The next 12 months will decide the presidency, the makeup of Congress and, in large part, the identities of the country’s two leading political parties. And those paths may well run through Nevada.
Democrats in the Silver State have already felt it.
Their phones and doorbells have been ringing for months, as a dozen presidential candidates have been working hard to secure support in the only early nominating state that is also a presidential swing state. Although 2019 was supposedly an off year, Nevada saw several national political forums, scores of soap box tours and hundreds of eager campaign staff members spread throughout the state.
And although Nevada’s outsized political influence will crescendo on Feb. 22, when it becomes the third state to weigh in on who will challenge President Donald Trump in November, a handful of political experts from both sides of the aisle believe both Trump and his eventual challenger will not forget about Nevadans during a busy campaigning season.
“Nevada has become a bellweather for the rest of the country,” said former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who spearheaded the state’s entry into the early nominating contests. “Our unique makeup is reflective of the Democratic Party and the country.”
“It’s a testing ground for a candidate’s message,” said Richard Bryan, a Democrat who served alongside Reid in the Senate and as Nevada’s governor in the 1980s. “Is that message getting through to a population that looks more like America?”
But Republicans are also keenly interested in who Nevadans favor as a Democratic nominee, as that person’s political makeup could very well decide whether the state is in play for Trump’s campaign, which narrowly lost here in 2016.
“There’s always a possibility Nevada could go for Trump,” said Sig Rogich, a longtime Republican adviser and former U.S. ambassador to Iceland. “It depends on what platform (Democrats) run on. If it’s too radical, then I think you might see a tight race.”
At least nine Democratic candidates are actively campaigning in Nevada, with the larger campaigns such as that of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders approaching nearly 100 staff members on the ground. Some have begun running advertisements, and most plan to continue staffing up and visiting Nevada regularly over the next two months.
Las Vegas will host a Feb. 19 debate for those candidates who meet Democratic National Committee standards — likely to be only a handful of the 15 still officially in the race.
Reid praised the state Democratic party’s efforts in organizing the caucus, which will feature four days of early voting — a first for any caucus state in the country.
He stressed this caucus will be the first true test for any Democrat seeking the presidency, as Iowa and New Hampshire simply aren’t diverse enough to give an accurate portrayal of where party voters are leaning.
The state GOP opted to forego its early nominating caucus in favor of allowing the party’s central committee to vote to endorse Trump. While Democrats and some critics within the party have accused state Republicans of limiting democracy, Chairman Michael McDonald said the decision has had a positive, unifying effect on his party going into 2020.
“Ninety-nine percent of Republicans in this state are behind the president,” McDonald said. “We have a good relationship with the first family.”
Trump has not yet visited Nevada during the early part of the 2020 campaign season, instead focusing on larger swing states like Florida and Michigan.
McDonald said he expects the president to visit Nevada “multiple times” in 2020 to boost Republicans across the ticket. The president had planned to visit a few times in 2019, McDonald said, but had to cancel due to various obstacles.
After the caucus
It’s unclear just how much Nevada will see of Trump or the eventual Democratic nominee once the general election campaigning begins in earnest in summer and fall. With six electoral college votes, the state may not factor into the math as the two candidates vie for larger swing states like Pennsylvania.
Both Reid and Bryan believe Nevada will likely stay blue in 2020, but the two retirees cautioned their political descendents to keep working hard over the next year.
Reid praised the members of the state’s federal delegation for continuing to run strong campaigns even after widespread victories in 2018.
“Anyone up for election in congressional offices needs to understand that they are always being targeted,” Reid said.
Democrats across the country need to craft a strong message to working people, Bryan said. He accused 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton of running “an inept campaign” when it came to appealing to working-class people in swing states.
Although the state saw huge Democratic gains in 2018, the pendulum can always swing back, Bryan said.
“If you go back many decades, I defeated an incumbent Republican governor (Gov. Robert List) with (former President Ronald) Reagan running like a scalded dog through Nevada,” Bryan said. “Nevada tends to vote for the person rather than the political party.”
Bryan, who has endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden’s bid for president, said he believes the nomination of a more liberal candidate, such as Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren, may give moderate Nevadans pause when voting in November.
“My reservation is that those voters do not have the desire to vote for Sanders, and that his followers may not have the taste to vote for another nominee,” Bryan said. “Democrats could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”
Bryan cautioned that Trump is “a formidable candidate” with “an uncanny ability to exploit the divisions in our society.” But he also said Trump, just the third president in history to be impeached by the House of Representatives, has repulsed millions of Americans with his behavior while in office.
Case for Trump
McDonald believes Trump will win Nevada in part due to the country’s strong economy.
“The other side is only selling doom and gloom,” he said. “People have more money in the pocket, and they’re spending it.”
Independents, libertarians and infrequent voters have visited the state party’s office to voice their support for the president, McDonald said, while impeachment has only energized Republicans.
“What Democrats are doing to this man and his family is exciting his base,” McDonald said.
Rogich, the Republican consultant, said impeachment will likely have some sort of impact on local voters, but the scope remains to be seen.
“We’ll see if the moment comes where it’s perceived by the electorate to be a strictly political process that’s getting in the way of good legislation, and that it’s a case adjudicated by a half-dozen senators running to kick Trump out of office,” Rogich said.
Nevada is tilting heavily blue, Rogich said, but Republicans could pull off a few upsets given Trump’s resources.
McDonald has stressed to candidates running for local, state and federal office that they must continue to do the work organizing and funding their own campaigns rather than relying solely on Trump to drive Republican wins. The state GOP has held a number of “candidate schools” — many hosted by Trump surrogates — to drive this point across.
But the state’s Democratic Party and its elected officials have also begun working to keep tight control of the Legislature, federal delegation and presidential electoral votes. The party has a full-time staff that organizes independently of the various candidates’ efforts.
State Sen. Yvanna Cancela, a Las Vegas Democrat, said voters put their trust in Democrats in 2018, and the heavily Democratic Legislature delivered in a variety of ways in return.
“It’s a testament to what happens when Democrats are in charge,” she said.
Cancela said the Senate Democratic Caucus will do what’s necessary to keep a strong majority and maybe even capture a supermajority, which it narrowly missed in 2018 when Republican Keith Pickard won his Henderson seat by just 24 votes.
“Nevada has shown that changing demographics mean changing politics,” Cancela said, adding that other more traditionally red states like Texas and Georgia have used Nevada as an example of what’s possible if a state Democratic party works year-round to grow its base.
Anything is possible this far out from an election, Cancela said, but she believes Nevada will stay firmly Democratic in 2020.