Campaigns

Why 2020 Democrats need to pay so much attention to Nevada

State Democratic Party will further boost influence with virtual caucus, early voting

Presidential candidate Cory Booker poses with supporters Veronica Rodriguez and Patrick Hirsch, both of North Las Vegas, at the Rotary Club of Boulder City pancake breakfast before the start of the Boulder City Damboree Celebration 4th of July parade. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

BOULDER CITY, Nev. ⁠— Like most Nevada Democrats, Sen. Jacky Rosen always wants to see more 2020 candidates paying attention to her state, and a new early caucus voting process may further boost the party’s influence.

“What I try to tell people about Nevada is that you might know us for beautiful Lake Tahoe or [the] Las Vegas Strip, but we’re a string of communities that have been here a long time, people who deeply care and are committed to each other,” Rosen told CQ Roll Call on the side of the parade route here at the annual Damboree Celebration last week.

The senator had company, including other local elected officials, as well as two presidential candidates: Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. That’s no surprise, since the Nevada caucuses come up third on the Democratic calendar, after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

“My message is that Nevada matters, and it matters because of the demographics of our state. From north to south, we have some of the top research institutions, we have wind, water, solar, geothermal. We’re the No. 2 producer of geothermal energy in the country,” Rosen said. “We have nearly 50 million tourists up and down the state.”

Over the Fourth of July week, 2020 hopefuls making swings through the Silver State besides Booker and Moulton included Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.

Speaking at a veterans dinner on July 3 and at campaign appearances throughout a three-day trip, Booker highlighted his familial ties to the state.

“Not just because my mom lives here, I’ve been coming to this state for decades,” Booker said. “My father died here. My grandparents died here. This is a state that’s very important and very special to me for a lot of reasons. I’m going to campaign very hard to earn Nevadans’ vote.”

Warren drew large crowds in both the Las Vegas area and Reno, holding town hall-style events that featured her trademark selfie-taking line, where she could speak to every one of the hundreds of attendees one-on-one for at least a moment.

The Massachusetts Democrat has been particularly familiar with Nevada’s challenges, dating to her time investigating the causes and effects of the 2008 financial crisis.

“When I was first here 11 years ago, the economy was in free fall, and it was important that I have a chance to hear from families and tell their stories around the country,” Warren told reporters. “It’s part of what paved the way, ultimately, for [us] getting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, stories of families who have been cheated.”

Sanders held several events Saturday, including a town hall in West Las Vegas. Both at that event and in an interview with the Nevada Independent, he found himself being questioned on issues of local importance, including sex work. Sanders was asked about the unintended effect that recent laws designed to combat online sex-trafficking have had on the sex work industry, which remains legal in some Nevada counties.

“We haven’t been asked about it,” Sanders told the Independent. “When I’m busy running around the country, it’s hard to do this study. These are issues that deserve serious consideration and not off-the-top-of-my-head responses.”

Castro spent time in communities in northern Nevada and sent a message of support to the powerful Culinary Union in its effort to get union recognition for the workforce of Station Casinos.

Numerous Democrats have been regulars at campaign events organized and hosted by the Las Vegas unions over the years, including former Vice President Joe Biden. His campaign announced he would be back in Clark County (home to Las Vegas) on July 20.

First in the West

It’s no surprise campaigns are putting an emphasis on the first Western state to vote in the Democratic primary process. Nevada features more diversity than either New Hampshire or Iowa, especially among registered Democrats.

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid largely engineered the Nevada State Democratic Party into a machine that has proved very successful in recent years. Democrats ran the table in 2018, winning the Senate seat now held by Rosen and the governor’s race and control of both chambers of the state Legislature.

Former aides to Reid and the state party hold senior positions in several presidential campaigns. For instance, Faiz Shakir is campaign manager for Sanders and Kristen Orthman is leading the communications shop for Warren.

Reid and other Nevada Democrats saw coming demographic shifts early, a move that paid dividends as far back as 2010.

“It started in my election, frankly, to show the strength of the Hispanic vote. I wouldn’t have been elected but for the Hispanic vote, and it’s changed even more since then,” Reid said of his 2010 reelection effort. “Thirty percent of the people in Nevada are Hispanic. Nine percent are Asian American, nine percent are African American, so Nevada’s changed dramatically.”

UNITED STATES - JULY 4: Supporters of presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., chant before the start of the start of the Boulder City Damboree Celebration 4th of July parade in Boulder City, NV on July 4, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Supporters of presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren chant before the start of the start of the Boulder City Damboree Celebration 4th of July parade. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Reid said in an interview last week in his office on the Las Vegas Strip that the immigration policies of President Donald Trump have resonated in Nevada, particularly when it comes to family separation.

“People focus on Hispanics, but Asian Americans … are just as concerned about it as anyone else. It’s a big issue for them,” he said.

The diversity is so much a factor that the state Democratic Party announced Monday that caucus preference cards will be available in three languages — English, Spanish and the Filipino language of Tagalog.

New caucus plans

Also on Monday, the state party announced details of its virtual caucuses, as well as its plans for early caucusing.

“The Silver State plays a decisive role in choosing our country’s Democratic nominee for president — We are the first Western state, the first diverse state, and the only early battleground state,” state party chairman William McCurdy II said in a statement. “We know it is imperative that Democrats across our state have every option and opportunity available to vote and I couldn’t be more excited to see this new process become a reality.”

New this cycle, there will be four days of in-person early voting, including over the Presidents Day weekend, as well as a new virtual caucus option, conducted by telephone ahead of the Feb. 22 in-person caucuses.

The preferences registered through the telephone survey and at the early voting sites will effectively be sequestered, and then the tallies will be included in the precinct-level totals on the day of the in-person caucuses.

“Virtual caucus participants will have their voices counted alongside their neighbors at their precinct location, allowing every caucus-goer — however they choose to participate — to be counted equally,” Alana Mounce, the Nevada State Democratic Party executive director, said in a Monday memo.

“We have been very directed to make sure the caucuses are more understandable to people, and easier to participate in,” Reid said last week, previewing Monday’s announcement. “We’re moving in that direction. I think by next February, we’ll have all the kinks worked out.”

In addition to several dinners and forums, the early caucus state will host a Democratic primary debate. Reid sounded fairly certain that debate would take place in January 2020, although the Democratic National Committee has made no announcement yet.

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