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June 17, 2019

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Republican House primary gets uglier with glut of dark-money ads

Updated Saturday, June 11, 2016 | 4:48 p.m.

Southern Nevada residents will have a hard time escaping the ugliness of the Republican primary in the 3rd Congressional District over the next few days, as commercials slamming "two-faced Michael Roberson" and "Dirty Danny" blanket the airwaves just before Election Day.

The already-feisty race for the open seat took a bitter turn this week when a dark-money group dumped nearly $1.6 million into ads for the race. The money, which came from a 501(c)4 organization called Ending Spending that's affiliated with Wyoming billionaire Joe Ricketts but hasn't disclosed its donors, includes $508,000 to promote state Sen. Michael Roberson, $767,000 to oppose businessman Danny Tarkanian and $280,000 to stop Assemblywoman Michele Fiore.

"This looks desperate, and I think it will look desperate to voters," said Tarkanian campaign manager James Fisfis, noting that the spending level roughly matches all contributions that his candidate and Roberson have raised in the past year. "It's over the top. That's how voters are going to take it."

Tarkanian's campaign has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission arguing the group isn't properly disclosing its donors, although it's unlikely the matter will be addressed before Tuesday's election. Lawyer Charles Spies, representing Ending Spending, said the group was fully compliant with FEC rules and called Tarkanian's complaint a sign of desperation.

The candidates are vying for a chance to replace U.S. Senate candidate and three-term Republican Rep. Joe Heck in the district, which includes Henderson and Summerlin and is divided nearly evenly between Democrats and Republicans. Their first order of business is wooing Republican primary voters, a group that's more tax-averse than the voting pool they'd face in November.

That spells opportunity for Tarkanian, a businessman who's made five unsuccessful bids for public office in the past 12 years and is the son of late, legendary UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian. He's attacked Roberson for previously pledging not to raise taxes but then shepherding a $1.4 billion package of new and extended taxes through the Republican-dominated Legislature in 2015.

"Double-dealing politician Michael Roberson couldn't tell the truth if it hit him in the head," says one Tarkanian ad that started running as early voting got underway.

The organization Americans for Tax Reform has listed Roberson as a supporter of its Taxpayer Protection Pledge as late as 2014, when he was finishing out his first term. In his second term, when he held the influential Senate Majority Leader post, he led a successful effort to pass a tax package backed by Gov. Brian Sandoval and more than two-thirds of lawmakers.

The additional tax money allowed Nevada to create a slate of education initiatives aimed at improving the state's bottom-ranking school system, including expanded full-day kindergarten, more services for schools with large numbers of poor students and English language learners and bonus pay incentives to stave off a teacher shortage.

Commercials running in the Las Vegas area feature Sandoval — the popular governor who tops Roberson's list of weighty endorsements — and tout Roberson as a tax cutter and reformer during his past six years in the Nevada Legislature. They don't mention the tax package or money for at-risk schools and focus mainly on budget cuts from the 2011 session, when recession-riddled Nevada was slashing costs to stay afloat, and measures from 2015 that aim to limit collective bargaining and cut public pensions costs.

Meanwhile, Roberson's campaign and Ending Spending are attacking Tarkanian, highlighting a $17 million judgment levied against him when a real estate deal went south. Tarkanian declared bankruptcy and ultimately settled the case for about half a million dollars.

"Everywhere Danny Tarkanian goes, scandal follows," said the ad paid for by Ending Spending. "Dirty Danny Tarkanian. The last thing we need in DC."

Then there's the ad that brings up Tarkanian's work as a registered agent for a company whose director was convicted of defrauding elderly victims. Tarkanian's campaign sent a cease and desist letter urging TV stations to pull the spot, saying a previous campaign opponent who brought up the matter was successfully sued for defamation, but the letter itself can't compel stations to do so.

"Danny Tarkanian is desperate to keep this information from voters, but his last minute attempts to hide this will not work," said Roberson campaign official Jeremy Hughes, noting that other campaign opponents have used the attack but weren't successfully sued. "It hasn't in the past and it won't now."

Democrats, who are running a more subdued primary for the seat, appear to be reveling in the fight that could damage Republicans ahead of the general election. They say the deluge of ads suggests the more moderate Roberson is behind in the race and panicking.

"If Republican Senate boss Michael Roberson somehow survives this primary fight, it will be because out-of-state special interests dragged his flailing candidacy across the finish line," Nevada State Democratic Party spokesman Stewart Boss said.

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