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Nevada Democrats lean on Harry Reid's political machine as warning lights flash

Democrats are contending with a challenging midterm environment and a divided party, all while trying to shore up operations that could help keep the state blue ahead of 2024.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., listens during an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on the Interior Department budget on July 27.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

LAS VEGAS — Harry Reid spent decades perfecting his brand of machine politics that powered Democratic control across Nevada. 

Now, four months after the death of Reid, the venerated political titan who represented Nevada in Congress for 34 years, Democrats here find themselves relying on his legacy once again.  

In an already volatile environment nationally for their party, in which they’re contending with issues like rising inflation, soaring gas prices and dismal White House approval, they’re tasked with locking down Catherine Cortez Masto’s Senate seat, and the outcome could dictate control of the Senate. They’re also defending Steve Sisolak’s governorship, which had taken Democrats 20 years to claim from Republicans. According to a poll released last week, both incumbents are trailing their Republican competitors. And on Wednesday, The Cook Political Report identified two congressional races in the state as toss-ups after previously having assessed them as favorable to Democrats.

Governor Steve Sisolak and Dr. Jill Biden at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nev., on March 9, 2022.
Gov. Steve Sisolak and first lady Jill Biden at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nev., on March 9.Ty O'Neil / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images file

Simultaneously, Democrats are aggressively lobbying for Nevada to hold the first presidential primary contest in the country in 2024. Las Vegas is among the cities of interest for the Democratic National Convention. And on top of being a 2024 presidential battleground, it’s a majority-minority state where testing a message to court the powerful Latino vote could resonate nationally. 

“This is Reid’s vision of Nevada,” said Megan Jones, a Nevada-based po litical operative who worked with Reid over 25 years. “He always thought it should be the center of the universe.”

For the first time in more than three decades, however, Nevada Democrats have to take on such political battles without Reid, the tactician who offered a steady hand and helped bridge alliances. The organizational machine he left behind is still churning — and dominating Nevada Democratic politics. 

That’s even after the Democratic Party here ruptured last year after a slate backed by the Democratic Socialists of America took over the party structure, vaulting Judith Whitmer, a Bernie Sanders supporter, to the state party chairmanship. That rattled national Democrats, fearing volatility and a divided party in a pivotal battleground state. 

But expectations that the newcomers would shake up the establishment never materialized. Instead, the shadow party the Reid machine launched — Nevada Democratic Victory, or NDV — has grown into the de facto party handling the top-of-the-ticket races. NDV set up shop in the swing county of Washoe, home of Reno, and money, a powerful bloc of politicians, aides and strategists followed. 

“So many of the people who work in politics worked with or for him on his staff or as organizers,” said Nicole Cannizzaro, the state Senate majority leader. “There are a lot of us that are very committed to making sure that that legacy lives on.”  

Yet a split remains. Interviews with more than a dozen party members, elected officials, activists and longtime operatives reveal a still-divided Democratic Party that has spawned a new era of functional dysfunction, one in which two entities are still figuring out how to co-exist after having overcome initial clashes over money and voter data. That’s an ominous sign for 2024, when Democrats can’t afford to have divisions. While the Reid machine has helped turn statewide seats blue, it was Sanders, the candidate backed by the Democratic Socialists of America, who decidedly won the caucuses in 2020. 

Residents Vote During The Nevada Democratic Presidential Caucus
Participants check in at the Nevada Democratic caucuses at the Bellagio Ballroom in Las Vegas on Feb. 22, 2020.Joe Buglewicz / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Initial clashes between Whitmer and the Washoe County crew have been resolved, including  battles over sharing voter data and fundraising. The Whitmer-aligned state party ended up signing on to a Democratic National Committee agreement that freed up access to the voter file.  

In an interview, Whitmer stressed that she is focused on defeating Republicans and is steering clear of picking fights with her own party. Under her, the party isn’t challenging top ticket incumbents with further-left candidates; in fact, Whitmer ceded control of those races to NDV. 

She didn’t have much choice, given that the major elected officials who helped build that apparatus backed a move to NDV. For now at least, Whitmer is content to zero in on down-ballot races like school board elections. Those races, she said, long went unchallenged, and they have left an opening for Republicans to dominate so-called culture war issues. Whitmer also said she is turning more attention to rural parts of the state where Republicans are powerful. 

The political establishment also doesn’t appear to have an appetite for picking internal fights — and in interviews, Reid-aligned politicians seem content to sidestep the split altogether. 

When Sen. Jacky Rosen, for instance, was asked in an interview whether the Democratic Socialist slate is a sign the party needs to broaden beyond the Reid legacy, she answered without ever mentioning the existence of another entity. 

“I can tell you this: A coordinated campaign over the last how many years has turned Nevada blue,“ Rosen said. 

In the arc of Reid’s political tenure, Nevada turned from a red state to the battleground it is today. Both U.S. senators — Rosen and Cortez Masto — are Democrats (and women). Democrats control the Legislature, and President Joe Biden carried Nevada in 2020, albeit narrowly. 

Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., in Dirksen Building on March 15, 2022.
Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., in Washington on March 15.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

“We have a majority federal delegation. We have a majority of our constitutional offices Democratic. We have our state Legislature,” Rosen said. “The voters … once they see us, they’ve shown who they want and the kinds of governing that they want: pragmatic problem solvers.” 

Asked about political insiders who have dismissed her as irrelevant or ineffective, Whitmer bristled.

“I think at first they thought they would have a bigger impact than they did. I think the shadow party is still out there, but I don’t think that they’re having a huge influence or a huge impact,” she said. “I think the majority of Democrats are definitely involved and working with us.” 

Referring to NDV, she said, “And that very small faction that’s still trying to hold onto control is losing — their sphere of influence is diminishing.” 

Party building and uniting combative forces were central to Reid’s enduring political playbook, which played out in a phone call between Reid and Whitmer last year. At an impasse with NDV, Whitmer said, she turned to Reid.

“‘Sen. Reid, whatever you can do to help,’” Whitmer recalled telling Reid last year. “We can’t go into this election cycle with the party divided.” 

Reid agreed, she said, telling her, “Yes, the party needs to get united.” 

Reid committed that he would urge his allies to find ways to cooperate. “‘You’re the party chair,’” Whitmer said Reid told her. “‘We need to go into this election cycle and beyond looking at ways that we can all come together.’” 

The two would have three conversations last year, which Whitmer described as positive and encouraging. (A onetime Reid aide familiar with the conversation said Reid also told Whitmer that acting as chair wasn’t as easy as it seemed and affirmed that NDV’s political and fundraising apparatus was necessary).

Whitmer ally Chris Roberts, a Democratic Socialist who is the chair of the Democratic Party in Clark County, the most populous in the state, argued that establishment Democrats still view the Bernie Sanders-aligned crowd as a threat. 

“I think it goes back to the deep respect for Sen. Reid that exists here,” Roberts says. “The view that … he worked tirelessly to build a strong Democratic Party here in Nevada. And there are some folks at the party who think that we put that at risk.”

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid acknowledges the audience during the Nevada Democrats' "First in the West" event at Bellagio Resort & Casino on Nov. 17, 2019 in Las Vegas.
Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid acknowledges the audience at the Nevada Democrats' "First in the West" event at Bellagio Resort & Casino in Las Vegas on Nov. 17, 2019.David Becker / Getty Images file

Like it or not, the party schism could become the biggest detractor from a spirited plea to hold the first-in-the-nation contest. 

A Democratic National Committee member from a competing early state steamed about Rosen’s behind-the-scenes advocacy for Nevada.

“The senator conveniently ignored the reality that the Nevada Democratic Party is in the midst of a brutal civil war, leaving the once-vaunted state party in shambles,” a member unhappy with how Rosen advocated for the bid said in an interview.

Both the state party and NDV insist that a “civil war” is far from what’s happening on the ground. Both sides have tried to communicate better, usually through their executive directors. In the bid to become first in the nation, Artie Blanco, Nevada’s DNC member, gives Whitmer regular updates. And about the possibility of a 2024 Democratic convention in Las Vegas, Democrats here all agree that the effort would take a back seat to pushing for a first-in-the-nation primary.  

Bringing Whitmer’s crew into the fold, however, isn’t a sign that the still-dominant forces in the state are prepared to move away from Reid’s legacy. 

“There’s always going to be a natural evolution of things, but I would not say there is a desire to move away from Reid,” said Molly Forgey, a former Reid aide who now works on Sisolak’s campaign. “I say that as someone who could never get behind that. I don’t think there’s a world in which I can ever agree that that’s a reality.”