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In Congress, Berkley made a name for herself as a fierce fighter for her constituency and for issues relating to Israel. As a successful fundraiser, she helped not only her campaign, but also other Democratic candidates. And despite uneasy relations at times with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Berkley gained much visibility in the House.
For Democrats, the Nevada Senate race, alongside the one in Massachusetts, is seen as a must-win battle in order to maintain control of the Senate. Ironically, if Berkley fails to deliver, her fellow Nevadan, Senator Harry Reid, may lose his job as Majority leader.
It is this added importance that has put the national spotlight on the Berkley–Heller race. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were both in Nevada last week, not only to support their party’s Senate candidates but also to try to sway voters in a state still listed as a toss-up. Obama won Nevada handily in 2008, but now has only a small lead in polls.
And with national attention comes big money.
As of the end of June, Berkley has raised more than $7 million. Pro-Israel groups and individuals are among Berkley’s top donors, as are groups focused on women’s issues, health care and retirees. Berkley and her opponent both received significant donations from the gaming industry, which is based in Las Vegas.
Heller, with a war chest of $6.5 million, lists as his top donor the Las Vegas Sands company, owned by Adelson. Other donors include Jewish casino owner Steve Wynn and the Koch brothers.
Adelson and Berkley share a troubled history. She used to work for the casino magnate as vice president of legal and government affairs, until the two had a public falling-out over Adelson’s views on unions.
Adelson fired Berkley and has since supported her rivals in all her congressional races. With Adelson’s millions and his willingness to dig in deep this election cycle, he could still donate millions of dollars to Super PACs trying to defeat Berkley.
But local experts doubt that will happen. “Sheldon Adelson is not a kingmaker in Nevada politics,” said Eric Herzik, chair of the department of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno. “He has a lot of money, and he is interested in politics — but not in grassroots, in state of Nevada politics.”
Other experts noted that Nevada airways are already saturated with political ads so a large infusion of campaign money would not make a significant difference.