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The Legislature on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020 during the third day of the 32nd Special Session in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Of more than $10.6 million spent on Nevada legislative races in the 2020 cycle, no single group of donors, corporate or otherwise, spent more money than candidates, politicians and political PACs, which combined for more than $1.7 million spread across 61 of the state’s 63 lawmakers.  

That represents an uptick compared to 2018, when the same group of donors gave less than $1.4 million in the aggregate. 

Of these donors, dozens of candidate campaign committees — i.e. the formal fundraising accounts for each individual campaign — combined to be by far the largest single chunk with more than $931,000 contributed. They were followed by political groups and related PACs ($556,000), candidate-linked PACs ($117,500) and loans from candidates to their own campaigns ($113,366).

Broadly speaking, these contributions came in smaller chunks, and no single donor spent more than five figures in combined contributions. And, though the sum of these contributions has increased overall, many individual donors — especially issue-related or politically affiliated PACs — contributed less money than they did in 2018. 

In order to assess broad trends in campaign spending, The Nevada Independent categorized and analyzed more than 7,700 individual contributions of more than $200 made to sitting lawmakers in 2019 and 2020. 

These contributions capture nearly all campaign spending through that period, and more broadly show to whom the largest contributions flowed and how much they were worth overall. 

The data in this story show only part of the broader whole: 978 contributions from 271 unique donors fell under the umbrella of candidate or political PAC contributions. 

There are, however, two legislators not captured in these numbers, both appointed to their seats after the election and after a freeze on legislative contributions. They are Sen. Fabian Donate (D-Las Vegas), who replaced former Sen. Yvanna Cancela following her appointment to a post in the federal Department of Health and Human Services; and Assemblywoman Tracy Brown-May (D-Las Vegas), who replaced former Assemblyman Alexander Assefa after he resigned amid a criminal probe into the misuse of campaign funds and a residency issue. 

No single lawmaker raised nearly as much as Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas), who brought in more than $215,000 from 45 contributors for her highly competitive re-election bid last year. 

Almost half of that money — an even $100,000 — came from just 10 donors giving Cannizzaro the maximum of $10,000 allowed by state campaign finance law. Four of those max-donors — Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), Sen. Roberta Lange (D-Las Vegas), Sen. Marilyn Dondero Loop (D-Las Vegas) and Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) — were fellow legislative Democrats, while the rest came from former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and three more politician-related PACs. 

Those PACs include Gov. Steve Sisolak’s Sandstone PAC, Sen. Jacky Rosen’s Smart Solutions PAC and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s All for Our Country Leadership PAC.

Rounding out the list of top fundraisers are a number of other lawmakers who found themselves in extremely competitive — and consequently extremely expensive — elections. That includes Sen. Heidi Gansert (R-Reno), who raised $147,450; Assemblywoman Heidi Kasama, who raised $147,138, including roughly $119,000 in candidate loans; Sen. Carrie Buck, who raised $130,800; and Sen. Roberta Lange, who raised $113,650. 

All of those top fundraisers received a mix of PAC and campaign committee funds, though only one, Kasama, saw a massive fundraising boost from the addition of candidate loans made to her campaign. For the purposes of this analysis, those loans do not formally make Kasama a “contributor” like other major donors listed below, but still represent a massive influx of campaign cash relative to other campaign contributions. 

The near-$119,000 Kasama loaned her own campaign was so much that, if counted with other donors, it would make her the 10th largest legislative contributor in the entire election, sandwiched between the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association PAC ($119,000) and the public workers’ union AFSCME ($114,500). 

Unlike industry-related spending, contributions made from candidates, candidate PACs or political groups were largely diffuse, with no single donor giving more than five-figures (excluding Kasama’s candidate loans, which do not share the same fundraising role as other contributors listed here). 

Those top donors otherwise include a mix of politicians and issue-focused groups, including Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson with $68,000 contributed; the Humane Society-linked Humane Nevada PAC with $60,500; the Keystone Corporation, a Nevada-based conservative group, with $50,000; and the pro-Democratic Party, pro-abortion rights and pro-women candidates group EMILY’s List with $48,300. 

Below is a breakdown of spending from those top-donors. 

With generally little risk of an election loss in a deep blue district — Frierson has won each of his last three elections by between 16 and 20 percentage points — a non-trivial portion of the speaker’s sizable campaign warchest has, cycle by cycle, trickled down to a number of his fellow Democratic lawmakers. 

In 2020, that included contributions to 10 assembly colleagues and fellow legislative leader Cannizzaro, who received the maximum $10,000 from Frierson’s campaign. 

Other lawmakers receiving that maximum include incumbent Assemblywomen Michelle Gorelow (D-Las Vegas) and Lesley Cohen (D-Henderson), as well as legislative newcomer Elaine Marzola (D-Henderson), with the remaining recipients all receiving $5,000 or less.    

A pro-animal rights PAC linked to the Humane Society, Humane Nevada PAC was unique among top politically affiliated PACs in its contributions to members of both parties. The group gave $60,500 spread across 33 lawmakers last cycle, with $45,500 going to 21 Democrats, and the remaining $15,000 going to 12 Republicans.  

A new PAC to the 2020 cycle — it was created in 2018 but did not spend any money until last year — Humane Nevada’s contributions were also generally small, rarely exceeding a few thousand dollars. Among its recipients, no legislator received the maximum contribution amount and only two — Cannizzaro ($7,500) and Frierson ($5,000) received more than $3,500. 

A Nevada-based non-profit corporation organized in the 1990s around advocating for conservative policy, the Keystone Corporation has since served as a reliable donor for state Republicans. 

In 2020, that amounted to $50,000 spread across 20 Republican lawmakers, all but five members of the Legislature’s Republican caucus. And, as with a number of other major donors, Keystone’s biggest contributions flowed to some of the most competitive races. 

The two biggest recipients were Sen. Carrie Buck (R-Las Vegas) and Assemblyman Andy Matthews (R-Las Vegas), who each received the $10,000 maximum. Four Republicans — Sen. Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas), Assemblyman Richard McArthur (R-Las Vegas), Assemblywoman Jill Dickman (R-Sparks) and Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) — received $5,000, while the remaining 14 received $2,000 or less.     

A national group prioritizing the election of Democratic, pro-abortion women candidates, EMILY’s List is routinely among the top politically affiliated PAC donors in each Nevada election cycle. In 2020, those donations — split across both EMILY’s List and the EMILY’s List NF Fund PAC — amounted to $48,300 across just 10 legislators, all women and all Democrats. 

The four biggest recipients were Cohen ($11,500), Marzola ($10,000), Cannizzaro ($9,900) and Gorelow ($9,900), with the remaining six receiving just $1,500 or less. 

Still, that amount is roughly 37 percent less than EMILY’s list spent in Nevada in 2018, when its $77,000 total made it the spendiest single political group of the entire cycle.   

As part of our Follow the Money series The Nevada Independent will be publishing deep dives over the coming weeks into the industries that dominated legislative campaign spending in the 2020 campaign cycle. To see previous installments, follow the links below: 

Tim Lenard, Riley Snyder and Sean Golonka contributed to this report.

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