Battle for Senate control pits Cortez Masto against Sands & Station

Flanked by Culinary union Secretary-Treasurer Geoconda Argüello-Kline, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto listens to workers describe efforts to get Station Casinos to negotiate contracts in October, 2019. (Photo: Jeniffer Solis)

WASHINGTON — Nevada’s senior senator is working overtime to turn the U.S. Senate from red to blue this fall, but her hometown industry has other plans.

In June, casino magnate and GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, gave $25 million to the Senate Leadership Fund, a “super PAC” run by allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) It aims to “protect and expand” Republican control of the Senate — a goal Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is working against as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, or DSCC.

Control of the Senate is up in the air, but Democrats have the political winds at their backs in a year marked by public health and economic crises.

The numbers also work to Democrats’ advantage: They’re defending a dozen seats, only two of which are seen as in danger. Republicans are defending nearly twice as many, about 10 of which are seen as vulnerable.

Democrats need to win a net four seats to retake majority control, or three if their nominee Joe Biden wins the presidency and his vice president, Kamala Harris, can cast tie-breaking votes.

Republican-aligned casino industry players are trying to thwart Democrats in an effort to minimize federal regulations — and the industry has outsized influence largely because of the Adelsons’ spending, according to Brendan Quinn, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics. Their contributions alone make the industry one of the most influential in the nation, he said.

“I’m sure he will do his best to counter her efforts to flip the Senate,” he said of Adelson and Cortez Masto.

The Adelsons’ donations — the largest the Senate Leadership Fund has received this cycle — represent about a fifth of its total receipts this cycle, according to the center.

In August, the fund announced a $21 million ad blitz in Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Montana and North Carolina in defense of vulnerable GOP Senate candidates. The fund is also contributing to another $41 million in ads in those states and in Maine, according to POLITICO.

The Adelsons’ $25 million donations to the fund are the largest individual donations from Nevada this year, according to the center.

Last year, the couple gave $1 million to Security Is Strength, another conservative political action committee. Those donations rank sixth and seventh on the list of Nevada’s top individual, itemized contributions. The couple has written other big checks to GOP causes as well, including to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

DSCC spokesman Stewart Boss dismissed efforts by the Adelsons and other megadonors to keep the Senate in Republican hands.

“The corporate special interests and billionaire megadonors who have benefited from Mitch McConnell and these Republican incumbents controlling the Senate are showing up to try and bail them out,” he said in an email.

“Voters will see through the false attack ads and hold these senators accountable for failing to put their states first, from voting to erase protections for pre-existing conditions coverage to going on a month-long recess without extending emergency unemployment relief.”

Other industry players

Casino resort developer Steve Wynn — a former finance chair of the Republican National Committee who opened The Mirage, The Bellagio and other properties — is another major player in the GOP battle to retain control of the Senate and other conservative causes.

He wrote a check for more than $100,000 last year to the NRSC and has made other big donations to Republican and conservative efforts  this cycle. In June, he gave $1 million — the third biggest itemized donation from Nevada this cycle — to American Crossroads, a GOP PAC. That check followed one for $500,000 he wrote to the same PAC in April and others he has written to the Republican National Committee.

Donors affiliated with Adelson’s company, Las Vegas Sands Corp., and nonprofit organization, the Adelson Clinic for Drug Abuse Treatment & Research, are also funneling money to GOP candidates, including those in Cortez Masto’s crosshairs. Adelson is founder, chair and CEO of Las Vegas Sands; he and his wife, a physician, founded the clinic.

The organizations themselves are barred from donating to individual candidates or party committees. But political action committees affiliated with the clinic and casino corporation, as well as employees, owners and other individuals and family members affiliated with the organizations, have given nearly $28 million so far this cycle — virtually all of which has gone to Republican and conservative candidates and causes.

The amounts reflect contributions larger than $200 from affiliated donors and groups to candidates, party committees and outside groups, according to the center, which analyzes Federal Election Commission reports.

Beneficiaries include Republican senators targeted by the DSCC, such as Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Susan Collins of Maine and Thom Tillis of North Carolina — some of the Senate’s most vulnerable members. Other senators up for reelection have also received funds from the Adelsons’ organizations, including McConnell.

Most industry money goes to GOP

Overall, the U.S. casino industry, including tribal casinos, has contributed nearly $31 million to political candidates and groups this cycle, about 60% of which has gone to Republicans and conservatives, according to a separate analysis by the center of industry giving patterns.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who ran a failed bid for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination this year, received the most from the industry this cycle, with President Donald Trump and Biden close behind.

Las Vegas Sands affiliates are by far the biggest contributors in the industry, accounting for more than half of its political contributions this cycle.

The trend began years ago. Over the last two decades, Adelson’s company has sent nearly $200 million to GOP candidates and groups, more than any other organization in the country, according to the center. Next in line is Adelson’s clinic, through which the Adelsons have given more than $150 million to Republican and conservative causes over the past two decades.

The vast bulk of the cash — about 96 percent — is so-called “soft money” going not to candidates or political committees but to outside groups.

The next largest industry donor is the Red Rock Resorts owned and managed Station Casinos, a company founded by Frank Fertitta Jr. Individuals and groups affiliated with the company have contributed about $2.2 million, about seven times less than those affiliated with Las Vegas Sands Corp. Almost all of that money has gone to GOP candidates and party committees.

A related company, Fertitta Entertainment, has made additional donations to McConnell and other GOP candidates.

Affiliates of the industry’s third largest donor — Nevada Restaurant Services, the parent company of Dotty’s restaurants — have given more than $940,000 this cycle, all to GOP candidates and parties.

Wynn Resorts ranks 12th in the industry, with its affiliates giving more than $442,000 to GOP candidates and parties. MGM Resorts International ranks 14th, with about $361,000 in contributions from affiliates — about a third of which went to Republicans candidates and parties.

MGM is the only Nevada-based casino that isn’t operated by tribal groups that gave more to Democratic candidates and causes than to Republican ones. Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, is co-chair of the MGM Resorts Public Policy Institute at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

Other casinos on the list are based in other states or owned by native tribes. Donations from individuals and groups affiliated with those casinos went to both parties.

Allison Stevens
Allison Stevens is a Washington D.C. reporter for States Newsroom, a network of state-based nonprofit news outlets that includes Nevada Current.