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Nevada Democrats implode over battle for party control

The Democratic establishment accuses state chair Judith Whitmer of dividing the party. The democratic socialist leader says it's a "smear campaign."
Supporters of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., react as she speaks during an election night party hosted by the Nevada Democratic Party on Nov. 8, 2022, in Las Vegas.
Supporters of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., cheer as she speaks at a Nevada Democratic Party election night party in Las Vegas on Nov. 8.Gregory Bull / AP file

A fierce power struggle has broken out over who will run the Democratic Party in Nevada, a pivotal 2024 battleground that last year determined the balance of the Senate. 

And it’s getting ugly. 

There are calls for the sitting chair’s resignation. There are accusations that Democratic Party Chair Judith Whitmer steered contracts to allies. Two sparring sides accuse each other of attempting to fracture the party. 

And new documents obtained by NBC News display the depths of the divisions and how they played out in the run-up to one of the closest Senate races in the nation.

Whitmer, part of a slate of democratic socialists who took over the party in March 2021, now fights to hang on ahead of her March 4 re-election, where she faces a challenge from Nevada Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno

“They’re launching a smear campaign against me, personally,” Whitmer said in an interview with NBC News.

A central part of the drama over Whitmer's tenure has been the decision by a group of previous party leaders to, a few months after she took over, break off from her control and form a rival Democratic entity in Washoe County called Nevada Democratic Victory. It essentially became a shadow party apparatus with aides tied to more establishment Democrats in the state, including Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen. 

Now, internal party documents obtained by NBC News outline just how heated that battle became and what steps the party structure controlled by Whitmer considered to get back at that faction.

The documents lay out a pressure campaign in advance of an ultimately abandoned plan to de-charter Washoe County Democrats from the state party, including a desire to hit back at the party's own senator despite a tight re-election race that was pivotal to Democratic control of the Senate that year.

“Unleash loyalists on CCM et al,” one of the list items read in the document, in an apparent reference to Cortez Masto.

The January 2022 document, titled "Washoe Week Timeline," itemized a day-by-day plan to mount a media relations campaign in an attempt to compel Washoe County Democrats to operate under the state party’s power structure. It also considered a legal avenue for de-chartering the group, which would have meant it would no longer have been affiliated with the state party and would have created hurdles to how Nevada Democratic Victory could raise and spend money.

“Themes for communications (i.e. Darn right we are protecting the Party existence from being taken by a rogue county committee, all efforts to work with elected officials failed because NDV & CCM told them not to even talk with us.),” the document stated. Then, ticking off names of elected officials, including then-governor Steve Sisolak, the notes stated, “Can we find 25 loyalists wrote email CCM, Sisolak, Ford, Yeager, Nicole about why are they are dividing the party.”

In the end, Whitmer’s group didn’t execute the plan. But the document exemplified the deep divisions within a party at war with itself and laid out tensions after the establishment lost its bid for chair to a slate of democratic socialists in 2021.

Both Whitmer and a party spokesman confirmed the documents but said they reflected a memorialization of a conversation with an attorney over possible ways to deal with an entity for which the party held liability but no oversight.

Still, establishment Democrats charge that the state party at times worked against them in last year’s midterms, including backing a primary challenger to the sitting lieutenant governor.    

“The State Party created additional challenges for the governor’s re-election,” Molly Forgey, former deputy campaign manager to Steve Sisolak said in a statement to NBC News. “They actively worked against the coordinated campaign supported by elected officials and national committees, campaigned against the governor’s appointed Lt. Governor, and used their limited resources to pay their allies instead of turning out Democratic voters.” 

Sisolak lost his re-election race for governor. He was the only incumbent governor to lose re-election in 2022. A senior aide to his running mate, former Lt. Gov. Lisa Cano Burkhead, echoed Forgey's sentiment.

“Not only did Chair Whitmer actively work against our campaign by publicly supporting our primary challenger, she even diverted critical state party resources in order to fund campaign ads in support of our opponent," Martin Fitzgerald, former senior adviser to Burkhead's campaign, said in a statement. "These actions alone are disqualifying and demonstrate a willingness to put her own interests ahead of a united Democratic Party.”

Whitmer disputed charges that she attempted to undermine the coordinated campaign run by Nevada Democratic Victory and specifically rejected the notion that she had worked against Cortez Masto.

"It’s so strange to hear that. I have not worked against them," Whitmer said.

She said the documents reflected notes taken by a former employee, and she did not recall talking about plotting against Cortez Masto.

"We were talking about what steps needed to be taken to protect the state party based on advice from our attorneys," she said.

She pointed back at the other side for causing division and accused them of being motivated by consultants and special interests who wanted to profit off politics.

But Whitmer's critics go beyond the traditional party insiders; she has also lost the support of some of her initial backers, including local democratic socialists and the team of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Whitmer defended her tenure and said she worked diligently to bolster down ballot candidates and votes in the rural counties.

Whitmer has also come under scrutiny for the contracts she awarded to Clark County Chair Chris Roberts, a supporter who identifies as a democratic socialist as well. Whitmer has said the contracts were for legitimate data and tech services.

Democrats critical of Whitmer have questioned both Roberts' competence and his commitment to party leaders besides Whitmer, pointing to a comment he made on Election Day last year, just hours before voting closed.

At the time, he told NBC News, "I don't think the numbers are there" for a Cortez Masto victory. He said his comments were based on the party’s data specialist modeling “every scenario.” 

The projection didn’t match other data models, and ultimately, Cortez Masto won by fewer than 8,000 votes.

The Cortez Masto campaign was alarmed. In one of the closest Senate races in the country, one that ultimately determined the balance of the Senate, a Democrat in Nevada was declaring to the media that the senator no longer had a path to victory. It wasn’t what her campaign was seeing at the time, according to an aide. 

In an interview, Roberts said the back and forth between sides showed “mistakes were made on both sides."

"It’s a damn shame," he added.

CORRECTION (March 5, 2023, 6:42 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of Whitmer’s challenger for chair. She is Daniele Monroe-Moreno, not Munroe-Moreno.