Upping the Ante in Nevada Race

Late Entry of Ex-Casino Boss Changes Odds for Freshman Rep. Porter

Posted May 11, 2004 at 5:04pm

If former casino executive Tom Gallagher (D) manages to wrestle Nevada’s 3rd Congressional district from freshman Rep. Jon Porter (R), Democrats will probably owe him more than a “thank you.”

This is the race that almost wasn’t, despite its potential for being one of the most competitive in the country.

The district was drawn to have almost an equal number of registered Republicans and Democrats after the 2000 Census. But Democrats botched their chance to pick up the new seat in 2002.

On St. Patrick’s Day of this year, scandal-plagued 2002 nominee Dario Herrera, a former Clark County commissioner, probably looked better than no candidate to some Democrats.

Then Gallagher rode into town on March 18 and announced he would be his party’s standard bearer in the Las Vegas suburban district.

By the close of the first quarter on March 31, Gallagher had already raked in almost $430,000, about half of it coming from his personal fortune.

National Democratic leaders were ecstatic.

“Tom is a tremendous fit for this district and there is no question his campaign will have the resources necessary to hold Rep. Porter accountable,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) effused.

Now that Republicans have had time to scratch their heads and figure out how Porter went from being unopposed to having someone on his tail when it comes to fundraising, they are striking back.

“He looks like an opportunist who’s running on the one ticket that’s not filled,” Chris Paulitz of the National Republican Congressional Committee said, suggesting that Gallagher’s $2,000 contribution to President Bush’s re-election campaign last year would lead voters to believe he was a Republican.

“He has a credibility problem,” Paulitz continued. “He criticizes Porter for being a rubber stamp for President Bush, but he was a $2,000 rubber stamp for Bush.”

Hogwash, Gallagher’s campaign says.

“A Republican friend of Tom’s invited him to a fundraiser, so he went,” campaign manager Josh Geise explained. “He was being bipartisan.

“He’s double maxed to Kerry, he’s given tens of thousands of dollars to Democrats” and he has never supported Bush, Geise said.

Paulitz also questioned why Gallagher did not get into the race sooner.

“They had one recruitment failure after another there,” Paulitz said, referring to the DCCC. “He was the absolute last choice for the DCCC … he’s basically the best of what they had left over.”

Kori Bernards, spokeswoman for the DCCC, said that is not the case.

“He’s absolutely a great choice,” she said. “Republicans are worried because he raised a ton of money and has only been in the race for a very short time. Desperate people say desperate things.”

Why didn’t Democrats corral Gallagher sooner? That may have had more to do with Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid — generally regarded as recruiter in chief for Nevada Democrats — than Gallagher.

Reid has busied himself with building a massive war chest — more than $4.6 million at last count — in anticipation of a tough re-election challenge that has yet to materialize.

Republicans have failed repeatedly to find Reid a top-flight rival.

Reid acknowledged that he did not recruit Gallagher: “He’s running because he wants to,” he said.

But while Reid has not taken much of a role in the 3rd district race yet, Gallagher and his camp have nothing but praise for Reid.

“He’s a phenomenal friend,” Gallagher said of Reid, and will be “a major factor in my race.”

Gallagher will certainly need to call upon Reid’s influence, contacts and expertise as the campaign progresses — the former casino boss has said he will not flood his campaign with his own money.

“I am not going to buy the seat,” he said. “I want people’s backing.”

Gallagher said he put the $200,000 in to infuse his campaign with cash quickly but does not intend to continue at that pace.

For all the talk about Gallagher’s wealth — earned through years as a successful businessman, culminating with a stint at the helm of Park Place Entertainment, which is now known as Caesars Entertainment — it is easy to forget that Porter has been a virtual money-raising machine.

So far, he has raised about $1.2 million this cycle, banking almost $680,000 as of March 31.

The candidates’ fundraising abilities alone would probably make this race one to watch, but add in the voter numbers and it becomes clear why the rhetoric from the national parties is so heated.

The district voted 49 percent for former Vice President Al Gore and 48 percent for President Bush in 2000.

The latest voter registration numbers show Republicans with a scant lead — 127,520 to 126,675, according to The Associated Press.

The race is certain to intensify before November.

“Any time a candidate can raise money, you gotta watch him,” Paulitz said.

Gallagher hopes to tap his old business contacts, many of whom are Republicans, to help him chip away at Porter’s support, but that might be easier said than done.

Some in the gambling community have already made commitments to Porter, the Las Vegas Sun reported.

“I understand that it’s not their problem that I entered the race somewhat late in the game,” Gallagher told the paper.

“I do believe that as the race goes forward, that people will be helping my campaign as well.”