For nearly two decades, Nevada Democrats have witnessed major changes that culminated in a “trifecta” of state government power, a supermajority of Congressional seats, and a new state party leadership team who got elected earlier this spring. The Nevada State Democratic Party (NSDP) has experienced significant evolution in the past two decades, but this evolutionary process hasn’t always been a smooth and easy ride.
In our final installment of this series, we assess once more the fallout from the 2020 election, and we try our best to make sense of where Nevada Democrats are heading in 2021 and beyond.
Tired: “Nevada Democrats in Disarray!”
Wired: “Nevada Democrats Try to Navigate Through Power Struggles.”
Inspired: “Nevada Democrats Continue Their Evolution As the Party Matures.”
Following her address to the Nevada Legislature on May 3, Rep. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas) held a virtual press conference. When asked about leftist activist Amy Vilela launching a primary challenge against her next year, Titus quipped, “I’m focused on bringing back our economy, delivering health care, delivering jobs.”
Four years prior, Vilela appeared alongside Titus to condemn then President Donald Trump’s and Congressional Republicans’ attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. When Titus endorsed “Medicare for All” single-payer health care, it seemed like Titus had the strongest relationship with progressive activists amongst all of Nevada’s Democrats in Congress. And of course, Titus herself campaigned as a “progressive insurgent” against “The Reid Machine” when she ran for Governor in 2006, and again when she first ran for the First Congressional District (NV-01) in 2012.
Why is Dina Titus suddenly getting a primary challenge from a leftist in 2022? Why is Governor Steve Sisolak (D) and Democratic legislative leaders suddenly taking on “friendly fire” from their fellow Democrats on matters like abolishing the death penalty, “studying” Blockchains’ “Innovation Zone” proposal, tenants’ rights and affordable housing, and the overall landscape where more ambitiously progressive bills are struggling despite Democrats’ state government “trifecta”? Why are we hearing more and more chatter about “Nevada Democrats in Disarray” despite the lack of open hostility amongst each other that’s come to define Nevada Republicans in 2021?
As usual, here’s where we insert the classic line: None of this “came out of nowhere”. As we’ve been documenting throughout this special series, “The Reid Machine” was born out of a growing consensus among Nevada Democrats that something had to change in order to flip Nevada from red to blue. But once Nevada became more of a blue state, Nevada Democrats from the highest reaches of government and deep in the grassroots began to ask: “Who do we really want in power, and what should we do with our power?”
Why did Nevada end up being a closer call than some of us expected last November? (Hint: Stop blaming Black Lives Matter, “Defund the Police”, and “Abolish ICE” already!)
Since I don’t want to repeat myself too much, let’s just breeze through a condensed version of our findings from our “Hindsight 2020” series: While the general shortage of in-person campaigning didn’t help Nevada Democrats, the failure of too many Democratic groups to adapt to the 2020-era internet turned out to be an even bigger blunder than many of us had expected. Groups like the Culinary Union and Make the Road Nevada Action who jumped into the field to help turn out Democratic base voters delivered the goods, whereas groups like The Lincoln Project who jumped at every opportunity for MSNBC and CNN camera time proved to be more of a money pit for “resistance liberals” who wanted to help. And as another surge of support among college-educated suburban professionals boosted Democrats in Washoe County, Trump’s overperformance in Clark County kept the overall election results too close for comfort for Nevada Democrats.
Remember how President Joe Biden and his campaign team frequently made the argument on his “electability”, and remember how the other 2020 Democratic presidential candidates who ran as “moderates” claimed that only they could “win big” and “win the era”? Well, Biden ultimately won the Democratic nomination and the general election… Yet we still see this army of pundits claim that Black Lives Matter protests, and activists’ calls to “Defund the Police” and “Abolish ICE”, despite the fact that Biden was the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, and despite the fact that Biden and progressive favorites like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-New York) frequently made it clear that they didn’t always hold the exact same views on every issue.
Let’s set aside the speculation and examine the actual numbers: While Biden’s percentage margin in Clark County was slightly weaker than Hillary Clinton’s, he still had a larger margin of raw votes following last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. And when we turn north to Washoe, Biden won by stronger percentage and raw vote margins than Clinton in 2016 following the Black Lives Matter protests in Reno.
Neither Black Lives Matter nor “too far left” progressive policies threatened to sink Biden’s election victory.
Last week, Politics Twitter blew up over new analysis that suggested that Black Lives Matter protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, nearly tipped Wisconsin back into Donald Trump’s column last November. Just the whole notion that Black Americans’ refusal to accept the murder of Jacob Blake as “law and order” boils down to merely a “political liability for Democrats” feels disgusting to even think about, but it’s also a gross oversimplification of what happened last year. While Biden indeed underperformed Clinton in Kenosha County last year, we don’t see similar effects in other areas that experienced major Black Lives Matter protests last year. If anything, Biden’s underperformance in Kenosha County seems to align more with similar movement in other “Frost Belt” regions than provide evidence of any “Black Lives Matter Backlash” against Democrats.
When we move west, Biden’s 70%-27% winning margin in Hennepin County, Minnesota, (Minneapolis and its innermost suburbs) was quite a bit stronger than Clinton’s 63%-28% 2016 win following the protests over the murder of George Floyd. Going further west, Biden’s 79%-18% winning score in Multnomah County, Oregon, beats Clinton’s 73%-17% 2016 win following the Portland protests that Trump attempted to turn to his advantage. Heading south, Biden’s 59%-39% win in Jefferson County, Kentucky, (Louisville) was stronger than Clinton’s 54%-41% performance following the protests over the murder of Breonna Taylor. Going further south, Biden’s surge throughout the Atlanta metro region flipped Georgia into the Democratic column for the first time since 1992 following protests over the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, and U.S. Senators Raphael Warnock (D-Georgia) and Jon Ossoff (D-Georgia) both won their respective runoffs in January after the Republican incumbent Senators attempted to turn Black Lives Matter into a “political liability” for Democrats.
When it comes to arguments that “too far left” policy positions held by certain down-ballot Democrats hurt the entire party, those arguments also lie on incredibly shaky ground. As we move to California, we see that all three of the former Democratic Members of Congress who lost their seats last year (T.J. Cox [D-Fresno], Gil Cisneros [D-Brea], and Harley Rouda [D-Laguna Beach]) publicly identified with the more moderate wings of the House Democratic Caucus. Yet even though Rouda’s performance relative to Biden’s in his district was the second best among the “2018 Red-to-Blue” California Democratic freshmen seeking second terms in 2020 (only Rep. Josh Harder [D-Modesto] overperformed above Biden), Rouda’s 4% underperformance below Biden margin is only barely better than Rep. Katie Porter’s (D-Irvine) slightly over 4% underperformance below Biden in her district despite Porter positioning herself as a solid progressive, and Porter fared better relative to Biden than Cisneros (about an 11% underperformance) and Cox (almost a 12% underperformance). And while Rouda’s underperformance was below that of fellow progressive Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano), Levin’s just under 7% underperformance below Biden still beats that of Cox and Cisneros.
As we jump back to our own State of Nevada, Rep. Susie Lee (D-Las Vegas) overperformed Biden by almost 3% while Rep. Steven Horsford (D-North Las Vegas) overperformed Biden by just under 1%. That’s not much difference between them, even though Horsford positions himself as a mainstream Democrat while Lee tends to present herself as more of a “bipartisan problem-solver”. And since Lee and Horsford occupy seats that have a longer history as swing districts than most of the above-mentioned California seats that have rapidly shifted leftward since 2016, that probably explains why Lee and Horsford could overperform above Biden while all the California Democratic freshmen except Harder underperformed below Biden.
As they prepare for 2022, Nevada Democrats should remember what they got right in 2020.
Now that we’ve (again) debunked a fairly widespread theory of what did not work for Democrats last year, let’s switch gears and notice what did work. Going into early voting last October, I noticed a steady stream of online ads from Rep. Susie Lee’s campaign featuring action shots of her “getting –it done for Nevada”. Rep. Steven Horsford’s campaign also leaned hard into this message of delivering the goods for constituents. To hardly anyone’s surprise, a critical mass of Nevada voters responded well to the message of our local members of Congress actually taking action to help them.
Sometimes, I do wonder if far too many of us in the media focus way too much on “game theory campaigning” that we lose sight of the basics on how politics works. How many of Lee’s and Horsford’s fellow swing district House Democrats tried to thread needles last year on the above mentioned issues to the point where they infuriated progressive activists while also reminding “average voters” of the very Republican attack ads that they were responding to? When one becomes better/worse known for campaign ads that just complained about New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), one’s playing the game completely wrong.
As I’ve not-so-subtly been hinting at since January, the political fate of Lee, Horsford, and U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D) next year will most likely hinge on what they and President Joe Biden accomplish this year. It’s probably as simple as that. It makes perfect sense that they’re touting the American Rescue Plan that they passed in March, and they only stand to benefit further if they can convince their fellow Congressional Democrats to finalize a plan of action for passing some version of Biden’s infrastructure plans.
Democrats have already tried to fight back against Trump-era Republicans’ mendacity of memes with character-based “calls to patriotism”, but those esoteric “calls to patriotism” tend to fall flat among voters who care more about practical “bread and butter issues”. It’s not always easy to wave the flag to shoo away social media trolling, but real-world results like a lower health insurance premium, help in securing small business aid, and even a “stimmy” in the mail might convince voters to mute the trolls and focus on the bottom line.
Finally, we arrive at the big moment where Nevada Democrats get new state party leaders.
— The Democrats (@TheDemocrats) March 22, 2021
When viewed in an isolated vacuum, the ascension of Nevada State Democratic Party (NSDP) Chair Judith Whitmer and the rest of the Las Vegas DSA backed candidate slate seems like a wild development that either “advances democratic socialism” like we’ve never seen before, or threatens a “Red Wave” like we’ve never seen before in 2022. Yet throughout this series, I’ve been trying my best to point out that this did not “come out of nowhere”, this did not emerge from an isolated vacuum, and that this is just the newest phase of NSDP’s evolution from a hardscrabble “flyover state” party to a far more sophisticated network of activists and power players who manage to maintain Democrats’ upper hand despite this state’s enduring swing state status. Once U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) won a supermajority of delegates at the February 2020 Democratic Caucus, thereby giving Sanders supporters the opportunity to take a majority on the state party’s central committee later that year, folks in “The Reid Machine” noticed the writing on the wall and proceeded to accelerate the transition out of the official party structure that they had already begun in 2016.
As much as some media pundits and “senior strategist” hacks love to shitpost their “hot takes” on how the new NSDP party officers will factor into voters’ decisions next year, I’m here to remind everyone that the vast majority of voters will almost certainly not base their decision on whether or not to reelect Cortez Masto, Lee, and Horsford on what any cable TV talking head or “very online” Twitter personality says about how much influence the Las Vegas DSA now has within the official party apparatus and how “The Reid Machine” is functioning outside the party’s purview.
Again, voters care far more about what their elected officials do to help them than how their elected officials interact with party insiders who can not be further removed from their everyday lives. Instead of fretting about a former Blue Dog State Senator turned disgraced North Las Vegas Mayor who is trying to use the recent changes at NSDP to change the subject from his own problematic record, Nevada Democrats need to focus on how best to connect with voters and how best to prove that they’re fulfilling the promises they’ve made to voters in the last few election cycles.
While we are most definitely witnessing a real humanitarian crisis escalate in Israel and Palestine, it remains highly unlikely that Sisolak’s and Democratic legislators’ 2022 reelection bids will hinge on party insiders’ dueling statements on the latest Israel-Palestine crisis. More likely, voters will base their decisions on how Nevada’s economy is faring, whether the State of Nevada can do a better job at funding basic public infrastructure like schools and health care services, and whether Nevada can seize opportunities as the nation tackles major challenges like climate change. Really, there is no need for any Democratic politician to overthink some elaborate “game theory” strategy when voters seek simple answers to the basic question once posed by Janet Jackson: “What have you done for me lately?”
Let’s keep it simple here: If Nevada Democrats want to stay in power, they need to utilize well the power they have now.
As we close this story and finish this series, let’s return to Titus’ response to that question on Amy Vilela’s primary challenge: “I’m focused on bringing back our economy, delivering health care, delivering jobs.” As simple as this sounds, how Titus delivers on this promise will likely be the key determining factor for how much longer Titus’ career in Congress lasts. And for that matter, the same holds true for Cortez Masto, Lee, and Horsford next year, then for Biden and U.S. Senator Jacky Rosen (D) in 2024.
Nevada Democrats have built a remarkable reputation over the years in winning elections and consolidating power. Now, it’s time for Nevada Democrats to decide how they want to use their power and how they will convince voters to keep picking them over Republicans in future elections. While 2021 might mark the end of “The Reid Machine” as we previously knew them, we already know that “The Reid Machine” had already been transitioning to a different power structure outside the party. 2021 might very well be a “New Beginning” for Nevada Democrats, but they now must choose whether they want to embark on that “New Beginning”, or whether they want to continue pursuing ghosts of the past.
As institutionalists aligned with “The Reid Machine” seek to figure out how best to keep Nevada blue in 2022 and beyond, and as leftists and progressives aligned with the new NSDP leadership team seek to use their newfound power within the party to shift the Overton Window leftward on everything from foreign policy to health care policies, they all need to remember how and why Nevada Democrats amassed all this power in the first place. They all need to remember the voters who gave the party this much power, and they need to provide voters with real results if they want to stay in power.