Nevada’s Democratic Machine Could Weak


It was clearly an unfortunate development, especially for an incumbent Democratic governor in the final weeks of a tight re-election race, but it didn’t seem debilitating: the state’s largest teachers’ union announced last week that he would refuse an endorsement. For those familiar with Nevada politics, however, the news was closer to the rumble of an impending earthquake. “This never would have happened,” said a Nevada Democratic insider, “if Senator Reid was still alive.”

Harry Reid was a singular and eccentric figure in American and Nevada politics: a Mormon and accomplished amateur boxer who grew up impoverished in a small rural town – his family lived in a shack with no running water or telephone – and grew up to become, as Senate Majority Leader, the second most powerful person in Washington. During this journey, Reid faced what he anticipated would be his toughest reelection race, midterm in 2010. So in 2008, he began building what would come to be known as of Reid’s machine: a highly efficient registration and participation operation whose key elements included the Nevada Culinary Union and its heavily Latino members. “Of course, his fundraising prowess was part of that,” says Jim Manley, who was one of Reid’s top aides in the Senate. “But he really relied on the stuff to get the vote out.” The machine test was crucial in turning Nevada, a traditionally red state, blue for barack obama in 2008. Two years later, he delivered Reid to victory over Sharon Angle, offering him a fifth and final term in the Senate. And when Reid retired, the machine helped elect his chosen successor, Catherine Cortez Masto, in the Senate in 2016.

Reid died after a battle with pancreatic cancer, aged 82, in December 2021. Now, 11 months later, in the first election since the death of chief machine engineer, Reid’s political legacy in Nevada faces its toughest test, not just in Cortez Masto’s bid for a second term against Adam Laxalt, but as Governor Steve Sisolakduring the tight re-election contest and in the campaign for the post of Secretary of State of Nevada, where the Republican candidate, Jim Marchant, said he would have refused to certify Joe BidenNevada victory in 2020. Marchant pledged to be part of a coalition of state election officials who “fix the whole countryand President Trump will be President again in 2024.”

Reid’s best political lieutenant, Rebecca Lambe, inherited the leadership of the machine, a succession that makes other Democrats hopeful, if not completely confident, this fall. “Rebecca Lambe is the best strategist in the state of Nevada and one of the best strategists in the country,” says Jeff Pollock, a pollster who was part of the team behind Jacky Rosen2018 defeat of incumbent Republican senator from Nevada Dean Heller, another win in which the Reid machine was instrumental. “He’s a fucking genius.”

Yet even Lambe was unable to avoid a damaging rift with the state Democratic Party. In March 2021, a slate of five candidates backed by the Nevada Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America swept the party leadership elections. In response, all State Party personnel, mostly allies of the Reid machine, resigned. The dispute has been a drag on Democratic campaign efforts, sparking disputes over everything from primary endorsements to support for Israel and initially complicated fundraising this fall. “The chaos in Nevada between Operation Reid and the state party was unfortunate,” Pollock says. “But those who matter what Harry Reid and his operation have built do so at their peril. The people in this operation know what they are doing to make sure there is a ground game.

Perhaps a bigger problem for Cortez Masto, Sisolak and the Reid machine is that unlike other top races across the country, their Republican opponents are more polished than many of their fellow neophytes. Laxalt, candidate for the Senate, and Joe Lombardo, the gubernatorial candidate, are very conservative, but neither has a growing list of secret kids or has peddled “miracle” weight loss cures. Laxalt and Lombardo, the sheriff of Nevada’s most populous county, have emphasized conventional campaign themes, instead of culture wars, in their current runs: inflation, crime and tying their opponents Democrats to President Biden, whose jobs endorsement count remains mired in the low 40s. “They’re ‘normal’ Republicans, that’s what you want to be this year – vanilla. It favors a Republican in a midterm election in a state Biden won by the hair of his chin,” a Democratic national consultant said. “What you don’t want to be is Blake Masters Where Mehmet Oz Where Herschel Walker.John Anzalone, who is Biden’s pollster and also works with Sisolak’s campaign in Nevada, among other big races this fall, describes the endgame more concisely. “The last 30 days,” Anzalone says, “really comes down to headwinds versus headwinds.”


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