Sunday, May 20, 2012 | 2 a.m.
From the fictional Corleone family to real-life casino kingpins, Nevada has always been a storied land of big power players. Politics is no exception.
This year, the state’s political lions are poised to dwarf even the most awesome paragons of local lore, as control of the White House and Congress may very well come down to a face-off between two powerful Nevada patriarchs: Harry Reid and Sheldon Adelson.
Reid is, by any measure, the don of Democrats: He groomed the incumbent president as a young politician, hand-picked the party’s slate of Senate challengers who will try to pick up seats from Republicans this November and, in swing-state Nevada, is the architect of what is arguably the best statewide ground organization in the Democratic Party.
While Adelson has not racked up such accomplishments, he boasts another important superlative, especially in this election season: the deepest pockets in the Republican Party.
“Their worlds are different ... their sources of power are different ... but they’re both ends of the power spectrum,” UNLV political scientist David Damore said.
Together, these two behind-the-scenes players pose the classic electoral question: Which is more important, money power or people-moving power?
The answer may be quite different nationally than it is in Nevada.
Election regulations used to keep the power of independent moguls like Adelson in check. But since the Supreme Court reversed those rules in its Citizens United decision, few have used their money to influence the ebb-and-flow of electoral standings more than Adelson.
Adelson and his family have spent more than $20 million in the Republican presidential primary. Although his millions ultimately failed to keep Newt Gingrich afloat, they succeeded in exploiting chinks in now-nominee Mitt Romney’s armor — blows from which Romney is still trying to recover.
Now, Adelson has committed to spending up to $100 million of his coffers to inflict worse damage on President Barack Obama and any Democrat who might cross his chosen Republican candidates.
Adelson’s favored Republicans now include Romney and Dean Heller, who is defending his Senate seat against Democrat Rep. Shelley Berkley. Adelson has old scores with Berkley and has tried to take her out politically in the past. How each fares in incredibly tight Nevada races will play a serious, if not decisive, role in determining which party holds sway in the White House and Senate.
But party players doubt the power of Adelson’s influence within Nevada’s borders, where his track record has been mixed at best.
“At a local level, in Nevada races ... Reid probably has more influence because he’s built such a formidable ground game here,” one prominent Nevada Republican strategist said. “Sheldon’s more controversial at home than he is outside of Nevada. His money, in some respects, is diluted in Nevada because there’s so many who are either hesitant to take it or hesitant to take too much — and of course people on the national level don’t have those qualms.”
Reid and Adelson have molded their reputations in Nevada politics more or less concurrently.
In 1998, both went through the electoral wringer. That was the year Adelson attempted to bury Berkley’s congressional candidacy with scandalous revelations about her activities as his employee. He also fielded and funded a slate of Republican challengers to the Clark County Commission.
That same year, Reid went through a harrowing recount in his Senate race against John Ensign — an experience that shaped his approach to politics more than any other.
Adelson’s bids failed and Reid eked out a 428-vote victory.
From that point on, Adelson and his millions (soon to be billions) would be a fair-weather figure in Nevada politics while Reid set about creating a well-oiled empire fueled by an efficient get-out-the-vote machine. That machine has earned Reid a near-pristine record of election success in recent cycles.
“At first impression, Reid has been very successful and Adelson hasn’t,” said Dan Hart, a Nevada Democratic strategist. “If it comes down to turnout, in a close race, Democrats win because of that foundation that’s been built by Sen. Reid. He’s a master of the science of politics, versus the art of politics. Sheldon Adelson’s more about the art of politics — you know, let’s toss a (money) bomb in the room, see what we can blow up.”
There’s a limit, though, to how much money can do in the state.
“Nevada’s a cheap date, in that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to have a big impact here,” said Robert Uithoven, a Republican strategist. “Statewide, you have two media markets, one larger than average and one smaller than average, and those two media markets hit 95 percent of our population — and that’s 95 percent of our voters.”
Air time doesn’t come at a pittance. Las Vegas broke into the top 50 television media markets since the 2008 election cycle, meaning the cost of commercials now comes at a premium. But that’s still a more affordable portfolio than states such as California, Texas or Florida, which have three, four and five major markets, respectively.
Adelson might be able to ensure Republicans outspend Democrats, especially for PAC-driven ads that offer rich donors conceivably limitless access to the airwaves, but Reid likely has enough pull with Democratic donors to make up the gap.
At a certain point, however, the marginal exposure more money can buy doesn’t matter anymore.
“The money shapes the decision environment. It forces the other side to invest resources. But at some point, people tune it out — especially when the number of undecided voters is 6 percent,” Damore said. “They’re really talking about moving a small percentage of voters, and the research shows the best way to do that is at the door.”
That is where Reid’s organization has excelled. A decade or more of planning has yielded the Nevada Democratic organization an army of volunteers, reams of voter lists, and enough cash to pay for staff and databases to keep it all going.
The Nevada Republican Party has lagged, desperate for a similar Reid-like sherpa to infuse the organization with, well, organization.
Ever since Gov. Kenny Guinn left office, the Nevada Republican Party has lacked a central, formidable figure capable of keeping it in line. Things have descended into such a state of disarray in recent months that national party officials are importing reserves to set up a “shadow” state GOP — a move that may smooth coordination of the 2012 campaigns but, with few roots in Nevada, won’t likely flourish beyond November.
The confusion has left Adelson — an emergent force in 2012 but historically a deep-pocketed political dilettante — as the most influential Nevada Republican almost by default.
“There’s not, in a sense, a single godfather for the Republican party, in the way Reid performs that role for the Democrats,” said Eric Herzik, professor of political science at UNR. “Adelson plays at politics. When there’s an issue he cares about, he’s got the money, and he can walk in and get attention. Harry Reid plays for keeps and plays every day. ... He’s there in every election.”
Although Reid’s organization is strong enough to last well past this election, his brand of political powerball may also be nearing the end of an era.
Septuagenarians Reid and Adelson soon have to ask themselves: Who will they pass the reins on to?
“That’s a good question,” Damore said. “The thing that makes Reid a really unique figure in Nevada is he’s been around for so long. When he started, the state had like 500,000 people. He literally knows everything that’s ever happened. No one’s going to have that knowledge and those personal connections.”
The generational shift happening in politics also applies to the boutique casino industry that’s bred some of the state’s most generous campaign donors.
“Wynn and Adelson are the last sole proprietors. Everything outside of them is corporate owned,” Damore continued. “You don’t have the fixtures who built Las Vegas. You just don’t have those people anymore.”