State Watch

Infighting grips Nevada Democrats ahead of midterms

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U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) speaks at the Nevada Democratic Party’s election results watch party at Caesars Palace on November 6, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Americans voted on their choices of candidates in the midterm election, which is seen by many as a referendum on President Donald Trump. 

National Democrats and Nevada’s most prominent elected officials have moved to sideline the state Democratic Party ahead of critical midterm elections next year, a sign of tumult in a state where Republicans plan to compete for key seats. 

The Washoe County Democratic Party formally voted Tuesday to take over coordinated campaign duties for the entire state, effectively becoming the conduit through which national party organizations will funnel campaign money into Nevada.

The move bypasses a state Democratic Party that was once the model of a well-run organization, the remnants of former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s storied machine that had decades of experience organizing voters and turning them out.  

Nevada will be an epicenter of the Republican effort to reclaim control of the Senate in next year’s midterm elections, during which they will also seek to take back the state’s governor’s mansion.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) won election in 2016 with just 47 percent of the vote; she trailed her Republican rival, former Rep. Joe Heck, by about 1,700 votes in Washoe County. Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) won the governorship in 2018 with just under 50 percent of the vote, outperforming then-Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R) by 40,000 votes; he won Washoe County by about 4,400 votes, or 2 percentage points. Both are up for reelection in 2022. 

Laxalt is making plans to run against Cortez Masto this year. Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo (R), North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee (R) and businessman Eddie Hamilton (R) have all said they will challenge Sisolak, though other candidates are considering the race. 

The tumult in the Nevada Democratic Party recalls a similar schism on the other side of the aisle, among Nevada Republicans, a decade ago. In 2012, the Republican National Committee (RNC) moved to sideline the Nevada Republican Party, which had been taken over by acolytes of former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). The RNC and then-presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign moved its money instead through the Washoe County affiliate.

This time, it is Democrats moving to circumvent their own party leadership. 

In March, a new slate of state party leaders backed by the Nevada chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America took over. That group was led by Judith Whitmer, now the chair of the state Democratic Party and the former leader of the Clark County Democratic Party.

Reid allies and top Democrats had recruited Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom (D), a longtime party leader, to run for the top spot. Segerblom had support from Cortez Masto and others. 

After Whitmer won, several top state party staffers quit en masse. The party transferred $450,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) in Washington, leaving Whitmer with less than $100,000 in the bank as she began her tenure.

In a statement released late Tuesday, Whitmer said she was “disappointed but not surprised” by the move to sideline her team. 

“When we were first made aware of these plans, we sounded the alarm,” Whitmer said. “The Nevada State Democratic Party was designed to coordinate and win Democratic campaigns and remains the only sanctioned Democratic Party in the state. It is a profoundly dangerous choice to sidestep the state party structure and its democratically elected leadership in favor of a less-successful county organization in a corner of the state that has not seen the solid-blue shifts that we’ve seen elsewhere.”

Whitmer pointed to a similar arrangement in North Carolina in 2014, when Democrats funneled money through the Wake County Democratic Party instead of through the state party. Former Sen. Kay Hagan (D) lost reelection to Sen. Thom Tillis (R) that year.

In the months since she took office, Whitmer has emerged as a lightning rod for controversy. She angered state Democratic elected officials last month, when she issued a statement criticizing Israel’s bombing campaign in the Gaza Strip. Sen. Jacky Rosen (D) and Rep. Susie Lee (D) both condemned Whitmer’s comments. Cortez Masto’s office pointedly told The Nevada Independent that “foreign policy should be addressed by elected officials, not by state party figures.” 

In comments made to a group of delegates who backed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) last month, Whitmer pledged she would hold state legislators accountable if they failed to advance a progressive agenda.

“We’ve been advocating a lot of progressive policies. Some of them have gone down in flames, but we’re still pushing hard,” Whitmer told the delegates in a video circulating among Nevada Democratic operatives. “Our legislators, obviously, aren’t all on board, but they’re going to have to be really, really soon. They’re going to have to be on board. We’re going to start holding those elected officials accountable which is something they’re not used to here in Nevada.” 

Sources with knowledge of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering said Cortez Masto and Sisolak backed the move to sideline the state party. So did state Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D) and other senior members of the Democratic-controlled legislature. The Democratic Governors Association and the DSCC quietly backed the move, and top operatives close to Reid were involved as well. 

Molly Forgey, one of the state party staffers who quit in March, will serve as the spokeswoman for the coordinated campaign that will now be run out of Washoe County, home of Reno. The swing county has in recent years decided the winner of Nevada’s statewide elections.

“The Nevada Democratic Victory team is taking nothing for granted and launching our statewide coordinated campaign earlier than ever before,” Forgey said in a statement.  

Whitmer did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment Wednesday morning.

Tags 2022 midterms Bernie Sanders Catherine Cortez Masto Harry Reid Jacky Rosen Joe Heck Kay Hagan midterms Mitt Romney Nevada Nevada Democratic Party Nevada Democrats Steve Sisolak Susie Lee Thom Tillis Washoe County Democratic Party Washoe Democrats
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