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Nevada’s casino industry donates to both gubernatorial candidates

Updated August 8, 2022 - 4:36 pm

The gaming industry is playing both sides in the Nevada governor’s race, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to both incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak and his Republican challenger, Joe Lombardo, state campaign finance reports show.

Between his campaign and his largest political action committee, Sisolak is taking the most from casinos and their executives, about $943,000 since 2021. But the industry is also hedging its bets by supporting Lombardo, with the Clark County sheriff’s campaign and PAC taking in about $730,000 since last year.

“Most times, the gaming industry tends to be pro-incumbent, especially if the experience has been generally good in the prior term,” longtime Nevada political consultant Billy Vassiliadis said.

Casinos tend to agree on a candidate in legislative races, he said, but the industry can have differing opinions on governor, U.S Senate and other statewide races. Most gaming firms are donating to both Sisolak and Lombardo, a common practice for the industry in the largest races, according to Vassiliadis.

One example is Phil Ruffin, owner of Treasure Island and Circus Circus as well as a notable ally of former President Donald Trump. He personally donated $10,000 each to Sisolak and Lombardo. Including donations from properties he owns, Ruffin has given more to Sisolak — $30,000 since last year — than to Lombardo, to whom he has donated $10,000.

Individual and organization donations to candidates are limited to $5,000 per election by Nevada law. The most a person or corporation could donate is $10,000 — $5,000 each for the primary and general election campaigns. They can then donate to PACs, where there is no limit on giving. Only donations of more than $1,000 are reported in state filings.

Big donors

Sisolak’s largest casino backer is The Venetian, operated by the massive asset management firm Apollo Global Management. The Venetian donated $40,000 to Sisolak’s campaign and an additional $210,000 to his affiliated PAC, Home Means Nevada. That number dwarfs Sisolak’s next largest donor, Caesars Entertainment, which has given $90,000 since 2021 between its many subsidiary companies and casinos.

For Lombardo, the most money is coming from Golden Entertainment, which operates the Strat as well as a number of rural casinos and the PT’s Pub chain. Golden donated $20,000 to Lombardo’s campaign and $70,000 to his PAC, Stronger Nevada. The next largest Lombardo donor is Boyd Gaming, which gave $30,000 to his campaign, but also gave $40,000 to Sisolak.

Donations from the gaming industry are mostly reliant on personal relationships, Vassiliadis said, and Lombardo’s prior experience as Clark County sheriff is a large advantage over any other challenger Sisolak could have faced.

“If Lombardo hadn’t been the sheriff, I don’t know if any other opponent would have done as well with getting money from the casino industry,” Vassiliadis said.

Preferred candidates

Although most casino organizations are giving to both candidates, most also prefer one over the other. Las Vegas’ largest casino companies — MGM, Caesars Entertainment, Boyd Gaming and Station Casinos — have all donated more to Sisolak than Lombardo.

Station Casinos, through its majority owners the Fertitta family, donated $80,000 to Sisolak but nothing to Lombardo.

Wynn Las Vegas donated a total of $15,000 to Sisolak in 2020 and 2021, but gave nothing to Lombardo. But the company’s former chairman, Steve Wynn, went the other way; he and his wife, Andrea Wynn, donated $20,000 to Lombardo, but did not give to Sisolak. (Steve Wynn is no longer affiliated with Wynn Resorts.)

Resorts World gave Lombardo $10,000 and $30,000 to Sisolak in 2022.

But it’s not just major firms throwing around campaign donations for the governor race. Independent casinos, like the El Cortez downtown, are also playing both sides. The El Cortez donated $10,000 to each candidate, as did the Ellis Island casino.The Longhorn Casino gave $5,000 to each candidate.

Lombardo has also seen the support of some of the city’s most influential gaming families. The Marnell family, the original owners and namesake of The M casino, gave the sheriff $50,000 and Sisolak $10,000. Similarly, the Herbst family, which owns the Terrible’s gas station chain and the now-closed Jean casino, gave Lombardo $50,000 and Sisolak $10,000.

Additionally, the Ensign family, including former U.S. Sen. John Ensign, which owns casinos in West Wendover and has a history managing Las Vegas casinos, gave Lombardo another $20,000. Dr. Miriam Adelson, of Las Vegas Sands Corp., gave $10,000 to Lombardo.

Hotel magnate likes Lombardo

The sheriff’s biggest backer isn’t a gaming magnate, however, but a hotel owner. Robert Bigelow, who owns the Budget Suites hotel chain, has given Lombardo and his PACs nearly $5.7 million, by far the most of any single donor to a Nevada candidate this cycle. Bigelow notably donated $10 million to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign earlier this summer. He hasn’t given Sisolak any money.

Gaming executives are also giving both ways, with some going against the preference of their employers. One Caesars Entertainment board member gave $10,000 to Lombardo’s campaign while the corporation itself gave nothing to Lombardo and $90,000 to Sisolak. A Treasure Island executive even gave more to Lombardo than Phil Ruffin himself, with $20,000 in donations. Sisolak received the largest bumps from MGM and Station Casinos executives, $20,000 from each.

Executives generally fall in line behind their corporate employers, Vassiliadis said, but the industry is rapidly changing.

“The casino industry is not immune from the rest of the world,” he said. “It’s getting a little more partisan as everything is.”

Overall, Sisolak retains a large fundraising advantage over Lombardo. The governor raised $1.7 million in the second quarter of 2022, to Lombardo’s $782,000.

Sisolak has $10.8 million on hand, according to second-quarter reports, while Lombardo has $1.2 million. One reason for that large difference is that Sisolak, as the incumbent, has had significantly more time to raise money than his opponent, who had to fight through a crowded primary field.

The Review-Journal is owned by the Adelson family, including Dr. Miriam Adelson, majority shareholder of Las Vegas Sands Corp., and Las Vegas Sands President and COO Patrick Dumont.

Contact Nick Robertson at NRobertson@reviewjournal.com. Follow @RobertsonNickJ.

An earlier version of this story misstated campaign donations from Wynn Resorts and Resorts World. Wynn Resorts has donated $15,000 to Sisolak’s campaign in 2020 and 2021 but has not donated to Lombardo. Resorts World, through its parent company, has donated $10,000 to Lombardo’s campaign and $30,000 to Sisolak in 2022.

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