Overlooked Nevada seeks to pack a bigger punch in 2020 race

Overlooked Nevada seeks to pack a bigger punch in 2020 race

RENO, Nev. – Twelve years after Nevada debuted as one of the four states that sets the tone and tempo of a presidential nominating contest, party strategists are working to boost their visibility in a Democratic primary that has so far disproportionately focused on the other three early states.

Several interest groups have held or are planning forums that will draw presidential contenders to Las Vegas. The state Democratic Party hired its caucus director in March, and party officials like chairman William McCurdy regularly field phone calls from the candidates.

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But Nevada, the third state that will allocate delegates in the nominating process after Iowa and New Hampshire but before South Carolina, still feels overlooked.

The 21 candidates still in the race have held a combined total of 64 events in Nevada, according to a running tally maintained by The Nevada Independent, the news site run by veteran Silver State journalist Jon Ralston.

That's the same number of events Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockDemocrats redefine center as theirs collapses Democratic governors worried about drawn-out 2020 fight Iowa and New Hampshire haters should think twice MORE (D) has held in Iowa alone. It is two more than the number of events candidates have collectively held in Iowa City, population 76,000. And it is about one-sixth the number of events the candidates have held in South Carolina, a state that will vote a week after Nevada does.

Interviews with nearly a dozen political observers, elected leaders and party activists show that Nevada's political culture is developing, and it is more robust than in 2008, when the state first had the chance to vote early. But many said they still don't think the candidates are devoting the time or attention that such a prominent place on the calendar deserves.

"People feel like it's not enough," Teresa Benitez-Thompson, the Democratic majority leader of the Nevada Assembly, said in an interview in her Reno district. "Being present and being here is very meaningful."

Nevada has four unique qualities among the earliest states on the calendar: It is the only Western state; it is the only state with significant Hispanic and Asian-Pacific Islander populations; it has higher-than-average union membership, most of whom work in the gaming and tourism industry; and it is the only early state anchored by a major American city, Las Vegas.

Several strategists and observers said the physical distance required to get to Nevada has worked against it in recent years, both among candidates and the media that deploys reporters and cameras to cover events.

"Outside of perhaps 2008, the state has not received equivalent attention and for this I blame all you media types and your East Coast/Midwest biases," said David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV).

Even pollsters rarely venture west: Only four surveys of potential Nevada caucusgoers have been conducted this year. Ten have been conducted in Iowa, 17 in New Hampshire and eight in South Carolina. More polls have been conducted in California, a state that won't vote until Super Tuesday, than in Nevada.

The latest Nevada survey, conducted by Gravis Marketing over three days earlier this month, showed a wide open field: Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDemocrats redefine center as theirs collapses Speculation swirls around whether Bloomberg will make Las Vegas debate stage Pelosi: 'I'm not counting Joe Biden out' MORE led with 25 percent of the vote, followed by Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenDemocrats redefine center as theirs collapses Massachusetts Democrats question deployment of Border Patrol teams to sanctuary cities Speculation swirls around whether Bloomberg will make Las Vegas debate stage MORE (D-Mass.) at 15 percent, and Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats redefine center as theirs collapses Speculation swirls around whether Bloomberg will make Las Vegas debate stage Pelosi: 'I'm not counting Joe Biden out' MORE (I-Vt.) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisConway: Trump is 'toying with everybody' by attacking Bloomberg for stop-and-frisk comments The Hill's Campaign Report: New challenges for 2020 Dems in Nevada, South Carolina Beleaguered Biden turns to must-win South Carolina MORE (D-Calif.) vying for third.

But among Democrats eager to promote the caucuses, and their state, Nevada's political and demographic diversity make an attractive early test of a candidate's appeal across racial, ethnic and class lines.

"Candidates ignore Nevada at their own peril. With the largest diverse coalition of voters and the only early state with a significant Latino population, it is the first reflection of general election viability," said Rebecca Lambe, a longtime top political adviser to former Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidHarry Reid: 'People should not be counting Joe Biden out of the race yet' Warren highlights work with Obama, Harry Reid in new Nevada ad Yes, Democrats have to defend their African-American base against Trump MORE (D-Nev.).

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Reid himself was instrumental in getting the Democratic National Committee to move Nevada's caucuses into its current prime position. Though he is no longer in the Senate, he has made himself available to dish out advice and counsel. He has also made it clear that he expects his home state to be taken seriously.

"Virtually every candidate running has met with Reid and checks in with him on a regular basis. He is still the most well known Democrat in Nevada and among caucus voters, his opinion still holds tremendous weight," said Megan Jones, a veteran Nevada Democratic operative working for Harris's campaign this year.

The crucial role union workers play in Nevada's most dominant industry has also drawn attention from other labor groups. The Service Employees International Union sponsored a presidential forum on economic issues in Las Vegas in April. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees held a forum on labor rights with the Nevada Independent and HuffPost at UNLV in early August.

At least two more presidential forums are scheduled for Las Vegas later this year, including one on gun safety to be held in October just after the second anniversary of an attack on a country music festival that killed 58 people and the shooter.

In its brief history as an early state, Nevada has never proved to be a pivotal moment in a nominating contest. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe 'Palmetto Promise': South Carolina will decide the race Alabama Senate contender hits Sessions in new ad: 'Hillary still ain't in jail' Worries grow as moderates split Democratic vote MORE won the state's only two contested Democratic caucuses, in 2008 and 2016.

On the Republican side, UNLV's Damore said, the fact that no delegates are actually allocated through the caucuses makes it little more than a beauty contest. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyDonald Trump: Unrepentant, on the attack and still playing the victim The Hill's Campaign Report: New challenges for 2020 Dems in Nevada, South Carolina Yes, Democrats have to defend their African-American base against Trump MORE won the state in 2008 and 2012, and President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump administration eyes proposal to block jet engine sales to China: report Trump takes track to open Daytona 500 Brazile 'extremely dismayed' by Bloomberg record MORE led the field there in 2016.

But there are signs that the Democratic candidates are taking Nevada issues more seriously now than they have in the past, Benitez-Thompson said.

On recent stops, Harris addressed sexual assault legislation that was working its way through the state legislature in Carson City. Sanders commented on contract negotiations between casinos and the powerful Culinary Union.

"In the past, they wouldn't talk about anything happening in the state," Benitez-Thompson said. "They seem to be doing more of their homework on Nevada."