With no statewide elections at the top of Nevada's 2020 ballot, the frequently bitter and increasingly expensive push to win the state’s swingy 3rd Congressional District has come to consume and define the tug-of-war between Democrats and Republicans to wrest control of the state’s most competitive seats.
Throughout the 2020 election cycle, no Nevada contest has seen as much money flood the field as District 3, where incumbent Democrat Susie Lee — a moderate freshman who won the seat easily in 2018 — is looking to hold her seat against a bid from challenging Republican Dan Rodimer, an ex-professional wrestler turned local businessman who has crafted a campaign around the trappings of his ringside persona and his conservative politics.
With millions of dollars so far pumped into the airwaves, online ads and mailers from both campaigns and a handful of cash-rich outside groups, the most public fights in the race for CD3 have often been less about the issues and more about the candidates themselves.
Lee's most frequent attacks on Rodimer have aimed at his past run-ins with police, and Rodimer has hit back with allegations of what he has called Lee’s self-dealing stemming from federal coronavirus relief earlier this year — all allegations that both candidates have consequently denied or downplayed.
While much of the money has come from outside groups, in particular two super PACs linked to each major party’s House leadership, Lee, herself, has managed to fundraise staggering amounts of campaign cash.
Routinely leading fundraising among all Nevada candidates, Lee cumulatively raised more than $3.2 million through the end of June — the most recent reported campaign finance disclosure — of which more than $2.4 million remained in cash-on-hand.
Though spending reports for the third quarter will not be available until later this week and exact advertising spending remains unclear, Lee’s campaign blanketed the airwaves in attack ads through September, often casting Rodimer as “violent” and “aggressive,” especially in the context of incidents from 2010 and 2018.
In the first incident, in which Rodimer was arrested following an assault at a Florida Waffle House in 2010, charges against him were dropped by prosecutors following his agreement to complete an anger management course. Rodimer has denied wrongdoing since, asserting frequently that the incident did not create a criminal record.
In the second set of incidents, Rodimer’s now-wife, Sarah, called police twice in 2018 in response to alleged actions by the candidate, according to police records first obtained and reported by the Associated Press.
In one call, Sarah Rodimer alleges an incident of domestic violence, while in another made several months later, she alleges her now-husband took $200,000 worth of cash, guns and jewelry from their home. Neither call ended in an arrest and no charges were ever filed.
Rodimer and his wife have since downplayed the calls in an ad placed both on TV and online, saying not only that the first call was simply “a verbal argument, plain and simple,” but also casting an ad from Lee's campaign playing audio from those calls as an outright lie.
Rodimer’s ad did not address the second call alleging theft nor did it deny that the calls took place.
And while Lee has done little traditional campaigning in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, she has instead leaned on her image as an incumbent lawmaker legislating her way through a crisis, touting her work on everything from the early CARES Act and later Democratic-led HEROES Act coronavirus relief packages to securing grant money for Nevada institutions in need.
As one of a smattering of suburban-area moderate Democrats swept into Congress in the “blue wave” of 2018, Lee has also seen a handful of endorsements from unlikely sources. That includes several awards and an endorsement from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — for decades one of the most steadfast boosters of Republican candidates nationwide — and a nod from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which also endorsed President Donald Trump and District 4 Republican hopeful Jim Marchant.
Rodimer, meanwhile, has mounted a campaign against not one, but two opponents: Lee and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Multiple ads run on Facebook and Google by Rodimer’s campaign focus entirely on Pelosi, asking voters to “hit DONATE NOW to stop Nancy Pelosi before it’s too late,” or to hit “thumbs up” to “fire Pelosi.”
In ads that include both Pelosi and Lee, Rodimer’s allegation is often that the latter acts only at the behest of the former, with copy accusing Lee of voting with Pelosi “99 percent of the time,” and with visuals suggesting Lee is a literal puppet — complete with marionette strings held by Pelosi.
That second ad appears to cite a project from the non-profit outlet ProPublica, which allows a comparison between the voting records of any two members of Congress. That comparison does show the pair voted in the same way 99 percent of the time, though comparisons with other Democratic legislators show the pattern is not particularly unusual. The same can also be said for Nevada’s two other Democratic representatives, Rep. Steven Horsford (99 percent similar) and Rep. Dina Titus (100 percent similar).
Of advertising that has taken aim at Lee, almost all of it has centered on a single allegation: That Lee and her husband, Dan, benefitted from a Paycheck Protection Program loan granted to a casino company run by Dan, Full House Resorts, earlier this year.
Lee, alongside every other member of the Nevada congressional delegation, lobbied in April to reverse a sudden policy decision by the Small Business Administration to exclude businesses from federal coronavirus relief if they received more than 33 percent of their revenue from gambling.
The decision was eventually overturned, opening the door for small gaming businesses nationwide to access relief. But following an initial publication of these findings by the Daily Beast in June, Republicans seized on $5.6 million in relief funds granted to Full House Resorts as a result of the change, claiming that Lee’s stock holdings in the company presented a direct conflict of interest.
Lee has denied any wrongdoing on her part and distanced herself from any decision-making by either her husband or Full House Resorts, telling The Nevada Independent in July that she was “doing my job” by lobbying for the change in the midst of a crisis, even if the policy in question coincided with her own interests.
In the money race, campaign finance reports through June show that Rodimer has significantly lagged Lee in fundraising, with just under $890,000 raised overall and with a little more than $254,000 cash on hand.
Without campaign finance reports for the third quarter, the state of Rodimer’s campaign war chest remains unclear. However, Rodimer’s campaign push into the final days of the election has seen a clear boost from Republican leadership. That includes the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC linked to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy that earlier this year booked roughly $1.9 million in advertising spending in the final weeks of the election.
Still, even with the extra push of party cash, Rodimer entered the TV market relatively late. Lagging Lee and Democratically aligned PACs by roughly two weeks in September, Rodimer also spent big on at least one ad that does little else but downplay another ad by Lee’s campaign that plays excerpts of the aforementioned 911 calls.
Rodimer has otherwise sought to play up his conservative credentials in tandem with his image as a wrestler. Branding himself as “Big Dan” during the primary, he has since leaned on a fundraising tagline that voting him into office will mean “taking a folding chair to the establishment."
Praised by Trump and Vice President Mike Pence during their swings through the silver state and endorsed by the likes of Minority Leader McCarthy and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Rodimer also emerged early in the 2020 cycle as the preferred candidate of Republican leadership and the new GOP establishment built in the four years of the Trump presidency.
On the issues, Rodimer has largely followed in the fold of the wider GOP, calling for, among other things, increased border security, greater 2nd Amendment protections and limits on abortions.
In the midst of a chaotic 2020, he has also leaned heavily on a pro-police message and sought to tie Lee to efforts by liberal activists this summer to defund police departments in the wake of the George Floyd protests. Rodimer was endorsed by a number of the state’s police unions in August, and has since leaned on those nods as proof-positive of his law-and-order position.
However, Nevada police departments — including the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department — are funded by state and local governments, and neither Lee nor Rodimer would have final say over such local jurisdictions as low-ranking members of the House.
Lee, meanwhile, has touted her own bipartisan efforts as a sitting member of the House, including a prominent role as a member of the bipartisan “Problem Solvers Caucus.”
Aside from supporting tentpole-Democratic initiatives such as the HEROES Act or other federal coronavirus relief plans, Lee has otherwise focused on education as a key issue. In her time on Capitol Hill, she has frequently criticized the policies of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and, even after entering Congress, campaigned on her prior work as chief of the non-profit Communities in School of Nevada, which sought to reduce dropout rates.
District 3 at a glance
First carved out in 2001, District 3 encompasses much of the southern half of Clark County, including a number of the Las Vegas metro’s wealthiest suburbs.
Wealthier, whiter and historically more Republican than Clark County’s other congressional districts, District 3 remained a GOP stronghold until 2008, when state Sen. Dina Titus won the seat off the coattails of then-candidate Barack Obama. Titus was later defeated in the “red wave” of 2010 by Republican Joe Heck, who would hold the seat until a Senate bid of his own in 2016.
It was then, in the midst of a chaotic presidential election that defined down-ballot races, that political newcomer Jacky Rosen flipped the open seat for the Democratic Party, defeating perennial Republican Danny Tarkanian by about 1 percentage point.
And though Hillary Clinton would go on to win Nevada at large by roughly 2.4 points, it was Republican Donald Trump who carried District 3 by a margin of roughly 1 percentage point.
That 2016 result has so far driven Republican hopes to flip the district in 2020, especially in the face of a near-landslide victory for Lee in her bid for the seat in 2018. Facing off against Tarkanian, Lee won the open seat — vacated by Rosen for her own Senate bid — by about 9 percentage points.
Still, outside observers have generally forecast a Democratic advantage in District 3, even as polling data remains scarce. The Cook Political Report rates the district as Lean Democratic, while FiveThirtyEight and the University of Virginia Center for Politics rate the race as Likely Democratic.