CARSON CITY — Just how powerful is the “establishment” when it comes to state politics?
It was nearly unbeatable in Tuesday night in Nevada.
Of the 12 candidates who received endorsements from the respective Republican and Democratic chamber caucuses in open Legislative races, just one failed to earn the party nomination in the primary election.
The Senate Democratic Caucus endorsed four candidates: Marilyn Dondero Loop, Melanie Scheible, Julie Pazina and James Ohrenschall. All four won their primary races with ease, with none of the challengers finishing within 30 percentage points of the party-backed candidates.
And in the six primaries that the Assembly Democratic Caucus weighed in on, five endorsed candidates won. Only Deonne Contine, the former director of the Nevada Department of Taxation, fell short, losing to political newcomer and environmental activist Sarah Peters in the open Assembly District 24 in Reno.
So what makes taking on establishment-backed candidates in local primaries so difficult?
“Money. It’s access to money,” said Lisa Mayo-DeRiso, a Republican campaign consultant.
Getting party endorsements comes with several perks — most important being plugged into the network of campaign donors. That’s why most of those 12 endorsed candidates significantly outraised their primary opponents, and that often makes a difference in races that can be decided by fewer than 4,000 voters.
Candidates without the big endorsement trying to find donors willing to open their checkbooks can be like wandering through the desert in hopes of finding a waterfall.
Mayo-DeRiso pointed to the Senate District 20 Republican primary between Keith Pickard and Byron Brooks, whose campaign she worked on. She said that once Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson and the GOP Senate caucus formally endorsed Pickard, it became virtually impossible for Brooks to raise money.
“It became just a big, dark black hole of no responses,” she said.
And those who did respond said that because Roberson was backing Pickard, Pickard was getting their financial support.
For the donors, it’s a bit of a wager. Many are businesses or lobbyists who regularly appear before the Legislature, and giving money to someone challenging the establishment could be seen as an insult when the next session rolls around.
In the end, Brooks, whose campaign was mostly self-funded, spent just $23,000 compared with $108,000 spent by Pickard in the race.
The only candidate who was endorsed by the party caucus who was was both outraised and outspent by her opponent was Republican Valerie Weber in the race for Senate District 8 in Las Vegas.
Weber raised $102,000, including $10,000 from the Republican caucus. But her opponent, Daniel Rodimer, nearly doubled Weber’s campaign total thanks mostly to the former professional wrestler infusing more than $150,000 of his own money into the campaign.
But despite outraising and outspending Weber, Rodimer lost by 142 votes.
“Any time you’re going up against the establishment, it’s an uphill battle,” Rodimer said Wednesday.
Rodimer said his case was different, noting that he’s a retired professional athlete who had the ability to largely self-fund his campaign — something most people can’t do if they want to run for office.
“I don’t want to say it’s not fair, but the average person would have absolutely no chance. No chance whatsoever,” Rodimer said. “It’s not fair for the state, and it’s not fair for our party.”
Rodimer said he thinks that if the party wanted to be fair, it would avoid endorsing in primary elections.
Unhappy with several candidates running for open seats, the Republican Assembly Caucus opted to let the primary battles play out without its influence.
One incumbent — James Oscarson — lost Tuesday, to brothel owner Dennis Hof.
In District 5, Jason Burke was essentially invisible throughout the primary campaign and filed no campaign finance reports with the Nevada secretary of state’s office. But he managed to beat Mack Miller, who had received an endorsement from the group Veterans in Politics.
And across many of those GOP Assembly primaries, the margins were much tighter than those seen across the aisle, with most being decided by just a few hundred votes. Or as was the case with District 34 in Las Vegas, Janice Wesen defeated Anthony Laurie by just 23 votes.