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Casino trade group falters in effort to oust Dem legislators, push moderates

Riley Snyder
Riley Snyder
Election 2022GamingLegislature
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Nevada’s powerful gaming industry has no plans to back down from its deep-pocketed involvement in down-ballot legislative primaries, even after its $1.5 million campaign to boost four candidates saw middling results at the June ballot box. 

Only one of the four candidates backed by the state’s gaming industry — typically one of the largest political contributors to state legislators — won their primary election in June. The three other losses came despite a well-funded campaign backed by the gaming industry, details of which were only revealed after the state’s July 15 campaign finance reporting deadline.

Gaming taxes account for about 17 percent of the state’s general fund revenues — second only to the sales tax. Nevada casinos pay a 6.75 percent tax on gross gaming revenues — the lowest rate in the nation — and the industry recently dodged an attempt to sharply hike that rate through a teacher union-backed ballot measure proposal. 

In late January, the Nevada Resort Association announced the formation of a PAC to support “sensible individuals on both sides of the aisle” who “understand the value of the gaming and resort industry.” It raised more than $2.3 million from members in an effort to “recruit, assess, endorse, and elect state legislative candidates in 2022.”

That PAC in turn transferred $1.5 million to another PAC — Nevada Rising, which was registered with the secretary of state’s office on April 12, between the first and second quarter campaign finance deadlines. That meant it didn’t have to report fundraising or spending figures until nearly a month after the primary election. Nevada Rising also received $25,000 from the Las Vegas Metro Chamber.

Washoe County School Board Trustee Angie Taylor was the only candidate supported by the Nevada Rising PAC to win in the primary election, after defeating teacher union leader Brian Lee in the Assembly District 27 Democratic primary. 

The three other candidates backed by the gaming-funded PAC all lost their bids for office. Two Democratic primary challengers (Chuck Short and Joe Dalia) fell short in efforts to take out a pair of female, Las Vegas-based incumbent Assembly members — Cecelia Gonzalez in District 16 and Lesley Cohen in District 29. The PAC also supported Republican candidate Jacob Williams, who lost the primary to conservative author Sam Kumar in the GOP primary for Reno-based District 25.

The losses haven’t necessarily scared the industry away from continued involvement in legislative races. On Monday, the Nevada Resorts PAC released general election endorsements for 13 Assembly candidates — nine Democrats and four Republicans — and in a statement last week, Nevada Resort Association head Virginia Valentine said the industry PAC will continue to support candidates of either major political party who “respect and champion our state's biggest industry, small businesses and working families. We remain passionately committed to that mission.”

R&R Partners CEO Billy Vassiliadis — a longtime lobbyist for the resort association — was more blunt. 

“This primary is only the beginning,” he said in an interview on Monday. “This PAC is not going away. The resort association is not going away. We're going to continue to seek both candidates and maybe election reform and campaign reform, whatever it takes, to get to a place where well-intentioned, broad-thinking, open-minded people are getting elected to the Legislature.  

“I mean that literally. I'm not talking about gaming fans,” he continued. “We're talking about folks that are willing to sit and listen to a broad set of arguments and not just feel they owe a single constituency their wholehearted, full-throated support without concern or consideration for what those impacts might be.”

Beyond a desire for more moderate candidates, the gaming industry’s insertion into legislative primaries appeared to be driven by a variety of recent heated legislative debates, from the heavily lobbied “Right to Return” bill in 2021 pushed by the Culinary Union to give laid-off gaming and tourism industry workers first dibs on returning to their jobs to the COVID liability bill passed in a 2020 special session.

Vassiliadis said there was no second-guessing about which races the industry PAC got involved in, nor the decision to challenge Democratic incumbents, saying the industry wanted to draw a “line in the sand.” He noted that other business groups, and even some union groups, were likely to also start supporting candidates through the Nevada Rising PAC.

“There’s nothing personal against Assemblywoman Cohen. She seems like a fine person. But at the end of the day, there just seemed to be a wall up when it came to industry issues,” he said.

Cohen declined to comment. Gonzalez did not return an email seeking comment.

Although candidates are prohibited from raising more than $10,000 from a single source every campaign cycle, state-level political action committees are allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money.

And the Nevada Rising PAC spent most of the money raised — burning through $1.49 million, all of which was categorized as advertisements or consultants. It recorded spending at firms across the political spectrum, including more than half a million dollars in advertising spending through Advanced Micro Targeting (a major ballot qualification and voter contact firm whose CEO, Michael Roberson, is a former Republican state senator) and another $353,000 in ad spending to Left Hook, a political consulting and advertising firm that typically works with Democratic candidates and causes. 

According to Facebook’s ad library, the group spent more than $83,000 ahead of the state’s June primary. It also placed television ad reservations in the Reno television market — a rarity in down-ballot state legislative races.

Candidates backed by the PAC also received substantial direct support — a combined $154,000 —  from the gaming industry: 

  • Short, a retired longtime court administrator, raised more than $56,000 in the second quarter, including $46,500 directly from the gaming industry.
  • Taylor raised more than $115,000 in the second quarter, including $44,500 from the gaming industry.
  • Dalia raised $25,500 from the gaming industry in the second quarter, out of nearly $42,000 raised.
  • Williams, who raised just over $68,000 in the second quarter, received $38,500 from businesses affiliated with the gaming industry over that same period.
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