Silver State lining for Democrats

How Republicans failed to capture Nevada amid a red wave.


While most swing states bent toward President-elect Donald Trump and a surprisingly red result on Election Night, Nevada actually got bluer. Not only did the Silver State go for Hillary Clinton, but Democrats held onto retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s seat, flipped its U.S. House delegation, and regained control of both chambers of the state legislature. Progressives also helped legalize recreational marijuana, supported breaking up a monopoly on the state electricity market, and even passed tougher background checks for gun purchases.

So, what exactly happened? “Nevada actually followed the formula that the Democrats thought would carry the nation,” says Eric Herzik, chair of the University of Nevada, Reno, political science department.

That meant relying on an organized and powerful get-out-the-vote strategy. Clinton’s campaign set up shop in the state 18 months in advance of the election. Reid’s political “machine,” a staff and network developed over decades, hustled to register voters and support several handpicked candidates. A coalition of the potent, 57,000-member Culinary Workers Union Local 226, representing Las Vegas hotel and service workers, and other progressive groups also registered and rallied tens of thousands of voters, including Latinos (28 percent of the state population) and urban voters in Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County (nearly 75 percent of the state population). And while Hispanics didn’t tilt for Democrats beyond 2012 levels in Nevada and other Western states, the alliance of party, labor, and progressive forces mobilized very strong turnout in Clark County through early voting, building an insurmountable lead for Democrats that the rest of rural and conservative Nevada couldn’t overcome.

A Mariachi band participates in get-out-the-vote efforts in Nevada this fall.
PLAN Action
“We’ve never seen this many Mariachi bands in Nevada,” jokes Bob Fulkerson, state director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, which teamed up with the culinary workers and other groups to register voters and get them to the polls, even helping some people navigate the citizenship process (Fulkerson is also a member of High Country News board of directors). “Nevada really shows what organizing and collaboration can do," he says. “This wasn’t just a few weeks before Election Day. This was years.”

By contrast, state Republicans didn't measure up. “We have no structure, no leadership,” says Randi Thompson, a Republican political consultant in Reno. Nevada’s second city and surrounding Washoe County leaned slightly toward Clinton in the election, a notable shift in a previously reliable Republican region that once aligned with the state’s more rural areas. Thompson says the Democrats’ organization, boosted by “the Reid machine,” and a rise in Latinos and unaffiliated voters, has eroded Washoe’s formerly conservative makeup. New residents are part of a rising tech industry around Reno, Thompson believes, while others are Burning Man attendees. “It’s attracting people to move here permanently,” she says. While Burners aren’t all necessarily liberals, northern Nevada’s growing population is less reliably conservative and more independent, according to Thompson.

Fulkerson believes Reno and Washoe County may epitomize a “new Nevada,” increasingly diverse and not fiercely partisan.

The state’s Congressional delegation captures that swell of diversity—and the extent of Reid’s influence. Catherine Cortez Masto, D, who defeated Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Heck to claim Reid’s seat, will be the first ever Latina U.S. Senator and first female senator from Nevada. On the House side, Democrat Ruben Kihuen, a Mexican-born, Nevada-raised political staffer for Reid and the state Democratic Party, defeated incumbent Rep. Crescent Hardy, a Republican. Jacky Rosen, D, a computer programmer and former president of a Vegas area Jewish synagogue, grabbed Heck’s former seat. Reid recruited and strongly backed each of those candidates.

At the state level, the Dems won back the Assembly and Senate after Republicans had captured both chambers during the 2014 midterm elections. The party has already nominated people of color to several leadership positions.

Meanwhile, among Nevada Republicans who lost on Election Day were eight candidates, including Hardy, who expressed support for Cliven Bundy and the movement to transfer federal public lands to states.

But don’t count Nevada as reliably blue just yet. Democrats will need to figure out how to repeat their impressive efforts in Clark County and with Latinos in 2018 without Reid or the allure of a presidential race, and state Republicans’ 2014 wins are hardly ancient history.

“I think Nevada is still very much in play,” says Thompson, noting that the gaining blocs of Latinos and independent voters can still be swayed by either party as in other Western states, such as Arizona. The state’s political future will depend on whether state Republicans can eventually step up their own organizing and compete with the muscle of the unions and their allies. “The question is how much unions are going to pump into the system, and whether Republicans can match that,” Thompson says.

Another variable is Donald Trump. The Trump Organization has tried several times to boot the culinary union from its Vegas hotel and opposed hotel housekeepers who wanted to join the union. The National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of the union and workers just before the election, but Trump will now be able to appoint members to the board who can rule to weaken unions in Nevada and elsewhere. Some union officials are already worrying that a Trump presidency will mean “an extinction-level event for American labor.” Any sort of crackdown will certainly reverberate in Nevada, but for now, state Democrats are savoring their rare, hard-won success.

Zaffos is a HCN correspondent in Fort Collins, Colorado. Follow him @jzaffos.

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