updated 7/16/2008 5:08:15 PM ET 2008-07-16T21:08:15

A pyramid rising from the desert, New York skyscrapers across the street from the sphinx-like lion, a not-too-miniature Eiffel Tower and the gondolas of Venice, a flaming pirate ship next door to Roman ruins: this is what you see as the plane descends to the runway at Las Vegas. All these surrealistic monuments, and miles of spreading subdivisions, are set in one of North America’s most forbidding landscapes, a bowl-shaped desert valley rimmed by barren peaks. “Geologically Nevada is a gigantic, post-oceanic ditch between the Rockies and the Sierras, filled with rough, secondary mountain ranges that stack and twine across the naked landscape like ranks of FEMA house trailers in a storage lot,” writes Las Vegas art critic Dave Hickey. The first settlers came to mine lodes of silver and gold, starting with the Comstock Lode silver mine in 1859, which produced $500 million in the next 20 years. Abraham Lincoln’s Republicans made Nevada a state in 1864, even though Nevada did not meet the population requirement for statehood, because Republicans thought they needed an extra three electoral votes. But Nevada was not really a viable state; its population dropped by the early 20th century, and in the early 1930s there were only 91,000 Nevadans and the state government was about to go bankrupt. So Nevada decided to roll the dice. The state reduced its residency requirement for divorce to six weeks and legalized gambling. Catering to what most Americans considered sin—casinos, pawnshops, divorce mills, quick wedding chapels, even legal brothels—turned out to be good business. Nevada was America’s fastest-growing state between 1960 and 2005, though its growth in 2005–06 (3.45%) was topped by Arizona (3.58%). Nevada’s population has more than doubled, from 1.2 million to 2.5 million, from 1990 to 2006.

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Las Vegas, a mere spot on the map when gambling was legalized, now is the center of a metro area of 1.7 million. Reno, known as “the biggest little city in the world,” now has, together with Lake Tahoe and the capital of Carson City, another 492,000. Gaming—the Nevada word for gambling—generates most of this growth: Las Vegas’s had 151,000 hotel rooms in 2007 and insiders expect another 44,000 to be built by 2010, requiring 100,000 new workers. Las Vegas’s tourists spend more than $33 billion a year, Reno’s about $4 billion, and not just in casinos and hotels but in increasingly upscale restaurants and malls. They come from all over the United States and from foreign countries, especially Japan. Though at least one form of gambling is now available in 48 states, Las Vegas has made itself a destination; it has more than twice as much convention exhibit space as the number two city, Chicago. This is a service economy—of the more than 1 million people employed, nearly 90% produce services rather than goods. The 6.75% gambling receipts tax has generated enough revenue so that Nevada has no income, corporate or inheritance tax; even in a fiscal crisis in early 2003 no one proposed one. The cost of living is low, housing is relatively inexpensive and a newcomer doesn’t stand out in the crowd. Some 5,000 people move in every month, and the unemployment rate is among the nation’s lowest.

From mining to gaming, Nevada has been a second chance state, a place for outcasts to succeed and misfits to rebound. With Alaska, it is one of the few states with more men than women. At 14%, Nevada has the highest percentage of divorced residents in the nation. Only 21% of Nevadans were born in the state, the lowest of any state; in Stateline, on Lake Tahoe, just 5% were born in Nevada. Nevada has been an avenue of success for ethnic groups who faced roadblocks elsewhere. The four owners of the Comstock Lode—MacKay, Fair, Flood, O’Brien—were Irishmen; the first big hotel on the Las Vegas strip, the Flamingo, was built in 1946 by Jewish gangster Bugsy Siegel, later gunned down in his Beverly Hills home; most of the big casinos were owned by mobsters until Howard Hughes—a different kind of outcast—bought them up in the late 1960s. Since 1990 Latinos moved here in large numbers, attracted by the plentiful jobs; Nevada’s population in 2004 was 23% Hispanic, 7% black and 5% Asian. Some 4% of Nevadans told the 2000 census takers they were of multiple races, the fourth highest of any state. Nevadans tend to be unchurched and not highly educated: only 34% belonged to a church in 2000, lower than in any state but Oregon and Washington; only 17% of adults in Las Vegas and Clark County had college degrees, one of the lowest numbers for any big metropolitan area. For years, the casinos catered to older tastes in entertainment, from Frank Sinatra to girlie shows, and depended on gamblers for all their trade. For a time in the 1990s, as riverboat and Indian casinos opened in many states, Las Vegas billed itself as a family-friendly destination resort. In this decade it has marketed itself by proclaiming that “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Either way, its huge and flashy hotels have glittering attractions: Caesars Palace has an upscale shopping center with Roman-style storefronts, the pyramid-shaped Luxor that looms over this desert has an amusement park and huge obelisk inside, New York New York imitates Gotham, and the Bellagio has a museum-class art gallery and an eleven-acre lake with 1,000 fountains. Las Vegas has become decorous enough to attract the American Booksellers and Southern Baptist conventions. It seems unlikely that either political party will dare to hold its national convention here, but in 2006 the Democratic National Committee awarded Nevada one of its early slots in the primary schedule, just after the Iowa caucuses; its attractions included the large number of racial minorities (in comparison with almost all-white Iowa and New Hampshire), the strength of the state’s labor unions (growing here while declining almost everywhere else) and the clout of Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid.

There are other things in Nevada besides gambling and other places besides Las Vegas (though 71% of Nevadans live in Clark County). The state’s low taxes have made it a regional distribution and credit card operations center and it has attracted warehouses and factories from California, though taxes were raised by a July 2004 order of the state Supreme Court. There is still some mining—mostly gold mining—which has been booming since Clinton administration mining regulations were scrapped and the price of gold rose. Nevada also mines the less glamorous diatomaceous earth, used for swimming pool filters and kitty litter. And a lot of older Californians cash out their expensive homes and come to low-tax Nevada to retire. A Wild West atmosphere remains in the “Cow Counties” beyond Las Vegas and Reno; half of the 37,000 wild horses that roam the American West can be found in Nevada.

For the past two decades, Nevada politics have been volatile. Historically, it was Democratic, sending politically shrewd Democrats to Washington and keeping them there to protect the interests of a state always heavily dependent on the federal government. The most powerful were Key Pittman, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who backed FDR’s foreign policy only after Roosevelt agreed to buy absurdly large amounts of Nevada’s silver, and Pat McCarran, author of the repressive McCarran Act, who shamelessly pushed aid for Reno and Las Vegas (the airport there is named for him) and became suddenly solicitous of civil liberties when mobsters and casino owners were called to testify before the Kefauver committee investigating racketeering. In the 1980s, Nevada trended sharply Republican, primarily because of newcomers. In the 1990s, the dice rolled both ways. Bill Clinton, to the surprise of managers on both sides, carried Nevada in 1992, by 37%-35%, and again in 1996, by 44%-43%. The key here was his promise to veto any bill that moves toward building the national nuclear waste repository in Yucca Mountain, some 90 miles north of Las Vegas. But that was not enough for Al Gore, who carried Clark County, but lost by wide margins in Reno and the Cow Counties; George W. Bush, without promising a veto on nuclear waste, carried the state 50%-46%. In 2004, despite Bush’s approval of the repository in 2002, he once again carried the state, by a narrower 50%-48%. The state has a bipartisan congressional delegation, united by devotion to the gaming industry; incumbent Democrat Harry Reid beat Congressman John Ensign by only 428 votes in 1998, but two years later Ensign won the other Senate seat 55%-40%; they have something in the nature of a nonaggression pact, and both have since won reelection by wide margins. Republicans have held the governorship since 1998 but Democrats won more downballot statewide offices in 2006; Republicans continue to control the state Senate, Democrats the Assembly. Republicans hold two of the three U.S. House seats, but carried both with lower than usual margins in 2006.

Nevada voters on balance seem to lean Republican, with a libertarian but sometimes culturally conservative streak. This is not the cultural liberalism of college-educated baby boomers. One reason that Gore and John Kerry lost the state is that they didn’t win the margins here that they did in larger states among unmarried people without children, people who never attend church and people with graduate degrees. Yet Nevadans voted in 2006 to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, despite opposition from the gaming industry. Another unique feature of Nevada politics: since 1975 voters can vote for “none of these candidates.” “None” finished second in the 1998 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor and has occasionally finished first in races for minor offices, but the law is unfortunately toothless: even when there is a plurality for “none of the above,” the top-running candidate wins. And some observers say that Nevada has a third party that always wins, the gaming party, closely allied with the Culinary Union, which has seen its membership increase to 60,000; Las Vegas casinos are the one private sector business with fast-growing union membership. Las Vegas gaming interests have backed every recent governor, from Democrat Bob Miller, who first won in 1990, to Republicans Kenny Guinn and Jim Gibbons, who won in 1998 and 2006. Harry Reid has been close to the gaming industry over a political career that goes back to the 1960s; his colleague John Ensign’s stepfather was until 2005 chairman of the company that owns the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.

One issue that has long preoccupied Nevada is the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. The federal government took responsibility for nuclear waste in 1982 and the Yucca Mountain site was singled out by chosen by Congress in 1987, when the Nevada delegation was unusually weak: Harry Reid was in his first year in the Senate and Republican Chic Hecht seemed to be facing sure defeat in 1988. The plan is to bury the waste deep within the mountain, 1,300 feet above the water table, in reinforced steel containers in a 1,400-acre maze with 100 miles of storage tunnels. Many in Nevada argue that rainwater will flush the radioactive material out of the depository and into the water table. More recently, Yucca Mountain opponents have charged that the site is geologically flawed and within an earthquake zone, and that transportation of nuclear waste across the country would be hazardous, especially after September 11. Bill Clinton promised to veto a temporary site but veto-proof majorities in the House voted for a temporary site in Nevada. Senators Richard Bryan and Reid lobbied furiously to get enough votes to prevent a veto override in the Senate and succeeded in 1995, 1997 and 2000. In 2000, George W. Bush pledged not to place a temporary storage site in Nevada. But he refrained from promising to veto a permanent repository, saying that his decision would be based on “sound science and not politics.” In February 2002 Bush, on the recommendation of Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, designated Yucca Mountain as the permanent site. The law provided for a veto by the governor, which could be overridden by majorities in both houses of Congress. In April 2002, with great ceremony, Governor Kenny Guinn issued his veto. In May 2002 the House cast a large majority for Yucca Mountain. In the Senate, Reid and Ensign lobbied furiously for votes, but in July 2002 the designation of Yucca Mountain was affirmed 60–39. Many Nevadans cheered when the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in July 2004 that the EPA’s health and safety standards were insufficient. But the court also upheld the selection of the site and the standards can be changed. The permanent site is not supposed to open until 2012, and could be delayed more by regulatory proceedings and lawsuits. The Nevada delegation in Congress have vowed not to work for concessions on the building of the repository but to fight it every step of the way. With the Democratic victory in November 2006, Harry Reid became majority leader and promised that any legislation advancing Yucca Mountain would never get to the floor of the Senate.

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