Nevada GOP Senate Hopeful Uses Campaign Cash to Cosplay as a Cowboy

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/Dr. Jeff Gunter For US Senate
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/Dr. Jeff Gunter For US Senate

When he launched his campaign for U.S. Senate in Nevada last year, Jeff Gunter presented himself as a gritty frontiersman and a diehard MAGA Republican.

Gunter’s opening video depicts him stepping into a Ford F-150 pickup truck—cowboy boots and all—admiring the bucolic western landscape in a burgundy button-down as he talks about his credentials. And in case you had somehow forgotten which state’s Senate seat Gunter is running for in the ad, he’s also sporting a belt buckle with boldface lettering spelling “Nevada.”

But despite Gunter’s breezy adoption of a rugged western persona, it appears his brand is more hat than cattle.

It’s not only that Gunter is a wealthy dermatologist and megadonor to Donald Trump, serving as the former president’s controversial ambassador to Iceland; it’s that he used $800 in campaign cash to obtain his western threads at a chain retailer.

According to Gunter’s filings with the Federal Election Commission, his campaign spent $796.38 at Boot Barn—the self-proclaimed largest workwear retailer in the country—which sells an identical burgundy top for $29.99 and a Nevada belt buckle for $45. (The gold belt buckle depicts a cowboy at the rodeo, the Nevada state seal, and—paying homage to Sin City—a royal flush. It also, perhaps fittingly, is made by a company called “Montana Silversmiths.”)

It’s unclear exactly how Gunter spent the rest of the $800 splurge, but he does wear cowboy boots in his campaign launch video, which the Boot Barn famously sells.

In response to questions from The Daily Beast, Gunter’s campaign confirmed that the Boot Barn purchase was for use in the August campaign ad and reported in his October FEC filings.

As he tries to convince Nevada voters that he’s not just an interloper from the big blue state next door, projecting a cowboy persona is an apropos rebrand for the candidate. Gunter has owned property in Nevada since 2007, but he grew up, built his medical practice, and raised his family in California. He also still maintains homes in the Golden State.

“Jeff Gunter is a California Democrat who used campaign funds at a California-based store to play dress-up as a Nevada cowboy,” one national Republican strategist who works on Senate races told The Daily Beast. “You can’t make this stuff up.”

Not even a year ago, Gunter was registered as a Republican in Nevada, and simultaneously as a Democrat in California. As recently as 2022, Gunter requested an absentee ballot from California.

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Gunter is an underdog candidate vying in a nasty GOP primary to take on first-term Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), whom he dubbed a “rubber stamp for Joe Biden’s failed, extreme agenda.” But to directly challenge Rosen—in what will be one of the most heated Senate races in the country—Gunter will first have to beat Sam Brown, a former U.S. Army captain who was recruited for the race by Senate GOP campaign brass.

In his campaign messaging, Gunter doesn’t shy away from his decidedly white-collar background and ambassadorial past. But his campaign’s financial reports make it more difficult than usual to corral his specific expenses—including the cowboy gear.

The exact date of Gunter’s Boot Barn shopping spree is obscured in his FEC reports, though the campaign’s confirmation means he racked up the charges before the ad debuted in August. But instead of reporting the purchase as a traditional campaign disbursement, the expense appears folded in among a number of other costs as part of a debt that the campaign owes to Gunter himself.

It turns out that Gunter has taken this approach with other campaign expenses that he’s covered with personal funds. While candidates can make unlimited purchases for their campaigns—classified as in-kind contributions—those costs can’t be recouped. But Gunter, who has loaned his campaign more than $2.5 million outright, has chosen to classify a number of self-funded incidental campaign expenses as debts, meaning he can pay himself back later—with his donors’ money.

“Dr. Gunter has committed to spending whatever it takes to win this race,” Gunter campaign spokesperson Erica Knight said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “He is a successful doctor and businessman who is making loans through different forms, all of which are appropriately disclosed and reported.”

As of the end of March, Gunter has paid himself back for $190,000 of his personal loans, according to FEC data.

Gunter isn’t the only Senate candidate to spend campaign dollars at Boot Barn. In 2021, a joint fundraising committee for Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) spent over $1,200 at Boot Barn for “campaign attire” when he was running for Oklahoma’s open U.S. Senate seat. Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT), Trump’s former Interior Secretary, also reported spending $250 at Boot Barn in June 2022 for “event catering.”

In truth, Gunter’s investment in some appropriately rugged duds is a rounding error in the context of his broader intent to heavily spend his personal wealth on the Senate race. Earlier this month, he announced plans for a $3.3 million ad buy. The 30-second television spot features Gunter describing himself as “110 percent pro-Trump” and recycles footage of Gunter wearing the burgundy shirt and Nevada belt buckle.

His Trump administration bona fides notwithstanding, Gunter is neither the establishment pick nor the MAGA choice for the GOP nomination. In addition to Brown, former State Rep. Jim Marchant, a hardcore election denier who lost the Nevada Secretary of State race in 2022, is also running in the Senate primary.

“Jeff Gunter is a fake cowboy, fake Trump supporter, but a real California Democrat,” one Trump ally told The Daily Beast.

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Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT)—the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee—has spent months singing Brown’s praises, signaling that GOP strategists see Brown, not Gunter, as the best candidate to take out Rosen this fall.

“I have no idea what ‘fake cowboy’ means,” Gunter said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “This ad was filmed in rural Nevada, in fact where I have farms, farmland, and where I have treated patients for over 25 years. I guess my opponents truly have nothing substantive to attack me and instead are debating whether or not I satisfy some sort of Yellowstone cowboy fantasy aesthetic. Pretty weird! I am a proud Boot Barn customer.”

Despite his complaints, Gunter is the one who made his rancher credentials a focal point of his campaign. In that three-minute video introducing himself to voters, Gunter is seen barreling down dirt roads as the ad hard-cuts between the candidate talking about his MAGA priorities and close-ups of him driving the F-150, like a Nevada rancher version of The Sopranos opening credits.

Although early polling indicates he may have an advantage, Brown doesn’t have the GOP nomination locked up by any means. Brown made a recent pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago to court Trump’s all-powerful endorsement, but hasn’t yet officially received his blessing, though Trump recently posted a poll on Truth Social that read, “Donald Trump and Sam Brown are the clear choices of Nevada’s Republican voters and donors!”

That’s as far as Trump has gone to show support for Brown, however.

While Gunter has Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) on his side, Trump doesn’t appear to be considering him for an endorsement.

Gunter has given Trumpworld plenty of reasons for trepidation. As ambassador to Iceland, Gunter earned the administration a deluge of negative headlines about his treatment of staff, demands for an armed security detail, and attempt to work remotely from California during the COVID pandemic.

An Inspector General report found Trump officials were so concerned over the ambassador’s performance that they instructed U.S. diplomats to circumvent Gunter entirely.

To win over Nevada Republicans ahead of the June primary, Gunter will have to convince voters he remains tight with Trump, and prove that he has more to back up his Nevada allegiance than a Boot Barn belt buckle.

Of course, if Gunter runs another ad sporting new western gear, he may want to choose another outlet. Boot Barn’s headquarters are in Orange County, California.

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