Earlier this month, Nevada Democrats witnessed the most significant transformation of their party since President Barack Obama won this state in a historic landslide in 2008. Since then, we’ve seen a critical mass of national media pundits descend on the drama and attribute it all to one former presidential candidate.
So what on earth happened to Nevada Democrats? Surprisingly (but not really), the real story is far more complex and much more fascinating than any one-dimensional narrative centered on some far-away “revolution”. In reality, Nevada Democrats have gradually been evolving away from one central “machine” and more towards an intricate network of organizations and coalitions.
Every so often, we’ve seen some progressive Democratic women take on the traditional “party establishment”. Why don’t their stories get featured on the cable news channels?
Picture this: The “anti-establishment outsider” runs for Governor as a “true blue progressive Democrat”, yet so does the “anointed insider” who’s backed by a certain well-oiled “Reid Machine”. The progressive outsider runs on a platform of transformational change, while the insider relies on key endorsements and nearly exhausts his campaign warchest to fend off this challenger.
Does this sound familiar yet? Well, here’s a fun twist to scratch that record to: Both former U.S. Senator Harry Reid (D) and Rep. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas) backed the same anointed insider, while Hillary Clinton endorsed the progressive outsider and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) remained firmly neutral.
Ultimately Reid and Titus scored big with Steve Sisolak‘s victory in that 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary, and Chris Giunchigliani became yet another prominent progressive Democratic woman to get labeled as “too radical”. We’ll jump back to this 2018 primary a little later in this story, but I want us to start Part 2 of our “What’s Going on with Nevada Democrats?” series here to remind us all that what’s going on has far more to do with questions of who has the most power than the overly simplistic “Bernie v. ‘The Establishment'” narrative that all too often clouds the full view of what’s really happening.
Now, we can start talking about Bernie Sanders. But please, let’s stick to the facts and keep away from the fiction.
Lost amidst all the speculation since 2016 over Bernie Sanders and the “revolution” inspired by his two presidential campaigns is Sanders’ own navigation of the D.C. power structure to the point where he now chairs the Senate Budget Committee. When Reid told The New Yorker last year that he “always kind of liked Bernie Sanders”, he wasn’t lying. In fact, Sanders formed a closer relationship with Senate Democratic leaders than he did with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) and other House Democratic leaders when he was on that side of the U.S. Capitol. During their shared time in the Senate, Reid and Sanders collaborated on multiple policies, such as boosting funding for community health centers under the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare) and fixing the health care crisis at the Veterans Administration (V.A.).
This is what then U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California) was referring to at the Nevada State Democratic Party (NSDP) Convention in May 2016, when she called Sanders her friend and condemned the Sanders supporters who booed her for speaking in support of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. For seasoned politicians like Reid and Boxer who served alongside Sanders in the Senate, it was a bizarre spectacle to see self-proclaimed “Berniecrats” spew so much invective their way, malign them as part of some “corrupt establishment”, and disrupt the convention to the point where party leaders suffered death threats after Las Vegas Metro Police officers and Caesars Entertainment’s private security force had to intervene to end the chaotic proceedings at Paris Las Vegas.
Obviously, those individuals who booed Boxer and incited the chaos saw things very differently. However, this wasn’t the first time a state party convention erupted into chaos and dysfunction. So why did party leaders allow for such a sequel to occur?
Actually, 2016 was not the first time Nevada Democrats suffered a chaotic caucus-to-convention process. Nonetheless, they suffered that sequel in 2016.
Eight years before that Clinton v. Sanders caucus fracas erupted into convention chaos, it was the nomination contest between Clinton and Barack Obama that culminated in messy county and state party conventions that imploded on their own dead weight, led to widespread accusations of wrongdoing, and provoked worries over whether “Democrats are in disarray”. Despite this disastrous outcome in 2008, the state party mostly copied and pasted the same caucus-to-convention rules for 2016.
In 2008, some Clinton supporters were baffled by how Obama ultimately scored more DNC delegates despite Clinton winning more votes at the caucus level. In 2016, some Sanders supporters cried foul over Clinton securing the full DNC delegate lead in May that she appeared to clinch at the caucus level in February despite Sanders scoring more state convention delegates at the county convention level in April. In reality, NSDP adhered to a delegate selection plan from 2008 to 2016 that essentially encouraged these political Hunger Games where the presidential campaigns could continue to try to game the system to score more delegates regardless of what voters actually decided at the caucus.
It was only long after the 2016 debacle and the residual fallout when NSDP officials finally unveiled a new delegate selection plan for 2020 that included a more straightforward allocation of delegates based on the actual caucus results. In a later installment, we’ll take a closer look at how and why Nevada Democrats barely avoided another caucus meltdown last year. But for now, let’s stay in 2016 a little longer to catch the beginning of the divergence of “The Reid Machine” from the official party structure.
Remember “The Reid Machine”? Here’s where “The Machine” began to move outside the party structure.
When this group of Nevada Sanders supporters caught the Clinton campaign napping at the county conventions and set in motion that state convention showdown, they revealed another inconvenient truth that many more Democrats across the nation would learn the hard way in November 2016: Hillary Clinton’s campaign was woefully unprepared to run the field operation that Obama-era Democrats had become accustomed to running to persuade voters at their doorsteps (or on the phone) and ensure strong base turnout regardless of any day-to-day media cycle drama.
By early summer 2016, Reid and his top lieutenants could tell something was off when Clinton’s campaign hadn’t yet gotten the NSDP coordinated campaign running on all cylinders. They had already begun to work more closely with a network of progressive nonprofit groups to essentially provide backup support for the official party field operation. But once it became crystal-clear that the Clinton campaign and the DNC were not on track to launch a sufficient field operation through NSDP, “The Reid Machine” took matters into their own hands by turning what they originally planned as backup support into their own “lean, mean, campaign machine” outside the party’s apparatus and purview. At the very least, these progressive groups provided critical field support that proved very valuable when Hillary Clinton and U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D) both won by matching 2.4% margins in 2016.
Far from being some “corrupt corporatist conservatives” who had some secret mission to “destroy the left”, these progressive groups, such as Battle Born Progress and PLAN Action, actually had long-standing relationships with local progressive activists and track records of working on issues like climate action, immigrant civil rights, women’s rights, and workers’ rights. Despite Reid’s success in keeping the state party in his allies’ hands in 2017, “The Reid Machine” continued to operate with these progressive nonprofit groups in 2018, and they secured even more success that year by helping U.S. Senator Jacky Rosen (D) and Governor Steve Sisolak seal the deal in the general election.
Finally, we’re coming full circle. Let’s return to 2018, and to the story of Chris Giunchigliani.
Chris Giunchigliani (or “Chris G”) did anything but “come out of nowhere”. Rather, she was an experienced educator who rose through the ranks of the county and state teachers’ unions (CCEA – county, NSEA – state), then served in the Nevada Legislature on the Assembly side, then made it onto the Clark County Commission in 2006. Between Chris G’s own experience in running for office and serving as an elected official, and her long-time spouse Gary Gray’s extensive experience as a Democratic campaign consultant, she was far from some political neophyte who didn’t know what she was doing.
Yet if we didn’t know any of this and instead just relied on the description of her campaign by Reid that got reported by The New York Times, it would be easier to assume that she was some “DSA affiliated radical” who’d scare away swing voters… And more importantly, would scare away gaming industry campaign contributions. In reality local and national DSA activists largely stayed out of this primary, while Reid and several of his powerful allies went all in for Sisolak.
However, there was one major twist that really hampered Chris G’s attempt to break through the barrage of attack ads: Titus’ endorsement of Sisolak. Even as other long-time Nevada progressive women leaders, such as former State Senator Sheila Leslie (D-Reno), fought back against misleading attacks on Chris G’s record from the Nevada Legislature, Titus’ seal of approval likely played a major role in sealing the deal for Sisolak, especially since she endorsed Sisolak months before Hillary Clinton intervened with a last-minute endorsement for Chris G. Even as Chris G romped in Washoe County and largely held her own in the rural counties, Sisolak’s landslide win in their shared home turf of Clark County was just too big for Chris G to overcome.
So what happened? Basically Sisolak spent years forging relationships with the likes of Reid and Titus, and Chris G ran into the same political buzzsaw that Titus herself once ran into in 2006. In 2006, Titus’ advocacy for more environmentally sustainable development got labeled as “too radical”. In 2018, Giunchigliani’s mere refusal to “go along to get along” got labeled as “too radical”. At times like this, it truly does feel like the more things change, the more things remain the same.
We’re going to have to end Part 2 at this corner of Nevada Democrats’ recent history. In Part 3, we’ll review what “The Reid Machine” got right… And where they went terribly wrong.
It’s easy for national media pundits on various ends of the ideological and partisan spectrums to declare that the current conflicts among Nevada Democrats are all about Bernie Sanders, the DSA, and some grand “class warfare” between capitalists and socialists. But in reality, Harry Reid was never at war against Bernie Sanders. Though Reid quietly worked to boost Clinton behind the scenes in 2016, he didn’t really have a favorite going into the 2020 Caucus. And in reviewing footage from Sanders’ many visits to Nevada prior to the 2020 Caucus, we’re reminded that Sanders never once spoke ill of Reid on the campaign trail. That was certainly no accident.
Closer to home, Reid’s “machine” already began to divest from the official party apparatus when signs began to materialize that their grasp of the official party power structure wouldn’t last much longer. At the same time, “The Reid Machine” realized they needed even bigger changes to keep up with Nevada’s changing demographics. They joined forces with local progressives to not only work on shared policy goals, but also to usher in a generation of new leaders.
However, not all of those new leaders lived up to their full potential. In fact, one such “leader” ultimately went down in flames once his rap sheet of abusing his power against multiple women made local and national headlines. In Part 3 we’ll not just recall the moment when the #MeToo movement came home to Nevada, but we’ll also assess the larger picture of the ever evolving relationship between Nevada Democrats’ top leaders and the local progressives who got this whole evolutionary process started.