LAS VEGAS — After a devastating 1994 midterm election for Democrats in Nevada, Sen. Harry M. Reid called up his closest allies with one message: Figure out how to win in the conservative state.
“I remember very well that meeting,” said D. Taylor, who worked with the Culinary Workers Union for 25 years in Las Vegas. “It was about what we had to do to change the political equation in Nevada.”
But the new effort sputtered and hit a low point in 2002, when Democrats in the state suffered devastating losses up and down the ballot, including in the newly created 3rd Congressional District in southern Nevada.
Reid, Taylor said, called another meeting. This time, Reid, the soft-spoken giant of Nevada politics, attended the gathering and introduced his new party director, Rebecca Lambe. He demanded they build again, take advantage of the rapid population growth of the state and start winning.
It worked. From that point on, Nevada Democrats have had strong showings in competitive races each cycle.
Decades later, facing its toughest test yet, the “Reid machine” is holding up in the Silver State, almost a year after its namesake died following a battle with cancer.
Reid’s protege, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), narrowly won reelection in a race that, once it was called Saturday, kept the Senate majority in Democratic hands. Three Democratic incumbents won closely contested House races. Francisco “Cisco” Aguilar, a former Reid aide, won the secretary of state race, and while Republicans won the governor’s mansion and the lieutenant governor race, the state legislature remains in Democratic control.
“We take it as a point of pride to win here,” said J.B. Poersch, president of the Senate Majority PAC, which Reid started when he was leader that works to elect Democrats to the Senate.
And now Lambe is leading the effort for Nevada to be the first-in-the-nation state in the Democratic presidential primary, which would make the national party invest even more into the state’s political operations and provide further resources for Silver State Democrats for decades to come.
“There’s no question that every Democrat in Nevada wishes he was still here,” Lambe said of Reid, adding that the organization is “firing on all cylinders.”
Moreover, the victories this year provided a psychic boost to the former Senate majority leader’s alumni in Nevada in a race that played out like a political soap opera. The candidates served as proxy stand-ins for old foes, several of whom have been dead for years but whose influence lives on.
By early last year, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who spent a decade clashing with his Democratic counterpart until Reid retired six years ago, made Nevada the cornerstone of his bid to reclaim the majority.
Win Nevada, McConnell reckoned, and he was on his way back to being majority leader. His top political advisers helped recruit and then run the campaign of Adam Laxalt, the former state attorney general.
He is the grandson of the late Paul Laxalt, who defeated Reid for this Senate seat by less than 700 votes in 1974. Reid, who first won this Senate seat in 1986, after Laxalt retired, only learned who Adam Laxalt’s father was in 2013: His old friend, the late Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who had an extramarital affair with Paul Laxalt’s daughter.
So “Team Mitch,” as McConnell’s political operation bills itself, went up against the “Reid machine,” facing questions about its strength with Reid dead, in an effort to put the Senate seat back into Laxalt family hands and reclaim the GOP majority.
Laxalt and McConnell’s teams believed everything that favored Republicans on the national front — inflation at 40-year highs, a pandemic recovery that is uneven, the rightward drift of Latino voters and President Biden’s sagging approval ratings — resonated deeper out here.
In the tourist-reliant economy, Nevadans feel the economic pinch faster and longer. Gas prices are still more than $5 per gallon in Las Vegas. The unemployment rate, which nearly hit 30 percent at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, remains second highest in the nation.
Cortez Masto’s low-key style translated to low name recognition in the transient state. She’s a sharp contrast to Reid’s take-no-prisoners but polarizing style.
Republicans smelled weakness.
That’s when the connections between Laxalt and Josh Holmes, a top political adviser to McConnell, grew stronger. In early 2021, Holmes talked to his boss, and they agreed that the former state attorney general, with two statewide races under his belt, seemed like their best candidate. Soon after, another top adviser to McConnell, John Ashbrook, began serving as a strategist for Laxalt’s campaign.
It helped that Laxalt, who was co-chair of President Donald Trump’s Nevada operation in 2020, could thread that needle between the GOP leader and the former president, who have clashed openly over Senate races this year. Laxalt even once roomed with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) as naval officers, giving him entree into three competing orbits of today’s Republican Party.
The only question was whether Laxalt wanted to run for governor, the office his grandfather first won before moving to the Senate, but Team Mitch made a strong pitch that Nevada’s biggest problems were in Washington, not Carson City, and McConnell’s team spelled out for Laxalt how he would be the majority maker.
“He always believed this would be the 51st seat,” Robert Uithoven, the longtime top Laxalt adviser, said in an Election Day interview. “This was going to be the battleground for the Senate, this seat.”
From the outset, Laxalt’s team focused on what his advisers called three “micro campaigns” they believed would deliver the race for him: One, winning a little bit more of the Latino vote, which has been key to Democratic wins in past races; two, a “Ladies for Laxalt” effort to cut the gender gap; and three, the battle to win Washoe County, the pivotal swing region anchored by his hometown of Reno.
For Democrats, the question was whether a machine without Reid could deliver in its first test since his death in December.
But the machine, which focuses on registering voters and then getting them to the polls, kept humming along.
“My friend Harry M. Reid, he may be gone but he’s still with us. His legacy in Nevada continues to shine [as] bright as the lights on the Vegas strip,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Saturday night at a hastily arranged news conference once Cortez Masto’s victory was called.
Reid’s operation first took flight in 2003, in an era when Nevada had been the fastest growing state for years. Lambe, Reid and other close confidants determined success would be achieved through voter registration. They relied on unions, Hispanic groups, Asian American Pacific Islander organizers and liberal groups to run huge voter registration drives. Many were coupled with citizenship drives for the growing immigrant population.
In 2006, Reid saw a way to quickly boost voter registration. He argued that Nevada should be an early presidential nominating state. New Hampshire and Iowa aren’t representative of the country, he said.
The Democratic Party had little choice but to agree with the then-Senate leader. Reid instituted a caucus system for the 2008 Democratic primary as a way to boost Democratic participation, but especially registration, registering tens of thousands of Democratic voters and far surpassing the number of registered Republican voters.
Because the state is so transient, the organization is well-versed in introducing the party and the candidates every election cycle. (This was something it had to do this cycle with Cortez Masto, too, even though she was running for reelection.)
Voter registration translated into a massive get-out-the-vote operation, which resulted in the most successful election Democrats had in Nevada’s history, winning two Democratic House seats and breaking the Republican presidential streak when Barack Obama won the state.
The robust ground game has continued. The Culinary Workers Union, for instance, said it knocked on a record 1 million doors across the state this election.
But the Reid machine is more than the ground game. It’s about the money and has been set up to run like a campaign instead of a state party.
Reid didn’t just have the support of union workers, the people who cleaned and built the hotels, but the casino executives, too. Reid had the support of the mining executives and also the environmental groups — two groups that rarely agree.
It’s an entity to collect and redirect campaign contributions into the different parts of the organization. It ensures allied grass-roots groups are well funded. It’s an opposition research organization and communications shop that starts eyeing potential challengers years in advance.
“It was really about making sure that those resources were put to the kinds of programs that are tried and true here, that we knew that it would take to win,” Lambe said.
It finds and trains political operatives and people to run for office and in key party slots. For instance, Reid noticed Adriana Martinez’s better-than-expected run for local office in 2002 in a Republican part of town. After her failed campaign, he called her, impressed, and asked her to run the Nevada Democratic Party.
“I had no idea what it would entail,” said Martinez. “There were only two Latino [state party chairs] at the time.”
Martinez was essential in helping to recruit Latinos to vote, volunteer and run. She later co-founded Emerge Nevada, a group dedicated to training Democratic women to run for office. After she won difficult, statewide races, Reid also chose Cortez Masto to run for his seat.
The machine works as a unit so that all Democrats on the ticket run as one. This cycle it worked with allies in the state legislature to pass universal mail-in voting and the rules around counting those mail-in ballots, which successfully expanded voter access.
The Reid machine is also ruthless. In 2010, Reid knew that former television anchor and state senator Sue Lowden was a more formidable opponent than far-right state legislator Sharron Angle.
When Lowden was asked during an interview how people should afford health care, Lowden suggested people barter chickens. Reid’s machine pounced, setting up funding for “chickens for checkup” ads, tanking Lowden’s chances. He faced Angle and won.
On its face, the Nevada Democratic Party looked to be dominant two years ago. The state had just supported Biden, the fourth straight Democrat to win its presidential electoral votes. Both Senate seats were held by Democrats, three of the four House members were Democrats, and the party controlled all levels of power at the legislature in Carson City.
But underneath, problems mounted. A split in the Democratic Party between Reid loyalists and supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) only grew, operating completely independent of each other.
The institutional challenges were exacerbated with what was expected to be a difficult environment for Democrats this year.
Nearly every person interviewed said the split in the Nevada Democratic Party that emerged during the 2020 election could have cost Democrats their races this cycle.
The Democratic Party split after Sanders loyalists were elected to top positions in the party and shut out longtime Democratic activists and Reid loyalists. The Reid machine doubted the newcomers’ ability to raise the amount of money necessary, understand the dynamics of the state and run a campaign necessary to win.
The Reid loyalists created a shadow organization they called Nevada Democratic Victory, in which they starved the Sanders wing of the party from funds and a mission. The machine lived.
Rozita Lee, a longtime organizer in the Filipino community in Las Vegas, said the split “of course had an impact” on morale and finances. But she said the newcomers didn’t understand the decades of work that has been done to build the party in the state.
Matt Fonken, executive director of the Nevada Democratic Party, said the “elitist consulting class” just wanted to line their pockets.
“They knew we were going to be frugal because we want this to be a year round operation,” he said. The two wings of the party don’t talk, don’t share resources and don’t support each other. The money-strapped Sanders wing settled on working to elect Las Vegas City Council and Clark County Commission seats.
As the Democratic National Committee is set to determine as early as this week the order in which states will pick the party’s presidential nominee, the party thinks its success in holding a broad coalition of voters shows that Nevada has the right formula for national success.
“It’s why Nevada should be moved up in the calendar,” Lambe said. “The folks that you have to win and mobilize to vote are the very voters that are going to get us to 270 and 2024.”
In addition to the presidential race, Nevada will also have a competitive Senate race when Sen. Jacky Rosen (D) is up for reelection.
Reid’s legacy will be a factor.
“Are they going to face a Reid machine in 2024? Yes,” Uithoven said, for whichever candidates run statewide. “Any Republican running in 2024 shouldn’t assume the Reid machine is dead.”