Are Joe Lombardo’s ties to his biggest donor problematic? It depends who you ask.

Are Joe Lombardo’s ties to his biggest donor problematic? It depends who you ask.

A photo illustration of Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo, left, and billionaire Robert Bigelow. (Photo credit: AP)

By Casey Harrison

July 3, 2024

Democrats say the Republican governor’s ties to his most prolific donor, who also supports Donald Trump, makes him beholden to special interests. But experts say outside spending has become an inseparable part of campaign politics.

Las Vegas billionaire Robert Bigelow has spent nearly his whole life building an entrepreneurial empire. 

As founder of Bigelow Aerospace, a space research and development company that had contracts with NASA and SpaceX, the Las Vegas native was successful in parlaying a lifelong fascination with the supernatural into a secret deal with the US Department of Defense to help investigate unidentified flying objects. 

But Bigelow’s success in the aerospace field was made possible from his main venture as a large-scale landlord. He built a robust real estate portfolio for decades, and is the founder of Budget Suites of America, an extended-stay hotel chain with locations throughout Nevada, Arizona, and Texas. 

In recent years however, Bigelow’s focus has appeared to have shifted on building a new legacy, this one based on conservative politics. Since the COVID-19 pandemic — after federal and state officials imposed sweeping temporary measures to prevent a boom in evictions — Bigelow has spent vast sums of his own personal wealth to boost largely Republican candidates and fundraising groups at the state and national level that detractors say allow him outsized influence over the recipients of his contributions. 

The Las Vegas Sun reported in the runup to the 2022 midterms that Bigelow had donated upwards of $47 million to mostly Republican causes. That included roughly $25 million in contributions to several political action committees supporting Nevada GOP gubernatorial candidate Joe Lombardo, an unprecedented amount in a state race. Lombardo went on to become the only Republican challenger to defeat a sitting Democratic governor that year. 

Though tracking political spending in a relatively small state like Nevada can be difficult, experts said Bigelow’s contributions most likely amounted to record spending for a statewide race in Nevada. 

Bigelow’s contributions allowed pro-Lombardo groups to flood airwaves with advertisements slamming Lombardo’s opponent, Democratic former Gov. Steve Sisolak, and were likely a key factor in Lombardo’s eventual victory. Bigelow told the Associated Press in September 2022 Sisolak was a “puppet” of California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and lamented that COVID-19-era protective orders putting a moratorium on evictions kneecapped his hotel business. 

Lombardo’s victory — and Bigelow’s role in funding it — have drawn scrutiny from Nevada Democrats, who argue Bigelow had a rooting interest against a number of Democratic-led housing-related bills that were vetoed by the governor throughout last year’s legislative session.  

Neither Lombardo nor Bigelow responded to requests for comment.

Bigelow spends big on Trump, Lombardo’s tune changes

Bigelow has also sought to expand his influence beyond Nevada, giving $20 million to Florida Gov. Ron Desantis’ failed presidential bid. He told TIME last April he could no longer support former President Donald Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol: “He certainly lost me as a supporter, and as someone who would champion him. He showed that, in that particular hour, that he was no commander. He was absolutely no commander.”

After it became clear DeSantis would not win the Republican primary, however, Bigelow switched his support to Trump’s 2024 campaign in November. Earlier this year, Bigelow even co-chaired a fundraiser that brought in more than $50 million to a Trump-aligned Super PAC. He has also pledged more than $1 million to cover legal fees in the four criminal cases against Trump. 

Bigelow’s shift to supporting Trump has occurred at the same time that Lombardo has also engaged in a noticeable, if more subtle, embrace of Trump. 

Throughout most of the 2024 Republican presidential nomination cycle, Lombardo publicly declined to voice his support in a crowded field made up of Trump, DeSantis, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, and others. Last September, Lombardo declined to endorse a Republican presidential candidate, and told The Nevada Independent he was concerned about Trump’s criminal indictments. 

“I can’t turn a blind eye to it,” said Lombardo, the former Clark County sheriff. “You see the polls out there, ‘If he was indicted for a felony, would you still vote for him,’ and everything that goes along with that — that hurts my core, and what I believe in.” 

Lombardo, however, took a substantively different stance after a New York jury convicted Trump on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records stemming from hush-money payments made to conceal an affair with an adult film actress in the runup to the 2016 presidential election. 

Nevada Democrats told The Nevadan that they believe the governor’s public support of Trump occurring simultaneously with the changing tune of his largest donor is not just a coincidence. 

“Lombardo owes his governorship to slumlord billionaire Robert Bigelow, who bankrolled his gubernatorial election with an unprecedented $30 million, a decisive amount in a race that was won by less than two points,” Nevada State Democratic Party communications director Tai Sims said in a statement. 

Sims continued: “So it’s no wonder that Lombardo follows Bigelow’s lead on everything, from backing Trump to vetoing several bills that would have increased tenant protections and lowered the cost of housing. Like Trump, he is bought-and-paid-for by special interests and will always prioritize their priorities over the wellbeing of Nevadans.” 

Nevada’s housing woes

According to advocates, the bills Lombardo vetoed sought to implement an array of renter protections, which included capping rent for seniors and Nevadans with disabilities, and a reform to the eviction process that would have put the onus on landlords — not tenants — to file a case in court. 

Other proposals in the package would have extended a pandemic relief program that would have permitted tenants seeking public rental assistance to request a court halt eviction proceedings, while another sought to increase transparency for fees associated with rentals.  

The bills sought to address some of the state’s housing issues. 

Central to Nevada’s housing woes, especially in Clark County, is the availability of units, said Nicholas Irwin, an economics professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who specializes in urban housing. Despite efforts from the county and state to expand initiatives to spur development of affordable housing units, Irwin cited data released in December from the nonprofit Nevada Housing Coalition showing the state is short about 80,000 affordable units to meet current demand. 

This lack of affordable units has led to a dramatic increase in rental costs for Nevadans, Irwin said. Demand, especially in Southern Nevada, has continued to outstrip supply, which has contributed to a dramatic increase in the number of evictions since before the pandemic. 

The housing bills were widely opposed by landlords and lobbyists, who said some of the provisions would have created an undue burden on property owners, as well as created issues affecting due process and the legislature’s separation of powers. 

That opposition was unsurprising to advocates for the housing bills, who’ve pointed out that corporate landlords like Bigelow evicted tenants even in the throes of the pandemic, despite a national moratorium on such removals. 

One of Budget Suites’ chief competitors in the area, Siegel Suites, was found by a US House panel to have used deceptive tactics to evict tenants during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Budget Suites of America was not a part of that 2022 review by the US House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. However, the Arizona Republic reported in May 2020 that Budget Suites sent a five-day eviction notice to a tenant who was laid off from his construction job during the height of the pandemic — after he formally requested an eviction delay with a letter explaining efforts to seek financial help.   

Sondra Cosgrove, a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada who closely monitors politics within the state, said while the housing bills in question may have equipped tenants with greater power, they also would have had wide-reaching consequences on Nevada’s housing market. She theorized the bills would have been vetoed even under Sisolak. 

“I don’t see any evidence of a quid pro quo,” Cosgrove said. “I think with the fight over the housing bills, Democrats set those up so that he was going to have to veto them.”

Lombardo said in one of his veto messages related to the housing packages that the new constraints would create “onerous burdens on Nevada’s residential renting market by requiring even more hurdles for a landlord to evict a non-compliant tenant,” adding that such a proposal would worsen the ability for many to find an available unit.  

And while Lombardo has other ties to the housing industry — his chief of staff is a former lobbyist who worked on behalf of a property management company, and his campaign received contributions from land development and realty groups — Cosgrove emphasized the Republican governor had no incentive to approve bills brought to him by party-line votes with only Democratic support.

MORE: Lombardo pins housing woes on Biden after naming lobbyist to senior position

Irwin said though state lawmakers may have been well-intentioned with their housing reform bills during the last legislative session, the nature of having a part-time legislature makes it extremely difficult to pass legislative fixes to address woes in a fast-moving housing market. 

“Even if they do create a policy in such a way they think could help, once it’s actually implemented, if there’s a slight difference how it’s being implemented or the language is perhaps less clear, we can’t get further guidance until the next time they meet — unless they call a special session to fix it, which is really tricky to do.”

Since his vetoes, Lombardo has primarily sought to blame the state’s housing issues on the federal government. In March, the governor sent to President Joe Biden asking the federal government to release more land to Nevada to develop homes to address the state’s affordable housing shortage, claiming in the letter that the federal government prevented his administration from taking action, because 85% of Nevada land is federally owned and managed.

Lombardo’s letter drew criticism from the Nevada Housing Justice Alliance, which said the bills the governor vetoed would have provided much-needed relief for Nevadans immediately. 

“Governor Lombardo’s open plea to President Biden is myopic and shows his complete unwillingness to respond to Nevada’s housing crisis in a meaningful and lasting way,” Ben Iness, coalition coordinator of the Nevada Housing Justice Alliance, said in the statement. 

A red governor in a purple state

The political squabble between Nevada Democrats and Republicans over Lombardo’s ties to Bigelow appeared to come to a head last month, after a since-deleted social media post inferring Gov. Joe Lombardo took bribes was met with an outpouring of conservative backlash. 

In a June 18 post to X, formerly Twitter, the state Democratic party posted a photo of Lombardo with a superimposed speech bubble replying to a viral post stating, “The bribes I took did not influence me to become evil. I was evil from the beginning and the bribes were merely a bonus.” 

GOP state lawmakers immediately rushed to the first-term governor’s defense, calling it an “unacceptable” and “baseless” bribery accusation. The post was ultimately deleted, but only because the image used by the @NVDems account was property of a Las Vegas Review-Journal photographer, who requested the photo be removed, according to a June 19 report from the outlet. 

While Democrats have claimed that Lombardo and Trump are more or less the same, what made Lombardo an appealing candidate in the first place, Cosgrove said, was that he positioned himself as a moderate Republican who had already earned the public’s trust during his eight-year stint as Clark County Sheriff. 

Cosgrove says Lombardo’s tenure to this point has reminded her of former Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, who chided Trump on a few occasions but has largely stayed out of politics since leaving office. Lombardo has to toe the line between placating his party’s ever-growing Trump wing, she said, while also governing when Democrats control the legislature and most other statewide executive branch offices. 

But a key difference between Lombardo and Sandoval, Cosgrove notes, is the increasing role special interests play in fundraising and advocacy. The landscape has changed dramatically since Sandoval left office in 2019.  

“It costs a lot of money” to run for a high-profile office, Cosgrove said. “It’s like for the Democrats: Who’s paying for the abortion ballot question? It’s Gov. [J.B.] Pritzker of Illinois. It’s this constant back-and-forth, and it’s like can we get out of this space and maybe just talk about the issues?”

Pritzker’s nonprofit Think Big America is helping promote ballot measures that would codify abortion rights in Nevada, Ohio, Arizona and others, according to Politico. Cosgrove noted the group operates similarly to the climate advocacy group NextGen founded by billionaire Tom Steyer. 

“If Lombardo wants to be able to be a player in the state, and not let the Democrats be the super majority in the legislature, I’m sure he’s looking at his options and plugging his nose and rolling his eyes trying to not have a quid pro quo,” Cosgrove said. 

She continued, discussing the role of big money donors and their growing influence over politics and politicians: “It’s like that meme with the Spider-Man characters pointing fingers at each other.”

  • Casey Harrison

    Casey Harrison is political correspondent for The Nevadan. Previously, he covered politics and the Oakland Athletics' relocation to Southern Nevada for the Las Vegas Sun, and before that, was a digital producer at The Detroit News. Casey graduated from Michigan State University in 2019.

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