Analysis: Northern Nevada campaigns off to a slow fundraising start amid COVID-19 crisis

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Video of an empty downtown Reno March 29, 2020. Reno Gazette Journal

Big money local campaign donors have kept their wallets closed during COVID

Coronavirus is shaping up as a lose-lose proposition for Northern Nevada campaign challengers. 

The deadly virus has done away with the in-person fundraisers, neighborhood door-knocking drives and campaign rallies that frequently prove crucial to unseating established incumbents.

It’s also forced newcomers to introduce themselves to voters via robocalls, mailers, street signs and other, often unpopular forms of impersonal outreach.

More: Campaigning during coronavirus: Nevada candidates shift tone, tactics during statewide shutdown

Related: FRIDAY DEADLINE: Here’s who’s running for federal, state and local offices in Reno-Sparks

Above all, the virus has taken a huge toll on donations ahead of this summer’s primary election. That’s prompted many candidates to rely more heavily on contributions from political allies who face tough electoral challenges of their own in November. 

Such financial maneuvering may play an outsized role in winning the most coveted seats up for grabs on June 9, including a pair of races that could shift the balance of power in the state Legislature and at City Hall. 

Here’s a look at where those fundraising fights stand through the first three months of the campaign. 

Legislative candidates

A Reno Gazette Journal analysis of recently filed campaign finance reports shows Reno-area state legislative candidates raised a combined $292,650 through the end of March, down about 37 percent from the amount reported during the same period in 2018. 

Unsurprisingly, roughly two-thirds of that total was received before Gov. Steve Sisolak’s statewide shutdown of nonessential businesses in mid-March, after which many candidates stopped fundraising entirely.

Total spending on the region’s legislative races saw a smaller decline of about 11 percent, to $147,609 from $164,547 two years ago.

June’s primary features two fewer statehouse races than 2018 — and no nationally watched U.S. Senate race at the top of the ballot — but experts say that doesn’t come close to explaining the sudden evaporation of campaign cash.

“It’s the economy, to begin with,” said Fred Lokken, a registered Democrat and professor of political science at Truckee Meadows Community College. “Most organizations know they get a big benefit from these contributions, but a lot of these businesses are just trying to make payroll right now. 

“Candidates are still working the tried-and-true donor lists, but clearly the virus is having an impact. … It’s a very difficult time to raise money for campaigns right now.”

Consider state Sen. Heidi Gansert, a Reno Republican defending the region’s most sought-after seat in the state Legislature. 

Gansert raised around $61,000 through the end of March, less than upstart Democratic challenger Wendy Jauregui-Jackins and only about half the total Gansert hauled in during the early stages of her last re-election campaign. 

Gansert this month told the RGJ she hasn’t rung a doorbell since January. She’s also had to cancel five previously scheduled fundraisers. 

The good news for the longtime GOP lawmaker is that she still has around $267,000 in cash-on-hand from prior elections — funds that could go a long way toward holding off Jauregui-Jackins in November. Democrats, who remain one seat shy of a supermajority in the state senate, are sure to pour plenty of their own money into the race.

But not all candidates are so fortunate, part of the reason many well-established incumbents in noncompetitive races have started transferring huge sums to less well-known partisan allies on the campaign trail. 

Take Assemblywoman Jill Tolles, R-Reno, who reported transferring more than $15,000 to other Republicans and GOP organizations since January. Or Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus, R-Wellington, who doled out roughly the same amount to a half-dozen Northern Nevada Republican groups. 

That’s a trend that’s only likely to accelerate as candidates continue to grapple with campaigning during COVID.

“We’ve seen a lot of these inter-candidate transfers because some of the popular politicians are less likely to face a challenge and can afford to give money,” said Eric Herzik, a registered Republican and professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno. “It’s also a way to make friends and influence people.”

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Local candidates

At first glance, candidates for Reno-area city council and county commission races appear to have dodged a widespread, disease-driven dip in fundraising.

Contributions to candidates in those races are technically up 36 percent since 2018, while spending is up 8 percent over the same time period. 

But a closer look at the filings paints a murkier picture. 

The apparent jump in local campaign cash can be entirely attributed to Reno businessman and at-large council candidate Eddie Lorton, who reported giving himself a $100,000 campaign donation in late February. Lorton has previously staged two unsuccessful bids for Reno mayor.

If you take away that generous contribution, the amount of cash so far collected by local candidates is down 18 percent from the mark hit in 2018, to $152,186 from $185,027.

Local candidate spending totals also tell a somewhat misleading story, with expenses reported by well-funded Reno City Council hopeful Britton Griffith making up an eye-popping 26 percent of all local campaign spending. 

Local real estate agent J.D. Drakulich is also seeking Brekhus’ seat. Filings show he’s raised nearly $17,000 since the start of the year, enough for a distant third place finish in the financial fight for a Ward 1 council seat. 

Remove Griffith’s outlays from the equation, and local campaign spending plummets 20 percent from the totals reported in 2018. 

Griffith is a former planning commissioner who got Mayor Hillary Schieve endorsement over sitting Ward 1 Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus. Griffith also reported raising more money than every candidate except Lorton. 

She spent it at nearly six times the rate of Brekhus’ campaign, a fact that didn’t necessarily surprise political experts who noted that campaign newcomers regularly raise and spend more to overcome better-known opponents — perhaps especially in a closely watched race held during a deadly pandemic. 

“These people are working in tighter pools of donors, they’re going to get the usual donations, which are almost automatic,” said Herzik, the UNR political science professor. “It’s interesting that the spending is up, but given that you’ve got folks facing primaries in a month-and-a-half, they’ve got to get their name out there, with fliers and everything else, in a short window of time.

“I’m not surprised the (fundraising) numbers are down, because you can (campaign) online, but that doesn’t substitute for personal contact, particularly in local races,” he added. “And I think that benefits incumbents, because you already know their name, even if you don’t like them.”

Herzik highlighted a similar phenomenon in the region’s lone congressional race, where several relatively unknown Democrats have spent more than you might expect in an attempt to unseat longtime Republican Congressman Mark Amodei — a recognizable incumbent with much more sizable sums of cash in the bank. 

All of which may only add to the list of reasons why once-reliable campaign donors are keeping their wallets closed.

“The question here is how many of these races are contested?” Herzik asked. “Many donors feel Amodei, for example, is going to win anyway, so they may give a little less. 

“Democrats, on the flip side, figure they’re not going to beat him anyway, so they don’t want to spend their money. 

Election spending reports filed with the Nevada Secretary of State’s office on April 15 mark voters’ last glimpse at state and local campaign fundraising efforts ahead of June’s primary. 

Candidates’ next financial reports are due on July 15, a little more than one month after Nevada’s upcoming vote-by-mail primary election. 

James DeHaven is the politics reporter for the Reno Gazette Journal. He covers campaigns, the Nevada Legislature and everything in between. Support his work by subscribing to RGJ.com right here

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