Nevada Democrats hold both seats in the US Senate, the governor’s mansion and three of the four seats in the US House. The state has not endorsed a Republican presidential candidate since 2004.
But as this year’s midterm elections approach, party power is under threat. Catherine Cortez Masto was called the most vulnerable Democrat in the Senate. Gov. Steve Sisolak is facing a stiff re-election challenge from Republican Joe Lombardo. And the GOP could pick up two House seats in Nevada, putting the party on track to regain its majority in Washington.
The dynamic presents a serious test for the sophisticated organization that the late Senator Harry Reid spent years building to give Democrats a momentum advantage.
The party faces obstacles everywhere, dragged down by President Joe Biden’s unpopularity and persistent inflation. And the challenges in Nevada are particularly significant because the election is the first since Reid died last year, raising questions about the durability of the so-called Reid Machine.
Some top Democrats say the competitive environment is just a reminder that Nevada is a real swing state that the national party can’t take for granted. Cortez Mast’s opponent is Republican Adam Laxalt, a former attorney general and grandson of Paul Laxalt, a 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 state Democratic Attorney General Aaron Ford. “We have to work hard.”
Reid, who served as Senate Majority Leader from 2007 to 2015, helped pool resources to maximize support for candidates on the ballot. His approach used networks that extended far beyond the traditional party structure. In particular, he relied on the heavily immigrant Culinary Union, which represents about 60,000 casino jobs and is spearheading efforts to register voters, make phone calls and knock on doors.
That’s especially important in a state where shift work at Las Vegas casinos, hotels and restaurants and language barriers can make reaching some voters difficult.
“There was everything. It was an investment in people and operatives and candidates to make sure we were firing on all cylinders on the ballot,” said Rebecca Lambe, a longtime Reid aide and Democratic strategist.
Molly Forgey, a former Reid aide and state party official, said the organization’s goal is to avoid “some organizers knocking some officials and others knocking other officials.”
Forgey is now a spokeswoman for Sisolak’s campaign.
As Reid ceded the stage in 2016, his machine’s organizing and voter turnout efforts continued to help Cortez Masto become the nation’s first Latino senator. Two years later, Nevada Democrats flipped a second seat in the state Senate long held by Republicans, elected the first Democratic governor in two decades and expanded their majority in the Legislature.
Reid also pushed Nevada’s presidential caucuses to be among the state’s earliest contests, sending White House hopefuls, political spending and attention to what had been a neglected state — boosting resources and a network of experienced campaign workers who could help the second Nevada election.
But this November, Reid Machine veterans admit they face a tough challenge.
“There is no question that every Democrat in Nevada misses 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.”
But the coordinated operation began to unravel last year after progressives backed by the Democratic Socialists of America took over the leadership of the state party. Top Democratic officials, including moderates Cortez Masto and Sisolak, have established an alternative operation that runs through the district that includes Reno, though Nevada Democrats say divisiveness has not played a role in close races this year.
Democrats and their associated grassroots groups have long warned that the state has the potential to swing Republican and have sometimes felt victimized by 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 up in the air,” Ted Pappageorge, head of the Casino Culinary Workers Union, said of this year’s election. “It’s a total waste.”
The “machine”‘s record was hardly perfect. In other years, especially in the midterms, she recorded losses or had to discard victories.
In 2014, as Reid focused on trying to win competitive Senate races elsewhere and retain Democratic control of the Senate, efforts in his own backyard dwindled. Republicans mounted a backlash against then-President Barack Obama, winning every statewide race that year and the Las Vegas House seat in the heart of Democrat-friendly territory.
Reid himself faced a tough re-election battle 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 bore the brunt of the recession, but Reid and his machine managed to win.
This year, national Democrats are well aware of the stakes, worried that Nevada is their biggest risk of losing a key Senate race. The contest is one of the most expensive in the country, with candidates and outside groups spending about $100 million so far, despite the state’s relatively small population of about 3 million people.
That population is largely working class and transient, making it a constant challenge to connect with people moving in, register them to vote, and introduce them to candidates. About a third of the electorate is not registered in any political party.
It can be especially difficult to get voters who may not have deep roots in the state to pay attention to midterm elections, said Susie Martinez, a member of the state legislature and head of the Nevada AFL-CIO.
“This is not presidential,” she said. “People tend to be a little more lazy about voting. That’s not on their mind right now.”
Pappageorge, who leads the Culinary Union as secretary-treasurer, said the union has 300 people and growing 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 difficult election, more difficult than 2020, because it is an interim period. But we have a plan to win,” Pappageorge said, even though Reid was gone. “We will never be able to repay the senator for what he has done for our country and for us who live here. But we accepted this fight.”
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