Sam Morris and Mona Shield Payne/Las Vegas Sun
Thursday, July 26, 2012 | 2 a.m.
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Unlimited corporate campaign spending and billionaires with a desire to influence national politics have dominated the election narrative this year — thanks to a Supreme Court decision giving them carte blanche to do so.
But in Nevada, there’s another source of outside money that’s also changing the landscape of campaign finance: that coming from individuals.
More and more non-Nevadans are opening their wallets and writing checks to Silver State candidates, a trend that suggests that elections for federal office in Nevada are becoming a more nationalized affair.
“There’s just more money in politics, regardless of the race,” political science professor Eric Herzik said. “So the idea that Nevada is ever going to go back to smaller, more personalized campaigns is just not going to happen.”
Nevada set records in 2010 for the level of outside interest in a state campaign when incumbent Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid faced off against Tea Party-supported Sharron Angle in the closest-watched Senate race of the election. The money each took in reflected that: More than 80 percent of each candidates’ itemized individual contributions came from people residing outside of Nevada.
Nevada’s Senate candidates are nowhere near matching that record in 2012. But outside contributions are generally trending upward.
In 2000, when John Ensign first won the open seat currently being contested, 19 percent of his contributions came from out-of-state donors. When he was re-elected in 2006, 37 percent of his itemized individual contributions came from outside the state.
Now, as Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Shelley Berkley vie for the seat, more than half of their combined individual contributions are coming from outside donors.
“When you have control of the chamber at stake, that nationalizes individual races more than it would otherwise,” said Norm Ornstein, a political expert at the American Enterprise Institute. “It’s happening all across the country.”
For example, in Missouri, which was the closest Senate contest in 2006, Sen. Claire McCaskill has already more than doubled her total share of out-of-state contributors from that cycle: Then, 23 percent of her donors came from out of state, compared with 52 percent of her donors today.
The universality of this trend has started to chip away at the idea that individual contributions from outside the state are a bad thing, Ornstein said. Candidates also justify accepting outside contributions because they need the money to defend themselves from “much bigger” super PACs and other groups spending in elections this year.
“Now, you need to protect yourself ... against unknown faceless anonymous sources that have the capacity to come in with three weeks left in an election, blindside you with a $10 million slime campaign,” Ornstein said. “So you’ve got to build a protective fund for all kinds of contingencies, and frankly, there aren’t very many candidates for statewide office in a small state who are going to be able to build the kind of fund they need without going outside.”
The Supreme Court’s Citizens’ United decision in 2010 allowed independent political action groups to raise funds to air ads and otherwise engage in direct campaign activities on behalf of a candidate free from contribution limits. As a result, 2012 is the first complete electoral cycle in which such groups have been able to flex their political muscle. So far, the most successful groups have supported Republicans.
That new reality is a backdrop to the picture of outside individual fundraising in Nevada’s close Senate election.
“Republicans know they’re going to have outside groups helping them,” UNLV professor of political science David Damore said. “There’s a general fear among Democrats that ‘we have to beef up our own campaigns because we’re not going to have as much support from outside groups.’”
Earlier this year, both candidates made a half-hearted attempt to limit outside spending in their race — both from political organizations and individuals.
Berkley challenged Heller to sign a pact to refuse outside spending from independent groups such as American Crossroads and the Patriot Majority. Heller issued a counter-challenge that both candidates jettison all campaign contributions from outside of the state.
In the end, no pact was formed.
While both candidates are setting personal bests in terms of out-of-state contributions, there are big discrepancies between the two sides.
Heller used to draw about 15 percent of his contributions from out-of-state individuals when he was in the House. That share has more than doubled, to about 40 percent, since he began considering a run for the Senate.
Of the $2.3 million he’s brought in from individual donors so far, $925,000 has come from contributors residing outside of Nevada. Heller has received the highest concentrations of donations from Las Vegas, followed by Reno; Washington, D.C.; Dallas and Los Angeles — an order his campaign points to proudly.
Individual donations amount to about 55 percent of Heller’s funding; $1.5 million of his campaign income has comes from political action committees.
Berkley’s out-of-state contribution rate has always been higher, hovering at about 40 percent through her congressional career. But this cycle, it has spiked to 60 percent, or about $2.4 million of the $3.9 million she’s collected to date. Berkley’s highest concentration of contributions are from Las Vegas, followed by Los Angeles; New York; Washington, D.C.; and Chicago.
But Berkley’s campaign points out that by the raw numbers, more Nevadans have given to her campaign than Heller’s.
“To date, the Berkley campaign has raised more in-state money in Nevada and has more in-state contributors than the Heller campaign,” Berkley spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said in a statement. “Shelley Berkley is proud of the broad support she has received throughout the state, which shows strong support for her campaign.”
Berkley’s campaign draws 75 percent of its funds from individual donations, including those earmarked through national groups like Emily’s List. She has taken about $1.3 million from political action committees this cycle.
Both candidates are Washington incumbents, giving them a national profile and access to outside donors.
But Berkley has another built-in advantage. Her chief sponsor is Reid, who’s done this kind of fundraising before.
“The people who finance elections come from a very few number of ZIP codes,” Damore said. “In general, people who give aren’t just giving to their local election, they’re giving across the board. ... It helps to have Reid there saying, ‘This is my candidate. This is what I need to win this.’”
And at a certain point, it’s not worth quibbling which side of the Sierra Nevadas the money’s coming from.
“You have the most money, and ideally you want the most from people in the state,” Herzik said. “But if given a choice, I think you’ll take the money, regardless of residence.”