Nevada Democrats lean on Harry Reid’s political machine as warning lights flash

LAS VEGAS — Harry Reid has spent decades honing his brand of machine politics that fueled Democratic control across Nevada.

Today, four months after the death of Reid, the revered political titan who represented Nevada in Congress for 34 years, Democrats here find themselves once again dependent on his legacy.

In an already volatile national environment for their party, in which they face issues such as rising inflation, soaring gas prices and dismal White House approval, they are tasked with locking down Catherine Cortez Masto’s Senate seat, and the outcome could dictate control. of the Senate. They are also defending the governorship of Steve Sisolak, who had taken 20 years for Democrats to claim from Republicans. According to a poll released last week, both incumbents trail their Republican competitors. And on Wednesday, The Cook Political Report identified two congressional races in the state as draws after previously rating them as pro-Democrats.

Governor Steve Sisolak and First Lady Jill Biden at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada on March 9.Ty O’Neil/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images File

Simultaneously, Democrats are pushing aggressively for Nevada to host the nation’s first presidential primary contest in 2024. Las Vegas is among the cities of interest for the Democratic National Convention. And besides being a 2024 presidential battleground, it’s a majority-minority state where testing a message to woo the powerful Latino vote could resonate nationally.

“That’s Reid’s vision of Nevada,” said Megan Jones, a Nevada-based political operative who has worked with Reid for more than 25 years. “He always thought this should be the center of the universe.”

For the first time in more than three decades, however, Nevada Democrats must engage in such political battles without Reid, the tactician who offered a steady hand and helped forge alliances. The organizational machine he left behind still spins – and dominates Nevada’s Democratic politics.

This is even after the Democratic Party split here last year after a list backed by the Democratic Socialists of America took over the party structure, propelling Judith Whitmer, a supporter of Bernie Sanders, to the state party presidency. It rattled National Democrats, fearing volatility and a split party in a battleground pivotal state.

But expectations that the newcomers would shake up the establishment never materialized. Instead, the shadow party started by the Reid machine — Nevada Democratic Victory, or NDV — has become the de facto party that runs the most high-profile races. NDV settled in swing Washoe County, home of Reno, and money, a powerful bloc of politicians, aides and strategists followed.

“So many people who work in politics have worked with or for him on his team or as organizers,” said Nicole Cannizzaro, the state Senate Majority Leader. “Many of us are very committed to ensuring that this legacy lives on.”

Yet a split remains. Interviews with more than a dozen party members, elected officials, activists and longtime activists reveal a still-divided Democratic Party that has spawned a new era of functional dysfunction, an era in which two entities are still seeking to coexist after overcoming initial clashes over money and voter data. It’s an ominous sign for 2024, when Democrats can’t afford to have divisions. While the Reid machine helped turn seats across the state blue, it was Sanders, the candidate supported by the Democratic Socialists of America, who decidedly won the caucuses in 2020.

Residents vote during the Nevada Democratic presidential caucus
Attendees check in for the Nevada Democratic Caucuses at the Bellagio Ballroom in Las Vegas on February 22, 2020.Joe Buglewicz/Bloomberg via Getty Images File

Initial clashes between Whitmer and the Washoe County team have been resolved, including battles over voter data sharing and fundraising. The Whitmer-aligned state party ended up signing an agreement with the Democratic National Committee that freed up access to the electoral roll.

In an interview, Whitmer emphasized that she was focused on defeating Republicans and avoiding fighting with her own party. Under her, the party does not challenge top incumbents with more left-leaning candidates; in fact, Whitmer ceded control of those races to NDV.

She didn’t really have a choice, given that the key elected officials who helped build this device supported the move to NDV. For now at least, Whitmer is content to focus on down races like school board elections. These races, she said, went unchallenged for a long time, and they left an opening for Republicans to dominate so-called culture war issues. Whitmer also said she pays more attention to rural parts of the state where Republicans are strong.

The political establishment doesn’t seem to want to fight internally either — and in interviews, politicians aligned with Reid seem content to avoid the split altogether.

When Senator Jacky Rosen, for example, was asked in an interview if the Democratic Socialist slate was a sign that the party needed to expand beyond the Reid legacy, she answered without ever mentioning the existence of another entity.

“I can tell you this: a coordinated campaign over the past few years has turned Nevada blue,” Rosen said.

In the arc of Reid’s political tenure, Nevada went from a red state to the battleground it is today. Both US senators — Rosen and Cortez Masto — are Democrats (and women). Democrats control the Legislature, and President Joe Biden carried Nevada into 2020, albeit narrowly.

Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., in the Dirksen Building on March 15, 2022.
Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., in Washington on March 15.Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images File

“We have a majority federal delegation. We have a majority of our Constitutional Democratic offices. We have our state legislature,” Rosen said. “Voters…once they saw us, they showed who they wanted and the kind of government they wanted: pragmatic problem solvers.”

Asked which political insiders dismissed it as irrelevant or ineffective, Whitmer bristled.

“I think at first they thought they would have a bigger impact than they did. I think the shadow party is still there, but I don’t think it has a huge influence or a huge impact,” she said. “I think the majority of Democrats are definitely on board and working with us.”

Referring to NDV, she said, “And this tiny little faction still trying to maintain control is losing – its sphere of influence is shrinking.”

Party building and uniting fighting forces were at the heart of Reid’s enduring political playbook, which unfolded during a phone call between Reid and Whitmer last year. At an impasse with NDV, Whitmer said, she turned to Reid.

“Sen. Reid, anything you can do to help,” Whitmer recalled telling Reid last year. “We cannot go into this election cycle with the party divided.”

Reid agreed, she said, telling him, “Yes, the party needs to unite.”

Reid pledged to urge his allies to find ways to cooperate. “‘You’re the party chairman,'” Whitmer told Reid. “‘We need to go into this election cycle and beyond, look for ways to bring us all together’.”

The pair reportedly had three conversations last year, which Whitmer described as positive and encouraging. (A former Reid aide familiar with the conversation said Reid also told Whitmer that acting as president was not as easy as it seemed and claimed that the political and fundraising apparatus of NDV was necessary).

Whitmer ally Chris Roberts, a Democratic socialist who serves as Democratic Party chairman for Clark County, the state’s most populous, argued that establishment Democrats still view the Bernie Sanders-aligned crowd as a threat.

“I think it goes back to the deep respect for Senator Reid that exists here,” Roberts said. “The view that … he worked tirelessly to build a strong Democratic Party here in Nevada. And there are people at the party who think we’re jeopardizing that.

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid acknowledges the audience at the Nevada Democrats conference
Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid waves to the audience during the Nevada Democrats’ “First in the West” event at the Bellagio Resort & Casino in Las Vegas on November 17, 2019.File David Becker/Getty Images

Like it or not, the party schism could become the biggest detractor of a fiery plea to hold the nation’s premier contest.

A Democratic National Committee member from a former contending state has spoken out about Rosen’s behind-the-scenes advocacy for Nevada.

“The senator conveniently ignored the reality that the Nevada Democratic Party is in the midst of a brutal civil war, leaving the once vaunted state party in shambles,” said a member unhappy with the way Rosen advocated for the application in an interview.

The State Party and the NDV insist that a “civil war” is far from what is happening on the ground. Both sides have tried to communicate better, usually through their executive directors. In a bid to become the nation’s first, Nevada DNC member Artie Blanco gives Whitmer regular updates. And on the possibility of a 2024 Democratic convention in Las Vegas, Democrats here all agree the effort would take a back seat to pushing for a nation’s first primary.

Bringing Whitmer’s crew into the fold, however, is not a sign that the state’s still-dominant forces are ready to move away from Reid’s legacy.

“There will always be a natural evolution of things, but I wouldn’t say there’s a desire to get away from Reid,” said Molly Forgey, a former aide to Reid who now works on Sisolak’s campaign. “I say this as someone who could never support this. I don’t think there is a world in which I can ever agree that this is a reality.

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