Nevada Democrats have seats in the US Senate, the governor’s mansion, and three of the four seats in the US House. The state has not supported a Republican presidential candidate since 2004.
But like this year midterm elections approaches, the party’s grip on power is threatened. Catherine Cortez Masto has been named the most vulnerable Democrat in the Senate. Government Steve Sisolak faces a spicy reelection challenge by Republican Joe Lombardo. And the GOP could gain two seats in the Nevada House, which would put the party well on its way to regaining the majority in Washington.
The dynamics pose a severe test to the sophisticated organization that the late Sen. Harry Reid spent years building to give Democrats an edge in the swing state.
The party faces headwinds everywhere, dragged down by president Joe Biden’s unpopularity and persistent inflation. And Nevada’s challenges are particularly noteworthy because the election is the first since Reid died last year, which raised questions about the durability of the so-called Reid Machine.
Some leading Democrats say the competitive environment is simply a reminder that Nevada is a true swing state that the National Party cannot take for granted. Cortez Masto’s opponent is Republican Adam Laxalt, the former state attorney general and the grandson of Paul Laxalt, the former longtime Nevada senator and close friend of President Ronald Reagan.
“I think what we see in Nevada is what we always see. We are a purple state,” said Democratic state attorney general Aaron Ford. “We have to work hard.”
Reid, who served as the Senate majority leader from 2007 to 2015, helped pool resources to maximize support for candidates on the ballot. His approach made use of networks that extended far beyond the traditional party structure. He mainly leaned on the heavily-immigrated Culinary Union, which represents about 60,000 casino works and leads the effort to register voters, call and knock on doors.
That’s especially important in a state where shift work in Las Vegas’ casinos, hotels and restaurants and language barriers can make some voters harder to reach.
“It was everything. It was an investment in people, agents and candidates to make sure we fired all cylinders on the ballot,” said Rebecca Lambe, a longtime Reid aide and Democratic strategist.
Molly Forgey, a former Reid aide and state party staffer, said the organization’s goal was to prevent “some organizers from knocking on some officials and others on other officials.”
Forgey is now a spokeswoman for Sisolak’s campaign.
When Reid took the podium in 2016, organization and the rise of his machine still helped Cortez Masto become the nation’s first Latina senator. Two years later, Nevada Democrats rejected the other Senate seat long held by Republicans, elected the first Democratic governor in two decades, and expanded their legislature majorities.
Reid also ensured that Nevada’s presidential caucuses were one of the earliest contests in the nation, bringing hopefuls, political spending and attention to the overlooked state of the White House — bolstering the resources and network of veteran campaign staff. those in other Nevada could help elections.
But in November, veterans of the Reid Machine admit they face a tough challenge.
“There’s no question that every Democrat in Nevada is missing Senator Reid this year,” Lambe said. But at the same time, the political and organizational infrastructure he supported and invested in was “always built to support Democrats in the long run,” he said.
“It was never just about Senator Reid and his campaign.”
However, the coordinated operation began to fail last year after progressives backed by America’s Democratic Socialists took over the leadership of the state party. Top Democratic officials, including moderates Cortez Masto and Sisolak, have set up an alternate operation run by the county that includes Reno, although Nevada Democrats say the gap has played no part in the tight races this year.
Democrats and their like-minded groups working on the ground have long warned that the state has the potential to swing at Republicans and have at times felt a victim of their own success. In 2018 and 2020, they warned national Democrats and donors in the final weeks before the election not to take the state for granted.
“It’s in the air,” Ted Pappageorge, head of the casino workers’ Culinary Union, said of this year’s election. “It’s a complete tossup.”
The record of the “machine” was hardly perfect. In other years, especially midterms, it has suffered losses or had to scrap wins.
In 2014, as Reid focused on trying to win competitive Senate games elsewhere and maintain Democratic control in the Senate, efforts in his backyard waned. Republicans took advantage of opposition to then-President Barack Obama and won all of the statewide races that year and a seat in the Las Vegas home in the heart of Democrat-friendly territory.
Reid himself faced a fierce reelection campaign in 2010 against Tea Party star but gaffe-prone candidate Sharron Angle. That contest, even more than this year’s, came amid widespread economic concerns as Nevada suffered a recession but Reid and his machine managed to win.
This year, National Democrats are well aware of the stakes, they worry that Nevada is their biggest risk of losing a major Senate race. The contest is one of the most expensive in the country, with outside candidates and groups having spent about $100 million so far, despite the state’s relatively small population of about 3 million people.
That population is heavily working-class and transient, making it a constant challenge to connect with people who come in, register them to vote and introduce them to candidates. About a third of the electorate is not registered with a political party.
It can be especially difficult for voters who don’t have deep roots in the state to pay attention to midterm elections, said Susie Martinez, a state assemblywoman and the head of the Nevada AFL-CIO.
“This is not presidential,” she said. “People tend to be a bit more lax about voting. It’s not in their heads right now.”
Pappageorge, who heads the Culinary Union as secretary-treasurer, said the union has 300 and growing people working full-time to knock on doors __ “workers talking to workers” on behalf of Cortez Masto, Sisolak and other Democratic candidates in English, Spanish and other languages.
“This will be a tough election, tougher than 2020, because it’s a by-election. But we’ve got a plan to win,” Pappageorge said, even with Reid gone. “We will never be able to repay the senator for what he has done for our state and for us who live here. But we have entered into this fight.”
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