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 Bullock2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the November forum Deval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne Biden, Buttigieg condemn rocket attacks on Israel 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 BidenKamala Harris receives new Iowa endorsements after debate performance Watergate prosecutor says that Sondland testimony was 'tipping point' for Trump Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Deal on defense bill proves elusive | Hill, Holmes offer damaging testimony | Trump vows to block Navy from ousting officer from SEALs MORE led with 25 percent of the vote, followed by Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenKamala Harris receives new Iowa endorsements after debate performance Warren speech in Georgia interrupted by pro-charter school protesters Hillicon Valley: Senators ask Trump to halt Huawei licenses | Warren criticizes Zuckerberg over secret dinner with Trump | Senior DHS cyber official to leave | Dems offer bill on Libra oversight MORE (D-Mass.) at 15 percent, and Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersKamala Harris receives new Iowa endorsements after debate performance Wasserman Schultz makes bid for House Appropriations Committee gavel Overnight Health Care: Crunch time for Congress on surprise medical bills | CDC confirms 47 vaping-related deaths | Massachusetts passes flavored tobacco, vaping products ban MORE (I-Vt.) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisKamala Harris receives new Iowa endorsements after debate performance On The Money: Trump signs short-term spending bill to avoid shutdown | Pelosi casts doubt on USMCA deal in 2019 | California high court strikes down law targeting Trump tax returns Democratic strategist laments 'low bar' for Biden debate performance 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: Early voting states Iowa, New Hampshire 'not representative of the country anymore' The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary Bottom Line 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 ClintonDemocratic strategist laments 'low bar' for Biden debate performance Wasserman Schultz makes bid for House Appropriations Committee gavel Trump to hold campaign rally in Pennsylvania next month 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 RomneyTrump steps up GOP charm offensive as impeachment looms Romney calls lunch with Trump 'delightful' Trump lunches with two of his biggest Senate GOP critics MORE won the state in 2008 and 2012, and President TrumpDonald John TrumpWatergate prosecutor says that Sondland testimony was 'tipping point' for Trump In private moment with Trump, Justice Kennedy pushed for Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination: book Obama: 'Everybody needs to chill out' about differences between 2020 candidates 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."