any candidate or political committee also do not have to disclose any money they are spending in an election.
The next time that candidates are required to disclose campaign contributions and expenses is May 24, three weeks before the primary election on June 14.