Politics

Sanders Loyalists Seize Control of Nevada Democratic Party

A proudly pragmatic establishment machine gets beaten at its most basic business.

Harry Reid sits in a wheelchair onstage with his wife standing behind him, smiling
Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his wife, Landra Reid, at the Nevada Democrats’ “First in the West” event in Las Vegas on Nov. 17, 2019. David Becker/Getty Images

The 2016 Nevada Democratic convention ended in chaos. Bernie Sanders state delegates, who’d tried to out-organize Hillary Clinton delegates to eke out a few more spots to the national convention, felt the party establishment had rigged the process against them, just as they felt the party establishment had rigged things during the caucuses a few months earlier. “he state party chair received death threats, and the convention had to be wrapped up abruptly because things had gotten so out of control.* Democratic Party officials worried about whether this would be a prelude to a messy Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia later that summer. It was.

Advertisement

Few things in politics are as pure as a lengthy revenge plot.

Following the 2016 caucus loss—a critical one that sapped Sanders’ momentum following his landslide victory over Clinton in the New Hampshire primary—Sanders supporters spent years organizing the state. It paid off, with Sanders earning a blowout win in the 2020 caucuses. The excitement was short-lived, as it sent non-Sanders elements of the party into a coordinated, successful consolidation around Joe Biden ahead of the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Sanders’ Nevada success didn’t propel him to the presidential nomination, but it did lay the groundwork for drastic change in Nevada: This past weekend, a progressive slate of nominees backed by the Democratic Socialists of America won control of the state party, overthrowing the establishment. The outcome prompted employees of the state party to quit en masse—and take $450,000 in funds with them—to set up shop elsewhere.

Advertisement

“We were really surprised by the reaction,” Dr. Zaffar Iqbal, the state party’s second vice chair, said in an interview. He noted that the establishment wasn’t living up to the title of its slate of candidates, the Progressive Unity Slate.

“It is in the interest of everybody that we come together, rather than doing what they did,” he said.

Ideological insurgents taking over state parties is not a new phenomenon. Devotees of former Republican presidential nominee Ron Paul took over a raft of state parties in the early 2010s.

But the Nevada Democratic Party is not any old state party. It’s been the vehicle over the last decade for one of the most competent Democratic organizations in the country: the so-called Reid Machine, named after its mastermind, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The well-funded, labor-centric turnout machine has been almost unerringly effective in winning close races for the Democratic Party over the last decade. Nevada is lately taken for granted, given this string of successes, as a comfortably blue state. It’s not. Democrats had just perfected a formula for grinding it out.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Veteran Nevada political journalist Jon Ralston wrote a scathing piece, titled “Say Goodbye to the Most Effective Democratic Party in the Country,” on the takeover.

“The real irony here, of course, is that these revolutionaries have taken over a party that has been a well-oiled machine since 2008. With four straight presidential victories, two Democratic U.S. senators, three of four House members, five of six constitutional officers and both houses of the Legislature, what exactly is this revolution supposed to change?” Ralston wrote. “If not for the dreaded Establishment that helped create an exemplar of a party organization, Dean Heller would still be a senator, Adam Laxalt would be governor and Donald Trump would have won Nevada. Vive la revolution!”

Advertisement
Advertisement

There is some question, though, about how well-oiled the establishment remains after it, and the leadership of the Culinary Union, got dusted in the 2020 Nevada caucuses and now in their own party leadership elections.

But Ralston’s piece also notes that the Reid Machine isn’t going away—it’s setting up shop independently, with the assets it had previously been running through the state party.

“The forces that erected one of the most formidable political machines in the country,” Ralston wrote, “are, in concert with national Democrats, withdrawing money and staff and plan to set up an outside entity to do what The Reid Machine has done best: Launder outside money, register voters and, yes, win elections.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

Iqbal acknowledged the Reid Machine’s successes. “It has done a great job in making sure we elect Democrats,” he said. “But we believe it can be done better.”

He cited the $15 minimum wage and single-payer health care as issues the party needs to rally around to generate more grassroots enthusiasm, rather than just “be responsive to the few corporate big donors.” If they didn’t, he suggested, Democrats’ string of wins in the state could come to an end.

“When Obama was elected, it was a 12 percent margin,” he said. “This margin is getting thinner and thinner. So in order to change that, the only way is that it becomes a real people’s party.”

A state of dueling power centers organized along competing ideological flanks isn’t the best way to go into a critical election cycle. In addition to its state elections, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is up for reelection in 2022. Harry Reid, meanwhile, has been trying to secure the capstone to his legacy: making Nevada first in the Democratic presidential nominating cycle, ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire. A house in disorder isn’t helpful to the cause.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Iqbal said that Judith Whitmer, the new party chair, and others in charge of the party are now doing what they can to reach out to the establishment-in-exile to repair the rift.

“We are all trying to reach out, proactively, and dispel their fears, that we are here so that the Democrats are elected. We are here so that it becomes a real grassroots party, a service-oriented party, that Democrats contact us and they feel we are really listening to them and responding.”

Correction, March 12, 2021: This piece originally misstated that chairs were thrown at the 2016 Nevada Democratic Convention. That has not been proven.

Advertisement