Las Vegas Sun

January 22, 2018

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election 2012:

Campaign bickering over online poker aimed at donors, not voters


Steve Marcus

Sen. Dean Heller, Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Shelley Berkley applaud during a Memorial Day ceremony at the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City Monday, May 30, 2011.

There’s no question that the timing of the latest online poker spat between Sens. Harry Reid and Dean Heller was engineered to explode in the last precious weeks before an election that’s shaping up to be a tight race between Heller and his Democratic opponent, Shelley Berkley.

Whether the voters actually are paying attention, though, is open to speculation.

“It’s not a great issue to move votes because this is really an insider’s game,” said Eric Herzik, a professor of political science at UNR. “Online gaming is not really something the average person is following, so I don’t think this is a big issue right now for the voters.”

The evidence — or lack thereof — from the campaign trail tells the same story: Berkley has no ads up about online poker, and while she brings up the topic at some campaign events, she is mostly steering clear of getting personally involved in the Reid-Heller showdown.

But the public spat between Heller and Reid doesn’t appear to be aimed at moving votes, per se. Instead, it’s more likely about moving dollars — casino dollars that the candidates could then use to fuel other parts of their campaigns.

It’s not clear how well that venture is going to work either.

"There's not a person at my company or any company I'm aware of that hasn't maxed out ... under their donation limit," said Mike Sloan, a lobbyist with Fertitta Entertainment, the parent company of Station Casinos, speculating that the fireworks between Reid and Heller were "more about finger-pointing to see who would take the blame if [a poker bill] didn't happen."

“We’re pretty much done with our fundraising,” Caesars Entertainment lobbyist Jan Jones told the Sun in an interview Wednesday. “I think it’s fatigue. There’s no particular reason, it’s just ...”

Jones trailed off. Less money to go around?

“Exactly,” Jones said.

The casino and gaming lobby has historically been one of the most generous and crucial financial backers of Nevada candidates. MGM Resorts International was Reid’s single largest donor in 2010, closely followed by Caesars and Station Casinos, with Boyd Gaming not to far behind. Together, they helped Reid defeat Sharron Angle and sent him back to Washington with a mandate to complete work on the online poker bill.

This election cycle, those casinos are hedging their bets.

Berkley is pulling more than Heller from the state’s biggest gamers, but not much more, according to reported campaign contributions.

MGM Resorts has given her, through individual donations and the company’s political action committee, $53,700 while Heller has secured $35,000, according to a compilation by the Center for Responsive Politics. Caesars has given $26,000 to Berkley and $15,250 to Heller. Station has given Berkley $20,200 and $17,500 to Heller, and Boyd has given Berkley $18,000 and Heller $10,000 from its PAC.

Heller received $18,000 from the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which also has a stake in online poker. Berkley received $16,000 from the UFC. Heller also received a combined $66,250 in contributions from pro-Republican Las Vegas Sands, owned by Sheldon Adelson, and Steve Wynn’s Wynn Resorts. Neither company contributed to Berkley.

With those contributions, Heller has slightly more gaming money overall than Berkley.

But so far, the casino industry seems to be pouring a little less into 2012 politics than in cycles past, which is somewhat unexpected from an industry bent on pushing an online poker bill. The only casino magnate working to set a pace for political contributions this year is Adelson, who opposes the bill.

Part of that may be due to the industry’s financial constraints. Most casinos in Nevada are still hurting from the financial crisis: This month, Fitch Ratings Service went so far as to downgrade Caesars Entertainment and suggest it might be ripe to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Online poker is an important element of the casinos’ financial portfolio, but it’s not the only item on the list, which is why it may not be worth betting the farm on any one candidate the gamers think could get it across the finish line.

“We have to look to the long term,” Jones said. Online poker "is certainly a significant issue to our industry, but it’s not going to be the only issue that impacts our industry. You always have to be looking toward long-term relationships, not short-term outcomes.”

The drop in casino contributions also may be due to the electoral moment. Third-quarter fundraising figures — which will show how much extra coin the candidates could shake out of casinos in July, August and September — have yet to be released.

Even those figures might not tell the whole story.

“I think you’ll see an uptick in the last quarter,” Herzik said, referring to a period from which contributions won’t be made public until after the election. “That’s where you’ll see the effect of Harry Reid’s shot across the bow on online gaming.”

Herzik suspects the gaming outfits would step up to the plate with more cash for the candidates. But he doubted that, save for in the case of Adelson and Wynn, Reid’s anti-Heller message on poker would much swing those dollars to the left.

“They’re going to be more balanced in their giving this cycle,” he said. “They’re betting with their heads, not their hearts, and that’s why you’re seeing more balanced contributions.”

But there’s another element at play, as well: The timetables don’t match.

It’s always been unlikely that Congress would take up online poker before the election. Instead, the issue is expected to come up during the lame duck period after the election but before the new Congress is sworn in.

Reid, however, sees it as an easy political target.

“This is certainly good politics by Harry Reid. It puts Heller in a bad spot,” Herzik said. “Then Heller’s the one who has to answer the questions, not Reid.”

Still, Reid is not the only one trying to make the case that online poker can matter during the election, even if it will be too late to do anything about it once the candidates elected take office.

Heller’s former chief of staff, Mac Abrams, now in charge of the senator’s campaign, has argued that re-electing Heller is crucial if poker is to stand a chance during the lame duck — not least because a re-elected senator always has more power than a lame-duck senator.

“You need a Republican to convince other Republicans to get this done. ... He is probably the most relevant person in this process,” Abrams said last week.

A spokeswoman for Heller did not return a request Wednesday to comment on this story; a spokeswoman for Berkley declined to comment on the record.

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