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Big pharma, big bucks: Analyzing how (and why) the industry donates to Nevada politicians

Access to powerful politicians drives industry spending, while prominent pharma legislation can temporarily affect contributions, experts say.
Eric Neugeboren
Eric Neugeboren
Campaign FinanceState Government

Nevada Republicans received significantly more money from the pharmaceutical industry last year than Democrats, with Gov. Joe Lombardo making up the majority of his party’s haul, according to a Nevada Independent analysis of campaign finance data.

Republican candidates and the party’s affiliated PACs received more than $140,000 from the industry last year — much more than they did in 2022 — while Democrats received around $29,000, around one-tenth of the party’s haul the year before.

Democrats are quick to link the donations to Lombardo’s veto of a bill last year aimed at expanding prescription drug price negotiation that the industry strongly opposed.

But it isn’t that simple.

The Nevada Independent spoke with two state campaign finance experts and analyzed the pharmaceutical sector’s history of political contributions in Nevada since the beginning of 2017, a year that saw the Legislature pass historic insulin pricing transparency legislation and a corresponding surge in industry donations and political activity.

The analysis found that donations often go to politicians who are key to health policymaking — governors, party leadership and health committee members — that money from the industry depends greatly on the governor’s party and that Republicans have received more money from the sector. There can sometimes be a short-lived contribution response as a result of legislative actions, though rarely lasting more than one election cycle, and access to politicians drives spending more than any particular policy agenda.

The pharmaceutical industry, which develops over-the-counter and prescription drugs, consistently ranks among the highest political spenders in the federal government through its lobbying on topics such as drug availability and prescription drug pricing. Its political spending boomed during the pandemic, with the industry responsible for developing vaccines and other treatments to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

In Nevada, the industry plays a prominent role in the fight over a wide variety of health policies —  three of the past four legislative sessions saw the industry active in bills aimed at lowering drug costs and increasing drug price transparency.

In last year’s session, the industry worked on six bills that addressed issues such as prohibiting doctors from receiving certain gifts from the industry and the destruction of unused drugs, a state lobbyist, who asked to not be identified to candidly discuss lobbying matters and who represents pharmaceutical companies, told The Nevada Independent.

Since 2017, the industry — defined in this story as more than 20 pharmaceutical companies including CVS, Walgreens and Pfizer — has poured nearly $7.5 million into the coffers of political candidates and committees (a total greater than what typically well-funded personal injury law firms gave over the same time period).

Nonpartisan groups (namely a PAC funded by the industry's top lobbying firm that supports both parties) received the most money, followed closely by GOP candidates and committees, which had nearly double the haul of Democrats since 2017. On the federal level, the partisan split is more even.

By far the largest contributor is the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), an industry trade group responsible for around 60 percent of industry spending in the Silver State and also has its own Nevada PAC that has supported candidates and committees of both parties.

In a statement, PhRMA spokesperson Reid Porter said that “we may not agree on every issue, but we believe engagement and dialogue is important to promoting a health care policy environment that supports innovation, a highly-skilled workforce and access to life-saving medicines.”

Connection between legislation, donations?

Introduced in the 2023 legislative session, AB250 was designed for Nevada to piggyback off the federal Inflation Reduction Act — which allowed Medicare to negotiate the price of prescription drugs — by applying those price caps statewide, not just to those on Medicare. 

The pharmaceutical industry staunchly opposed the legislation for seeking to adopt federal price caps without state-level reviews. The bill passed the Legislature with Republicans opposed, and Lombardo vetoed the legislation while citing many arguments made by the industry.

Months later in late 2023, Lombardo received and one of his associated PACs received more than $80,000 in political donations from groups that opposed the drug pricing legislation after receiving minimal support from the industry while he was running for governor the prior year. 

In a statement, the Nevada Democratic Party linked the veto to the donations — accusing the Republican governor of being “beholden to them when he vetoed [the] legislation and then raked in campaign cash from pharmaceutical companies." 

A spokesperson for Lombardo did not respond to a request for comment.

However, campaign finance experts say that contributions from industries such as pharma tend to be more about access than about buying support.

Jeremy Gelman, a political science professor at UNR, said industries donate to candidates for two main reasons: To support allies with like-minded policy goals, and to get a foot in the door with powerful lawmakers or other elected officials.

“Lombardo is going to be in office for three more years after this happened, and the pharmaceutical industry needs to work with the Lombardo administration,” Gelman said. “This would be sort of classic access-seeking behavior, rather than some sort of exchange for the veto.”

Still, actions in the legislative realm can have short-term effects on fundraising.

Take 2017, for example. Democratic legislators were pushing for a bill to rein in the costs of insulin by requiring companies to disclose certain profits and costs associated with the production and sale of diabetes drugs. Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed this legislation before signing a similar bill that he said would better ensure that insulin prices do not increase.

From June to December 2017, Republican legislators and committees received nearly $540,000 from the pharmaceutical industry, according to The Indy’s analysis. The Democrats’ haul over that same time period? Around $15,000.

In 2018, though, industry donations to Democrats ballooned to more than $315,000.

“If Democrats take an action that runs contrary to pharma’s interests, they'll be likely to withhold money,” UNLV political science professor Ken Miller said. “They won't do it very long — industry PACs tend to make a short term statement by holding back donations for a cycle or so — but then they'll come back because they need to maintain these relationships.”

Weeks before the 2017 legislation passed, PhRMA — the industry’s top lobbying firm and main opposition to the 2017 bill  — created a new PAC called the Healthy Nevada PAC. That year, PhRMA poured $455,000 into the PAC, which has supported lawmakers in both parties.

Power of the governor’s party

While specific legislation may not be a key determinant of who receives industry donations, the party of the governor appears to be a much bigger indicator.

The graphic below shows monthly donations from the pharmaceutical industry to party-affiliated candidates and committees.

In 2017 and 2018 — under Sandoval, a Republican — the industry gave almost exclusively to Republicans. 

Then in 2019, the first year of Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak’s administration, the tides shifted. After failing to top 25 percent of the share of partisan campaign donations in 2017 and 2018, Democrats catapulted to more than 80 percent of the industry’s share of donations in 2019, the same year that Sisolak signed a law to increase asthma drug price transparency.  The Democrats’ share of the industry’s partisan donations was nearly three times higher when Sisolak was in office.

Gelman from UNR said this trend is reflective of industry strategy.

“People when they think about campaign donations, they often assume or imagine that they're being used to buy politicians,” Gelman said. “Really, what they often do is getting people who maybe disagree with them, or who haven't thought a lot about an issue to suddenly support the industries giving the donation.”

Sisolak and Lombardo have also been the biggest individual recipients of the industry since 2019, with Sisolak raising more than $110,000 and Lombardo receiving more than $90,000.

Powerful lawmakers have big hauls

While Sisolak and Lombardo have both led their parties in pharmaceutical fundraising, legislators in leadership roles were also among the top recipients.

All five legislators who received at least $30,000 from the pharmaceutical industry since 2017 have held a leadership role in the Legislature. In addition, of the 10 legislators receiving the most money from the industry, six have served in their respective chamber’s Health and Human Services Committee, which is the first body that would consider any legislation related to prescription drugs.

“You're not going to give somebody who sits on the environment and natural resources committee a campaign contribution, because nine times out of 10, there's not going to be conversations,” said the state lobbyist who represents pharmaceutical companies.

UNR’s Gelman said in a state such as Nevada, where there is minimal research and development happening in the pharmaceutical sector, the industry’s overriding goal is to align with those in powerful positions.

“A lot of what they're doing is access seeking through their donations, which is giving money to the people who control the health agendas, pharmaceutical agenda, the drug policy agenda that they care about in the state legislature,” Gelman said.


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