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September 20, 2019

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Tea leaves: Financial reports offer glimpse at how Nevada elections are shaping up

Legislature Opening Day

Lance Iversen / AP

Nevada state senators take the oath of office during the opening session of the Nevada Legislature on Monday, Feb. 2, 2015, in Carson City. Democrats controlled the Senate before the 2014 election, when they lost it amid a Republican surge. This year, Democrats are making a strong fundraising push in an effort to regain control.

Republican Assembly incumbents stockpiling for the primary, Senate Democrats saving significant sums for the general, and big-dollar donors pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into would-be ballot measures.

Those are a few takeaways from campaign finance reports that were due by the end of the day on Tuesday, the first peek into the financial underpinnings of the election since early January. The reports cover contributions and expenditures from Jan. 1 to May 20.

As one political observer put it, the filings are the first tea leaves of the election, offering an initial sense of how the June primary might play out and the first inklings of what could happen in November. They also provide a temperature check on how several measures that haven't qualified for the ballot are faring ahead of their June 21 deadline.

Among the story lines that emerged from the reports:

Republicans taking anti-tax challengers seriously

Republican Assembly incumbents who voted for the governor’s $1.4 billion tax package have raised sizeable sums across the board in an effort to keep their seats safe during the primary elections. In most cases, they raised several times more than their anti-tax opponents did.

Assemblyman Stephen Silberkraus, for instance, has raised $58,000 over the last few months in his re-election bid in Assembly District 29, in an effort to fend off challenger Amy Groves, who brought in $14,000. The $134,000 that Assemblyman James Oscarson raised in Assembly District 36 was 15 times more than that raised by his primary challenger, Tina Trenner.

Assembly Majority Leader Paul Anderson raised $112,000, more than eight times what his anti-tax challenger, Steve Sanson, collected for his challenge in Assembly District 13. Anderson also raised an additional $144,000 through his Growth and Opportunity PAC to support its endorsed candidates, which include many Republican incumbents.

Other races were closer. District 23 Assemblywoman Melissa Woodbury raised $26,000 to challenger Swadeep Nigam’s $21,000.

The fundraising battles between the non-incumbent candidates endorsed by Anderson’s PAC and the anti-tax candidates also were generally tighter.

One example is Assembly District 26, where Jason Guinasso, endorsed by the PAC, raised $66,000 while his anti-tax opponent Lisa Krasner raised $51,000. In Assembly District 35, where Anderson’s PAC is trying to oust anti-tax incumbent Brent Jones, the PAC’s candidate Tiffany Jones brought in $27,000 to Brent Jones’s $28,000.

At the same time, Gov. Brian Sandoval’s New Nevada PAC has raised $428,000 this year.

Political observers agree that the numbers show the governor is following through on his promise to protect candidates who voted for the tax package.

“This isn’t rocket science,” said Fred Lokken, a professor of political science at Truckee Meadows Community College. “When you’re going against the most conservative members of your party, I think it’s a promise being carried out with aggressive fundraising to make sure they have the money they need.”

Senate Democrats bring in considerable haul

The six Democratic senators running for re-election collectively raised $780,000, and their caucus raised another $150,000. After losing control of the state Senate in 2014 amid a Republican surge, the Democrats are trying to retake it.

The top fundraisers were Senate Minority Leader Aaron Ford, who raked in $187,000 for his re-election bid in Senate District 11, and state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, who raised $176,000 for her race in Senate District 5. Woodhouse is the only one of the six who faces a serious challenge in her re-election bid, though her Republican caucus-endorsed challenger, Carrie Buck, a principal at a charter school in Henderson, has only raised $40,000 so far.

“(Buck) needs to pick it up, but she’s got time,” said David Damore, a political science professor at UNLV. “It’s always tough for first-time candidates.”

In two contested districts, each of which has a Republican primary, the Democratic caucus-endorsed candidates outraised all of their Republican opponents.

In Senate District 6, Erv Nelson is squaring off against Victoria Seaman in a race that has largely split the two over their opposing votes on the tax package while serving in the Assembly last session. (Nelson voted for it, while Seaman voted against.) Filings show that Nelson raised $96,000, while Seaman brought in $65,000. Meanwhile, Democrat Nicole Cannizzaro raised $103,000.

The only race in which a Democratic Senate candidate raised less than a Republican opponent was in District 18, where Democrat Alexander Marks is challenging the Republican incumbent Scott Hammond. Hammond raised $88,000 to Marks’ $48,000.

Reports reveal major backers, money spent in energy ballot measures

The campaign filings also confirmed speculation that Las Vegas Sands is the primary backer of the Energy Choice Initiative, an effort to break up NV Energy’s monopoly.

The reports show that Sands contributed $500,000 to the PAC behind the initiative, with MGM Resorts contributing another $10,000. Sands had previously declined to say whether it was involved with the initiative. Although Sands recently abandoned its efforts to leave NV Energy, MGM is continuing with the exit process.

The reports also show that SolarCity has spent $2.1 million on a referendum that would restore rates for rooftop solar customers. Although SolarCity has long been the primary advocate of the ballot measure, campaign filings reveal that the company is the only named financial backer of the effort, contributing $1.7 million directly to the measure and another $400,000 in in-kind contributions.

It’s a significant sum to spend on a ballot measure, but not for what SolarCity sees as a high-stakes battle, Lokken said. However, there’s still a chance that the issue could be fixed during the 2017 legislative session — especially with a recent cooling of tensions between the solar industry and Gov. Brian Sandoval — regardless of what happens at the ballot box, he added.

Meanwhile, the main group opposing the initiative, Citizens for Solar and Energy Fairness PAC, is primarily funded by NV Energy, which contributed $930,000 of a reported $1 million raised this year.

Both initiatives have yet to qualify for the November ballot and need 55,000 signatures before June 21.

Early money for background check initiative

Campaign finance reports show that the battle over the firearms background check initiative is shaping up as a fight with the National Rifle Association on one side and the national group Everytown for Gun Safety and the major resorts on the other. The initiative, which has already qualified to appear on the ballot, would require universal background checks on gun purchases.

Proponents of the background check initiative raised $817,000 this year after bringing in $1.2 million last year. A significant portion of that money, $561,000, came from Everytown, in the form of contributions, staff support and other expenses. Everytown also was the biggest contributor to the group, called Nevadans for Background Checks, last year.

Filings also show that MGM Resorts donated $25,000 toward the effort. Wynn Resorts donated $50,000 last year and Caesars donated $25,000.

By contrast, the NRA has been funding a PAC called NRA Nevadans for Freedom. That group brought in $140,000 in contributions this year, all in the form of contributions, staff time and other support directly from the NRA.

“At this point in time, I’m assuming the (NRA doesn’t) think it’s a threat,” Lokken said. “Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, you’re a gun owner in the state of Nevada.”

Still, the NRA launched a website called a couple of weeks ago to oppose the background check initiative.

Slow start for marijuana

The money in support of legalizing recreational marijuana in Nevada has been relatively scarce compared to other ballot initiatives. But like the background check initiative, the recreational marijuana issue has already qualified for the ballot.

The main group backing the ballot measure, the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, reported $137,000 in contributions so far this year. A second group reported raising $23,000.

The Coalition Against Legalizing Marijuana, which opposes the ballot measure, again reported no contributions so far this year, the same as last year.

But the little money in this initiative so far might not end up being a problem, political observers say.

“There’s such a shift on marijuana in public opinion that (opponents) are really fighting an uphill battle,” Damore said. “California’s going to get it, Oregon’s going to get it. All the operators in town are waiting for this to happen.”

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