How much does money matter in close Nevada legislative races?
In Summerlin, Democratic Assemblywoman Shea Backus (D-Las Vegas) is fighting to retain her seat in a race pivotal to her party’s efforts to attain veto-proof supermajorities in the Legislature in 2025.
But entering this year, Backus was far behind in the fundraising battle against Republican David Brog, whose $150,000 haul in 2023 more than doubled hers.
The outcome of the race and only a handful of others could shift the balance of power between the Democrat-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo, who is backing Republican candidates who have the potential to unseat Democratic incumbents in competitive districts.
Soon after it was clear Brog had the fundraising advantage, a pro-Lombardo PAC pounced.
Fanfare around fundraising is not a new phenomenon. In legislative races, money — who has it, who is giving it, who is raising it — is a significant part of winning elections.
But candidates and political insiders say other factors matter, too, including the number of voters a candidate speaks with, incumbency, name recognition and how candidates choose to spend their money.
It all begs the question: Just how significant is the money?
To answer that, The Nevada Independent analyzed fundraising totals at this point in the election cycle in all competitive legislative races since 2016 (those ultimately decided by less than 5 percentage points). The analysis of 28 races found that candidates who raised more money the year before an election prevailed more than two-thirds of the time.
In this year’s elections, The Nevada Independent has identified eight races that are likely to be the most competitive, including Backus’ seat and two other Democrat-held Assembly seats. Republicans, so far, have a slight fundraising lead in those contests.
For Lombardo, Republicans outspending established Democrats and winning those swing seats will be the key to preventing Democratic supermajorities and protecting his veto power. Democrats hold a two-thirds supermajority in the Assembly with 28 of 42 seats. In the Senate, they control 13 of 21 seats, one shy of a veto-proof supermajority.
Political insiders note that how money is spent is just as important as how much is raised. Coordinated efforts such as door-knocking for multiple candidates and sharing a unified message can help stretch money further. Candidates also need to make a strong case to voters for why they should be elected.
Democrats have an advantage in the form of the “Reid Machine,” a political apparatus built by the late U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) that leverages organizing strength into electoral wins. The party further bolstered its structural advantages through control over the 2021 redistricting process, which saw Democrats redraw state maps to give them a leg up in voter registration in competitive districts.
“Fundraising is important in legislative races, but you’ve got to remember that the candidates running for the office matters the most,” Backus said in a recent interview.
Brog said money is “important but insufficient.”
“The real work of a campaign is to meet the voters, to listen to their recommendations and concerns, and to share my vision for our state,” Brog said.
Money, what is it good for?
To get a better sense of the connection between fundraising and victory, The Nevada Independent also interviewed nine political insiders, including Democratic and Republican consultants and lobbyists, on the condition of anonymity so they could freely share their thoughts.
The consensus: Money can make a difference in reaching voters through advertisements, campaign flyers and other avenues, especially in a saturated political environment where down-ballot elections receive less attention from voters. Perhaps just as important, it serves as a signal to donors, the media and politicos of which candidates are committed to winning and who may be vulnerable to defeat.
Historically, incumbents and legislative leaders have raised more money than other candidates. Still, early in the election process, donors tend to hedge their bets, waiting to see what candidates will do before pouring more money into legislative races as the campaign season progresses.
As one political consultant noted, there’s no reward for picking early unless there’s a strong reason to do so.
For candidates, bigger bank account numbers and fundraising hauls can indicate whether they are well-equipped for the campaigns and allow candidates to get a head start on voter outreach, such as by purchasing mailers, officials with both parties said.
Brog, for example, has already spent $33,000 of the money he has raised on various services, including consulting, advertising and office expenses.
“Hopefully when I show up at a voter's door, it won't be the first time they heard my name,” he said in an interview.
For donors, contributing dollars to candidates can be a symbol of the donor's own wealth and influence or a signal to others about where they stand.
But those industry dollars matter just as much to candidates looking to project strength, too, according to UNR political science professor Jeremy Gelman.
“In political science, we often talk about how candidates build war chests as a way to deter challengers,” Gelman said. “Essentially, the money signals to people who might consider running against them and that this is going to be very difficult if you try and do this.”
For candidates, the money can also be a way to solidify alliances and curry influence — especially for existing or would-be legislative leadership — as they support fellow candidates who may later help determine committee appointments and build consensus before votes on those leadership positions.
“Money — we often think of [candidates] pumping it into their campaigns, but it's actually doing a lot of different things,” Gelman said.
The role of political action committees
There are three general avenues for making donations within the political world: political action committees (PACs), at the caucus level or individual candidates.
PACs can allow donors to contribute more money to races that help a cause or group of people, whereas caucus donations are a more general and discreet way to support a candidate within a broader party. At the individual level, donations act as a show of direct support.
Broadly, those familiar with Nevada’s election system say money is spent in higher quantities in districts where the voter registration margins are narrower and, therefore, more competitive. PACs, corporations and labor unions typically spend more on ads, mailers and canvassing in these races. This spending is referred to as independent expenditures, or spending done independently of a party or candidate.
Democratic and Republican operatives emphasized that independent expenditures allow groups to be negative in battle against the opposition, leaving individual candidates to tell their own stories more positively.
Historically, Democrats have relied on a network of well-funded PACs to spend on broad messaging across races. In 2022, for example, the Democratic New Day Nevada PAC spent nearly $3.5 million, while a PAC supporting Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak spent nearly $24 million, much of it on advertising.
In the Assembly races, Lombardo’s Better Nevada PAC has focused attacks on Democratic incumbents, criticizing a group of them for funding nonprofits some had ties to and accusing Democrats of participating in a culture of corruption. One target of those attacks, Assemblywoman Michelle Gorelow, a Democrat in a Las Vegas swing district, has already decided not to run for re-election.
Where does the money stand in the competitive races?
These races — six in the Assembly and two in the Senate — were chosen based on a combination of voter registration breakdown, past election results and the Princeton University Gerrymandering Project’s analyses of Nevada’s redrawn district maps, which includes an estimate of Democratic and Republican vote share in each district, a metric based on recent election results that accounts for voting patterns in a district regardless of voter registration.
Candidates in those competitive raises combined to raise more than $1.8 million in an election off-year and during a year in which lawmakers were legally blacked out from fundraising for nearly half the year. So where is that money coming from?
More than a sixth of that money came directly from candidates contributing to their own campaigns. This practice allows wealthy candidates with less-established fundraising operations to prop up their campaigns, especially early on. And unlike normal contributions, which are capped at $10,000 per donor, these self-funders can loan themselves unlimited amounts.
Contributions from the accounts of other lawmakers also constituted one of the biggest sources of donations to candidates in the eight competitive races analyzed. Together, they contributed more than $143,000 to 12 candidates — five Democrats and seven Republicans.
The pro-Lombardo machine was also at work. Seven candidates in these races received contributions from the Nevada Way PAC totaling $22,500.
Beyond that, many of the typical top donors to legislative candidates emerged at the top, including a group representing trial lawyers ($27,000 to four candidates), utility power player Southwest Gas ($16,500 to six candidates) and the Howard Hughes Corp.-owned Summerlin community ($20,000 to four candidates).
Across the eight races analyzed, Lombardo-backed candidates reported higher fundraising totals than Democratic candidates endorsed by the party’s legislative caucuses in four races. That includes Senate District 5, a Las Vegas-based district represented by Carrie Buck (R-Las Vegas), who is seeking re-election. Challengers in each party have outraised both establishment-backed opponents, including Buck.
In another three races, Democratic contenders held the lead. The race for Assembly District 35 is an outlier. No Democratic candidate has announced for the race yet to replace incumbent Gorelow, and Lombardo has not endorsed either of the Republican candidates who have announced their intentions to run for the seat — doctor Rebecca Edgeworth and attorney Brittany Walker Hausle.
One seat not included in this analysis is Senate District 15, where the announced departure of Senate Minority Leader Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) has paved an opening for Democrats who redrew the district’s lines in 2021 to include significantly more Democratic voters. Though two Democrats — a Reno city councilwoman and an assemblywoman — are competing for the seat, no Republican candidate has announced a campaign to succeed Gansert.
What past elections can teach us
Historically, the number of competitive legislative races has ebbed and flowed in Nevada, often at the whims of redistricting, political realignment, demographic trends and the political macro-environment.
But whether candidates with the cash advantage ultimately win those close races is no exact science.
In 2022, all six candidates who won tight races held financial advantages at the end of September just weeks out from Election Day. However, two incumbents who won re-election had entered the election year behind their opponent in fundraising.
That was a slight change from 2020, where seven of eight winners in tight races had the financial advantage a year before Election Day.
In the 2018 midterms — a cycle defined by sweeping Democratic gains nationwide, and in Nevada specifically, the first election of a Democratic governor in two decades — competitive legislative seats split evenly, 3-3, between candidates with an early money advantage and candidates without.
However, two of the races won by the candidate with less money were decided by razor-thin margins, including the Senate race between Republican Keith Pickard and Democrat Julie Pazina, which was decided by just 24 votes. The third, Assembly District 31, was in the throes of a yearslong seesaw between Democrat Skip Daly and Republican Jill Dickman, who ran against each other in four consecutive cycles and traded wins three times (Daly won in 2018 and is now a state senator).
The 2016 election was similarly scrambled. Of eight close races, five candidates with the money disadvantage went on to win, alongside three advantaged candidates. Of the five disadvantaged candidates who won, three were Democrats challenging Republican incumbents who had secured their seat in the 2014 Republican wave. Another Democrat, Brittney Miller (D-Las Vegas), won an open contest in Assembly District 5, and only one Republican, Richard McArthur (R-Las Vegas), managed to win a competitive race without the money advantage.
How redistricting changed the playing field
Only one of the past elections analyzed — 2022 — came after the Democrat-led redistricting process in 2021. At the time, party leaders sought to gerrymander legislative districts in a bid to maximize the number of winnable seats. Under the right electoral conditions, the new maps would create a cascade of narrow Democratic victories by cracking deep-blue districts into nearby swing seats.
Under those new maps, Democrats in 2022 flipped two more Assembly seats to secure a supermajority for only the fourth time since 1998. In the Senate, they flipped one seat to push their majority to 13 seats — one short of a supermajority. Neither party has had a supermajority in the Senate for decades.
In 2024, Republicans have lamented the lines of the district maps, lines that they say have limited the number of seats they can vie for because Democrats have given themselves a substantial structural advantage.
"By engaging in blatant partisan gerrymandering, Democrats disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of Nevada voters by allowing politicians to pick their voters instead of the other way around,” said John Burke, a spokesperson for the pro-Lombardo Better Nevada PAC.
In 2022, across nine Senate races featuring a candidate from each party, Democrats received 201,000 votes and won seven seats, while Republicans received 204,000 votes and won just two seats (GOP candidates also won two other state Senate seats unopposed).
The trend continued in the Assembly — across 35 Assembly races with a candidate from each party that year, Democrats received 397,000 votes and won 28 seats. In those races, Republicans received 376,000 votes (a difference of 21,000 votes) and won just seven seats. They won an additional seven in races with no Democratic candidate.
If spread evenly across the races, the margins between Democrat and Republican votes would yield an equal number of seats for each party. But under the redrawn maps, Democrats won large majorities.
Still, Gelman — the UNR professor — said that gerrymanders, however well constructed, maintain the capacity to change as time goes by. Mercurial shifts in demographics, political realignments and the unending churn of people in and out of Nevada might ultimately upend lines on a map, that “at the end of this cycle, we may look back and be surprised.”
“Have [Democrats] guaranteed themselves a supermajority? They’ve certainly made it easier for themselves to achieve it,” Gelman said. “But by no means do I think it’s guaranteed.”