Last weekend, Nevada Democrats witnessed the most significant transformation of their party since President Barack Obama won this state in a historic landslide in 2008. Amidst growing angst over the party’s future, and just growing questions over how the party should move forward after the most famous and powerful Nevada Democrat of the 21st Century left Congress, a majority of state party central committee members chose a new path with new leaders.
So what on earth happened to Nevada Democrats? Step away from Twitter, and please tune out the cable news pundits, because we need to revisit our own history to realize all that led to this historic changing of the guard.
As I usually say, this did not “come out of nowhere”. Nevada Democrats “in the know” know how “The Reid Machine” was born.
Before we can look ahead, we must look back. In order to make sense of why some internal squabbling among Nevada Democrats became a feature story at The Intercept and the talk of the town in cable news circles, we need to assess the full historical context and understand the real people and potent issues behind these bombastic headlines to realize how this came about.
As we recalled last November, Nevada Democrats were coming off rock-bottom in 2004. President George W. Bush won the Silver State again, and he helped Nevada Republicans mostly maintain their upper hand following their smashing success up and down the ballot that came with then Governor Kenny Guinn’s (R) historic landslide reelection in 2002.
Then U.S. Senator Harry Reid (D) won his own easy reelection over a fringe Christian Dominionist in 2004, but he knew he wouldn’t always be this lucky. He had already gathered together some of the brightest political minds in this state, such as the inimitable Rebecca Lambe, to essentially take over the state Democratic Party and turn the party into more of a “lean, mean, campaigning machine”. Though Reid and “the machine” of organizers and operatives on his side would eventually succeed, it wasn’t always rainbows, roses, and unicorns on that path to victory.
Is “The Reid Machine” truly omnipotent? (Here’s where Dina Titus enters the chat.)
When I was still a naive campaign volunteer in 2010, I would go to the Nevada State Democratic Party (NSDP) coordinated campaign office in Henderson and wonder why there was tension between the side of the office where organizers were busy securing what would become Reid’s final reelection and the side of the office where organizers were busy trying to save the first-term Rep. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas), back when she represented the far swingier Third Congressional District (NV-03).
Though Titus’ 2010 campaign was fraught by internal strife, she only lost by 1,748 votes in NV-03 as dozens of her fellow swing-district Democratic candidates were losing their own races by worse margins. While “The Reid Machine” likely helped Titus keep her own race close by producing near-presidential level Democratic base turnout in a midterm year, their near-singular focus on saving Reid also led to decisions like touting “Republicans for Reid” endorsers who were hostile to most of the rest of the Democratic ticket, and utilizing Democratic Party resources to turn out voters for Reid regardless of whether or not they backed Titus and other down-ballot Democrats.
Again, this did not “come out of nowhere”. Rather, Titus indirectly challenged Reid by running for Governor in 2006 while Reid was backing Henderson Mayor (now Clark County Commissioner) Jim Gibson. Not only did this cause a brutally ugly primary between Gibson and Titus, but the hostilities continued after Titus won the primary, belied by the self-fulfilling prophecy that “she’s unelectable”. Though Titus lost that Gubernatorial election in 2006, she bounced back and won NV-03 in 2008 after “The Reid Machine” tried and failed to keep their own preferred “electable” candidate in that race.
Fast forward three years, and Titus came back, back, back again to run in the newly redrawn First Congressional District (NV-01) that suddenly opened up thanks to then Rep. Shelley Berkley’s (D-Las Vegas) decision to run for U.S. Senate in 2012. Once again, Reid and his allies anointed someone else to run – State Senator Ruben Kihuen (D-Las Vegas). Yet this time, Kihuen dropped out early because Titus and her team learned from past mistakes and organized their grassroots energy into a potent force that even Harry Reid couldn’t overcome. Despite Reid’s incredible power in the Democratic Party and across the state, Titus’ 2012 victory in NV-01 provided an early sign that he was not omnipotent.
Why 2014’s “Dem-pocalyse Now” should have taught Nevada Democrats not to depend on any one politician for their entire political survival
Even as Berkley’s 2012 Senate campaign struggled amidst self-inflicted political wounds, she only lost to the recently appointed U.S. Senator Dean Heller (R) by a mere 1.16% thanks to “The Reid Machine” putting all their effort into delivering Nevada’s six electoral votes for then President Barack Obama (who won by 6.68%). Going into 2014, Reid’s focus was mainly on saving his U.S. Senate majority that expanded in 2012 despite Heller defeating Berkley right here in Nevada.
Not only did Reid lose his U.S. Senate majority in 2014, but Nevada Democrats suffered an even more severe round of losses than their 2002 shellacking: They lost Rep. Steven Horsford (D-North Las Vegas) in the Fourth Congressional District (NV-04), control of both houses of the Nevada Legislature, all statewide constitutional offices, and any remaining semblance of a “lean, mean, campaigning machine”. With a gubernatorial nominee who seemed like the ultimate definition of “some dude”, a dysfunctional coordinated campaign that couldn’t deliver the robust statewide field operation that usually forms the foundation of a solid Democratic victory, and a glaring lack of a message to motivate their base voters to turn out, why were any of us surprised that Republicans cleaned up with the lowest general election turnout Nevada experienced since World War II?
After the election, some Nevada Democratic insiders complained about then Governor Brian Sandoval’s (R) overwhelming popularity. But as we look back at 2013 and 2014, we notice sore spots like the mental health care “patient dumping” scheme, the overreliance on corporate subsidy regimes for “economic development”, Sandoval’s refusal to consider even the most modest of gun violence prevention legislation, and Sandoval’s struggle (up to that point) to provide much beyond the status quo of underfunded public schools as tremendous “missed opportunities” for Democrats to use against Sandoval.
Over the years, I’ve seen some strange theories try to explain what happened in 2014. But really, all we need are Occam’s Razor and the full view of everything that the state Democratic Party didn’t even try to do that cycle. There’s no need for any elaborate conspiracy theory: It was really just the matter that senior Democratic Party power players had become so reliant on “The Reid Machine” to deliver for them that when Reid and his lieutenants couldn’t focus all their attention on local matters, these power players essentially became powerless on their own.
We’re going to have to wrap it up here for now, but stay tuned for the next installment(s) to see how the ongoing evolution of “The Reid Machine” and a set of obscure party rules led to this week’s eye-popping headlines.
As we’ve all noticed in the past two decades, Harry Reid and his network of talented operatives put together an incredible political tour de force that led to Nevada Democrats winning the last four consecutive presidential elections, both of our U.S. Senate seats, three of our four House seats, the Governor’s Mansion, both houses of the Legislature, and four of the five other statewide constitutional offices. It’s questionable how much of this could have been possible had Reid not made the effort to rebuild the Nevada State Democratic Party from the ground up.
However, that rebuilding wasn’t always seamless. There were certainly setbacks along the way. When Reid tried to sideline a potential rival, she only came back stronger. And in another twist of fate, Reid’s and Titus’ interests would later converge in another gubernatorial primary featuring an “establishment” favorite versus a progressive firebrand with her own grassroots base.
In the last week, we’ve seen plenty of hyperbolic pundit chatter that essentially distorts the full and real picture of the NSDP. Rather than being some Machiavellian prince out to “destroy the left”, or some “Messiah of the Mojave” who can save Nevada Democrats like no one else can, Harry Reid is one person. He is an incredibly powerful and talented person, but he is nonetheless one person who no longer holds elected office.
While “The Reid Machine” continues to organize in this state, this “machine” had already begun to move away from the formal party structure and towards a network of progressive organizations that focus more on issues and less on personalities. In Part 2, we’ll explore this evolution of “The Reid Machine” and the next series of events that led to the new NSDP that we’re all trying to make sense of now.