These last 48 hours have probably been the most intense stretch on the campaign trail that Nevada voters have experienced so far this cycle. While a new frontrunner emerges in Iowa, new polling data and intra-party chatter suggest Nevada may hold steady for a very familiar face.
To get a better sense of what’s really going on, I spent all day Sunday at the Nevada State Democratic Party’s “First in the West” event at Bellagio on the Las Vegas Strip, then watched the Westside Pride Black Community Summit on Monday. Not only did I get to see several candidates in action, but I might have also picked up some clues on where this caucus may be heading come next February.
“Any campaign that doesn’t invest in Nevada, that’s a bad gamble.”
– Rebecca Lambe, senior adviser to former U.S. Senator Harry Reid (D)
Before we go further, I need to explain that when former U.S. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid spoke with reporters at Bellagio yesterday, no recording was allowed in the press filing room. Instead, all of us who were smart enough to come in early had the unique opportunity to engage in a “no-holds-barred” conversation with Nevada’s most famous Democrat.
As he and other state party leaders been saying for some time, “We are a diverse state. We’re the first state in the west. We’re the first state that’s representative of the rest of the country.” Whenever anyone asked about recent Iowa, and/or New Hampshire polls, Reid dismissed those numbers as fleeting and/or unrepresentative. And when specifically asked about South Bend (Indiana) Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s latest surge in an array of Iowa polls (add CBS-YouGov to the pile), Reid flat-out responded, “Just because Buttigieg or someone else does well in Iowa doesn’t mean anything here [in Nevada].”
However Reid and his long-time “right-hand woman”, Rebecca Lambe, didn’t just talk about specific candidates. When asked about the apparent disconnect between Congressional Democrats’ messaging and the conversation happening on the campaign trail, whether it’s the candidates’ relatively muted approach to impeachment or their incessant arguments over “Medicare for All”, Reid and Lambe expressed hope that Nevada’s caucus will ensure the party stays on track to win in November 2020.
As Lambe explained, “When you look at the [geography] of Nevada and where Democrats are winning, this is the first true battleground. […] You have to have a message that appeals to a broader, more diverse electorate.” And while Lambe signaled that she and Reid want the campaigns to do more to connect with Nevada’s communities of color, they issued a broad warning to those who aren’t doing much of anything. As Lambe put it, “Any campaign that doesn’t invest in Nevada, that’s a bad gamble.”
“When you look at the [geography] of Nevada and where Democrats are winning, this is the first true battleground. […] You have to have a message that appeals to a broader, more diverse electorate.”
– Rebecca Lambe
The main event kicked off with a tribute to Reid, followed by Governor Steve Sisolak (D) reiterating Reid’s insistence that Nevada matters more than those other two early states. Then when it was time for the candidates’ speeches, former Vice President Joe Biden kicked it all off with a condensed version of his greatest hits. Yet while Biden used his Saturday night town hall to argue his platform is more ambitious than we give him credit for, Biden’s Sunday night “First in the West” speech switched back to an “electability” heavy presentation. Biden essentially conceded that some of his rivals have more exciting ideas, but only Biden can “beat Trump like a drum”.
Like Biden, the others pretty much gave condensed versions of their greatest stump speeches. For Senator Kamala Harris (D-California), it was “justice is on the ballot” and making the case against Trump. For Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), it was “big, structural change” to end the culture of corruption. And for Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) it was all about the “political revolution” and what this “revolution” will accomplish.
While the candidates were making their pitches, two prominent Nevada Democrats were grading them. And while Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D) and Rep. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas) held their cards very close to the vest, they seemed to agree with Lambe that the candidates must do more to connect with Nevada’s voters, particularly in local communities of color. While they tended to steer clear of favoring one or another side in the presidential field’s ideological divide, Cortez Masto’s, Titus’, and Lambe’s critiques would particularly sting one frontrunner who’s enjoyed a sudden surge in two other early states, but has yet to prove himself in this early state.
“I don’t want to contribute to the school to prison pipeline. I want to end it!”
– Julián Castro, at the Westside Pride Black Community Summit
Just hours after the “First in the West” event, a few candidates stayed in town to address the Westside Pride Black Community Summit hosted by Rep. Steven Horsford (D-North Las Vegas) and Nevada Partners. And interestingly enough, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro gave presentations that sounded like exactly the medicine that Nevada’s Democratic leaders ordered.
Back in January, Elizabeth Warren talked about the housing (affordability) crisis as not just an economic justice issue, but also as a matter of racial justice. Since then, she released a comprehensive housing plan that includes a ten-year, $500 billion investment in new and renovated affordable housing to provide 3 million more homes for low-income families. And just today, she expanded upon this with a renters’ rights plan that includes a new federal just cause eviction standard, a right to lease renewal, protections against “constructive eviction” (where landlords essentially force renters out by neglecting their units and/or interfering with their units), and tenants’ right to organize.
Following Warren, Julián Castro also talked about housing, though he spent more of his time touting his education plan that includes $10,000 tax credits for teachers who decide to teach in public schools serving economically disadvantaged communities and more incentives for students of color to become teachers. According to Castro, “More teachers should look like the kids they’re teaching.”
While Warren tended to stick to her own record, Castro sought to strike a contrast between himself and rivals who’ve been trying to paper over their respective records. In a curious twist of foreshadowing, Castro warned of the risk of relying on outside forces to provide “school safety”. According to Castro, “I don’t want police officers enforcing discipline in our schools. Our kids are already being targeted, especially our young men of color. I don’t want to contribute to the school to prison pipeline. I want to end it!”
“This is a cash cow. These people are making so much money off what: Selling weed! Meanwhile, our kids are labeled as felons for life.”
– Kamala Harris, at the Westside Pride Black Community Summit
After a series of delays, Kamala Harris finally came to the stage to respond to Castro’s critiques… And for that matter, criticism from other candidates, other top Democrats, and the press on her campaign’s alleged “meltdown”. To start with, Harris sought to distinguish herself from the likes of Warren, Castro, and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) by suggesting her platform is about way more than just detailed policy plans. According to Harris, “I don’t just have staff come up with plans. I’ve lived these issues.”
Nonetheless, Harris used her time at the Black Community Summit to tout her own housing plan that includes $100 billion in aid to assist new homebuyers in historically red-lined communities with down payment and closing costs. In addition, Harris continued to fight back against critics who’ve dismissed her criminal justice record in California as that of a “tough on crime, lock-em-up cop”. As Harris recalled, “The Holder-Obama Justice Department saw us as a model for the rest of the nation.”
From there, Harris contrasted herself with rivals like Joe Biden who’ve tried to straddle the fence on these very issues. “At the federal level, we need to decriminalize and legalize marijuana,” she declared. Then as Harris seemed to describe how “The Great Green Rush” has been playing out here in Nevada, she pointed out the disparity between the booming marijuana business of today with the unfinished business of the not-so-distant past. As Harris noted, “This is a cash cow. These people are making so much money off what: Selling weed! Meanwhile, our kids are labeled as felons for life.”
“Let’s be clear that the Democratic nominee has got to be someone who has the experience of connecting with all of who we are as the diversity of the American people.”
– Kamala Harris
After she left the main stage at the Black Community Summit, Harris spoke with reporters and made some more news by calling for the decriminalization of sex work, an issue that’s gradually been rising to the forefront in a state with a curious disparity between rural counties with legally regulated brothels and major urban areas with a dangerous underground economy. According to Harris, “They should not be criminalized. We should understand the nature of what’s going on with them.”
Then, another reporter asked about the budding controversy surrounding Pete Buttigieg and his glaring lack of support amongst voters of color. First The Intercept’s Ryan Grim reported that Buttigieg’s campaign coerced South Carolina African-American community leaders into endorsing his “Douglass Plan”, then Grim reported that Buttigieg’s website used a stock photo from Kenya for his “Douglass Plan” page. On these back-to-back scandals, Harris simply stated, “I’m sure someone agrees that was a big mistake. He’s going to have to answer for that. I don’t have words to describe that.”
And finally, to bring this full-circle, Harris essentially added exclamation points to the message that Harry Reid and his Democratic successors in Congress have been making about the Democratic Party’s need to strengthen its relationship with voters of color here in Nevada and throughout the nation. As Harris put it, “Let’s be clear that the Democratic nominee has got to be someone who has the experience of connecting with all of who we are as the diversity of the American people.” She soon added a subtle contrast between her record in California and Buttigieg’s in Indiana: “My experience is that when you’ve actually had the experience of working with folks, you have a better ability to represent.”
Now that Buttigieg is back on the rise in Iowa, and now that there’s a real chance that the Democratic Party may follow up the history-making presidency of Barack Obama and candidacy of Hillary Clinton by nominating another white man, Nevada Democrats may actually have a serious role to play. Will our voters restore Biden’s glide path to the nomination, will they force Buttigieg to expand his base, or will they show Warren and/or Sanders how to build a new multiracial progressive coalition? Or hell, might they decide to propel someone who looks and sounds more like the 2020-era Democratic Party towards the nomination? We still have three months to go until our Democratic voters caucus, but perhaps their caucus decisions will matter a great deal, after all.