RENO — Robert Bigelow, a Las Vegas-based hotel magnate, has always had a cause.
For decades, he invested his hotel profits into UFO research, creating his own aerospace company while lobbying senators to fund additional research. More recently, he offered nearly $1 million in prizes for a contest to show consciousness after death, part of his newer interest in the afterlife.
Now Bigelow, 78, has become the largest donor this cycle in Nevada's midterm gubernatorial race, donating $5.7 million through his companies to the campaign for Nevada GOP gubernatorial nominee Joe Lombardo and to political action committees supporting him. The race has implications for inflation policy, reproductive rights and the Democrats’ hold on the Legislature.
Bigelow's donations give a lifeline to a Republican challenger who is spending more and fundraising less than the Democratic incumbent. As of the latest filings, Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak leads Lombardo, the Clark County sheriff, in cash-on-hand $10.78 million to $1.2 million, which includes direct contributions to their campaigns but does not account for donations to political action committees, which make up the bulk of Bigelow's donations in support of Lombardo.
PACs are required to operate independently from candidates, meaning they can raise money for candidates but aren't allowed to coordinate with their campaigns.
Bigelow has made his wealth through his extended-stay apartment chain Budget Suites of America, which he has used to fund his UFO research. He was also a vocal critic of the federal eviction moratorium, calling it “legalized theft” as some tenants didn't pay rent, and he filed 46 eviction actions at the height of the pandemic. He lamented Sisolak's statewide closure of nonessential businesses early in the pandemic, which he said sank his aerospace company.
Bigelow's political and social influence in Nevada has long been pronounced, most notably in his UFO research that is now shifting toward afterlife research. In an interview with The Associated Press, he said that UFOs are “under our noses” and wondered why news organizations have not extensively covered UFO sightings.
But Bigelow, a staunch Republican, said his interest in UFOs and the afterlife is not related to his current political donations.
“Number one, honesty in government. That's the foundation,” Bigelow said of his priorities. “Liberalism, that's a cancer. And we have U.S. senators and representatives that need to go. And the second would be a philosophy of freedom – a philosophy of free enterprise and freedom for everybody.”
He called Sisolak a “puppet” to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who is a frequent target of Republican politicians. And he likened Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to a young Ronald Reagan, saying that he hopes the Republican runs for president in the future after he bucked other states’ approach of issuing COVID-19 emergency protective orders during the pandemic. Earlier this summer, Bigelow donated $10 million to DeSantis-backed political action committees, making him the largest individual donor to DeSantis' reelection race as well.
For decades, Bigelow has invested millions in UFO research with money he has made from his hotel and real estate business. He has also pushed it in politics. He once convinced his friend and then-U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, a Democrat, to allocate $22 million to a secretive program called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification program, which investigated reports of UFOs from 2007 through 2012. Much of the money went to Bigelow's company to investigate and the allocation was not made public until a 2017 New York Times investigation. The Pentagon said the program shut down in 2012, though Reid later said he had no regrets about the funding.
Bigelow said he considered Reid a good friend, though toward the end of Reid's tenure in the Senate, they maintained that friendship by not talking politics.
Since shifting his focus toward the afterlife, he has founded the Bigelow Institute for Consciousness Studies and offered nearly $1 million in prizes last year for a contest that shows “the survival of consciousness after permanent bodily death.”
Bigelow donated $5.5 million to PACs supporting Lombardo this cycle – $3.5 million to Better Nevada PAC, which has financed pro-Lombardo ads, and $2 million to Stronger Nevada PAC, which transferred money to Better Nevada PAC. Through 39 donations of $5,000 each through his companies, he donated $195,000 directly to the Clark County sheriff.
The Nevada contributions have provided a talking point for Sisolak, who has tied Bigelow's support for Lombardo to the housing crisis in Nevada, referencing Bigelow's pandemic evictions.
“While the governor is fighting for housing affordability, creating good paying jobs and making historic investments to support hardworking families, Joe Lombardo is siding with the Ultra Wealthy, standing with his campaign's single largest donor – a billionaire who got rich off of evicting families during the pandemic,” spokesperson Reeves Oyster said in a statement last month.
Lombardo's campaign did not respond to email requests for comment.
Lombardo has been vastly outraised by Sisolak in direct contributions, which is common for a challenger facing an incumbent. Sisolak has raised the second-highest amount in direct contributions for a Nevada gubernatorial campaign since 2000 and he's on pace to break his own 2018 record, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan group that tracks political spending.
“Overall, challengers do need to spend in order to overcome the incumbency advantage,” said Christina Ladam, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno, in an email. “While Joe Lombardo was a familiar name in the Vegas area, he was less well known in Northern Nevada. Sisolak does not need to spend as much in terms of getting name recognition.”
Still, Lombardo has outspent Sisolak this year – $3.1 million to about $727,000 as of the latest filing date – after facing a crowded primary field.
Stern is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues.