U.S. Markets closed

Harry Reid's 'machine' may help Democrats take the Senate

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
Former Nevada senator and Democratic Minority Whip Harry Reid; Nevada Rep. Jacky Rosen. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images, Getty Images, AP)

Last month Donald Trump came to Nevada and did what Donald Trump tends to do: He made headlines.

During his remarks at the Republican Party’s state convention in Las Vegas, Trump weighed in on the Senate race between GOP incumbent Dean Heller and Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen. Heller is the only Republican senator running for another term in a state that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. After vacillating on Obamacare repeal, immigration and even Trump himself, his approval ratings have plummeted 14 points since the start of 2017, falling a full 5 points this year alone; more Nevadans now disapprove than approve of his job performance. So far, all but one poll has shown Rosen in the lead; the most recent, taken in June, gives the Democrat a 4-point edge.

In other words, Heller is in serious trouble — and if he loses, Democrats could seize control of the Senate.

Enter Trump. On stage in Vegas, the president made sure to praise Heller, calling him “rock solid” and “outstanding” (even though Heller declared in 2016 that “I vehemently oppose our nominee” because he “denigrates human beings”). Trump went on to criticize Rosen, claiming that a vote for her would be “a vote for increased taxes, weak borders” and “crime.”

All of which is pretty much par for the presidential course. But then Trump did something that no other commander in chief has done, or would do, on the trail: He called Rosen a childish name.

“I have a great nickname for her,” Trump boasted. “‘Wacky Jacky.’ You don’t want her as your senator.”

And the media, of course, lapped it up, churning out hundreds of stories about Trump’s latest taunt.

Trump with Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Though silly, the spectacle was telling. Republicans have decided that a key way to preserve their narrow Senate majority is by deploying Trump to rally his voters on Heller’s behalf, and on behalf of other vulnerable Republicans. Never mind the president’s historically low approval ratings, both nationally and in Nevada; the important thing, as Josh Holmes, a top political lieutenant to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, recently told the Huffington Post, is that “no one fires up the Republican base like President Trump.”

Or, as Trump put it in Las Vegas, “I’ll be back a lot.”

At the same time, Nevada Democrats have settled on a less top-heavy strategy. The contrast couldn’t be starker. While everyone was distracted by “Wacky Jacky,” state party staffers weren’t trying to come up with insulting nicknames or win national news cycles. Instead, they were doing the same quiet, unglamorous, dogged work that has, over the last dozen years or so, built the Nevada Democratic Party into perhaps the most effective state party organization in the country: They were making calls, knocking on doors, registering new voters and laying the groundwork to turn their people out in November.

If this painstaking plan succeeds, and if Rosen unseats Heller, the Silver State could provide Democrats elsewhere with a practical blueprint for turning resistance into reality in an environment otherwise dominated by Donald Trump. The question is whether the Nevada machine can still power Democrats to victory now that the man it’s informally named after — former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who retired in 2017 — is no longer around to fire them up the way Trump fires up the right.

***

Among politicos, the “Reid Machine” is the stuff of legend. In the 2002 midterms, Nevada Republicans carried all six constitutional offices in Carson City, from governor on down. Two years later, Reid, then the Senate majority whip, won reelection against a weak opponent — yet on the same day Nevada helped propel George W. Bush to a second term in the White House. It was the fourth straight cycle in which Democrats had struggled, and Reid, mulling the results at home in Searchlight, Nev., decided to shake things up.

For years, volunteers had largely run the skeletal organization known as the Nevada Democratic Party. There were no precinct captains and no real voter files. To mobilize rank-and-file Democrats, the party had relied instead on organized labor — and the quadrennial presidential campaigns.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid in 2016. (Photo: Sait Serkan Gurbuz/AP)

Reid demanded a new approach. To that end, he recruited Rebecca Lambe, a Missouri-based strategist, to “professionalize” the state party. Lambe started in 2003, but her efforts ramped up after 2004. She hired paid staffers (including a communications director). She cast a wider voter net, targeting the state’s growing Latino and Asian immigrant communities. She built a permanent, web-based voter file. She trained canvassers to upload voter data from the field, via their mobile devices. She emphasized the importance of electing Democrats to local, nonpartisan offices, such as city councils and county commissions. Lambe was also the first to pitch Reid on securing an early presidential caucus for Nevada, and she pushed to hold presidential debates in the state — reforms that eventually helped the party raise millions of dollars and attract thousands of new voters. And later, as Reid’s chief political strategist, she quietly helped steer potential Democratic candidates into specific races and shape their campaign teams.

It didn’t take long for Lambe’s work to pay off. In 2006, Democrats won back four of Nevada’s six constitutional offices. In 2008, Barack Obama defeated John McCain there by nearly 13 percentage points, while Democrats flipped the Third Congressional District and regained control of the state senate. Most impressive, however, is what happened in 2010 and 2016, two disastrous years for Democrats nationally. In 2010, even as the GOP’s tea party wave flipped six Senate seats and 63 House seats — and even as the final polls showed Republican challenger Sharron Angle leading by nearly 3 percentage points — Reid managed to win reelection by registering thousands of new Latino voters and winning two-thirds of their votes on Election Day. Similarly, in 2016, Democrats banked tens of thousands of early Latino votes and managed to flip the state legislature, elect two new Democrats to Congress, send the first Latina, Catherine Cortez Masto, to the Senate and secure the state for Hillary Clinton as a result — at the same time Trump and the GOP were winning traditionally Democratic territory elsewhere.

Hillary Clinton and Harry Reid address the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Las Vegas, Aug. 4, 2016. (Photo: David Becker/Getty Images)

“We outperformed the national environment by small margins — 1, 2, 3 percentage points,” says Stewart Boss, who served as communications director for the state party in 2016 and now plays the same role on Rosen’s campaign. “That’s what folks in this business call a ‘field margin’ — when the ground game makes the difference in whether you win or lose.”

Lambe and others were instrumental in these success stories. But it was Reid — the machine’s boss, so to speak — who led the charge. Fully aware of his clout in Washington and back home, Reid cultivated the loyalty of the casino industry and the powerful Culinary Workers Union by pushing their favored policies on Capitol Hill and funneling development money to Las Vegas. In 2016, he personally called casino execs and secured paid leave for 300 culinary workers to knock on 350,000 doors, talk to over 75,000 voters, and ultimately deliver 54,000 early votes. For decades, he strengthened his ties to Nevada’s Latino community, which now represents almost 30 percent of the state’s population, by advocating for the DREAM Act and broader immigration reform — a major factor in the huge margins by which Nevada Latinos now routinely favor Democratic candidates. And Reid was also known to steer big donors toward his favored candidates — and to avoid divisive primaries by talking others out of the running.

Cortez Masto, Reid’s handpicked successor, has vowed to raise $1.5 million for the state party this cycle, and she’s already raked in more than a million. But can anyone really replace Reid? The success of Rosen’s campaign — not to mention the larger Democratic campaign to take back the Senate — could turn on the answer to that question.

Rep. Jacky Rosen with, from left, Rep. Dina Titus, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, Las Vegas shooting survivor Jason Sherman and retiring Rep. Ruben Kihuen. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

***

Talk to Nevada Democrats, and they insist that nothing has changed. “The much-vaunted Nevada Democratic machine that Harry Reid was leading — we like to say it’s still humming,” declares Helen Kalla, communications director for the state party.

Election Day is still several months away, but she and other Nevada Democrats can point to some early proof. In 2017 — the first year of the Trump era — the state party heavily invested in flipping a GOP-held seat on the Las Vegas city council, making 12,000 calls, knocking on 8,400 doors, sending 10,000 text messages and mailing more than 10,000 postcards. In the end, the Democratic field operation turned out 622 voters who hadn’t previously voted, according to Kalla — and the Democratic candidate won by 592 votes. That same year, state Democrats partnered with labor, Planned Parenthood and other allies to torpedo partisan recall petitions against three Democratic-aligned state senators that could have shifted the balance of power in the legislature if successful. Efforts to “meet voters where there are,” as Kalla puts it, are continuing apace; a third of the party’s organizing staff speaks Spanish, and a couple of organizers speak Tagalog, the native language of the Filipino immigrants who have flocked to Clark County in recent years. And with anti-Trump activism in full swing, local Democrats seemed to be fired up. In 2016, Kalla says, organizers had to call 108 people, on average, before one person agreed to sign up for a volunteer shift; so far this cycle, someone has been agreeing to volunteer every 20 calls.

Even so, the Reid Machine has been known to sputter when Reid isn’t fully engaged. Critics say that in 2014, for instance, Reid devoted most of his attention to maintaining control of the U.S. Senate — and the result was a Democratic disaster in Nevada, with Republicans gaining a congressional seat and taking complete control of the state government. Meanwhile, the state GOP, long considered the weaker organization, argues that it’s finally getting its act together this cycle, with a helping hand from the Republican National Committee. According to Keelie Broom, the RNC’s Nevada communications director, the national party currently employs two dozen paid staffers across the state; together, they have trained more than 1,600 volunteers, fellows, neighborhood team leaders and core team members to date.

“The RNC has invested more than $250 million in its state-of-the-art data program, and that program serves as a resource to Republican candidates up and down the ticket in Nevada,” adds Broom. “Winning elections takes total teamwork, and the RNC is working hand in glove with the Nevada GOP, our Republican ticket, county committees, Republican clubs, activists and community leaders to identify, register and persuade voters.”

Rep. Jacky Rosen, left, greets Giselle Rodriguez at a Cinco de Mayo festival in North Las Vegas. (Photo: John Locher/AP)

Democrats claim they aren’t concerned about Republicans overtaking them on the ground. The state GOP, says Boss, is “not so sustainable,” because “so much of their budget comes from the RNC, as do their staff and operation.” Nevada Democrats are different, he adds, because they’ve “built a strong and sustainable and independent infrastructure over the course of more than a decade — an infrastructure to support field organizers, data efforts and permanent staffers with donor relationships and political relationships” that remain in place “regardless of what’s going on in Washington, D.C.”

The plan, then, is simple: Register the largest possible pool of potential Democratic voters. Turn out as many of them as you can. Run up the score in Clark County, home to Las Vegas. Fight for every vote in purple Washoe County, home to Reno. And hold the line in the rest of the state, which is largely rural.

In the end, Democrats say, the numbers won’t lie — and they cite this year’s registration data as evidence. When Democrats brought on their first full-time organizers in March, the party’s registration advantage had shrunk (largely due to routine voter-roll attrition) to 59,000 voters — smaller than 62,036-voter margin in 2014, and much smaller than the 88,818-voter edge in 2016. The bigger the gap, the better the chance of Democratic victory; the party’s voters tend not to turn out as consistently as Republicans, especially in a midterm election. Over the next three months, however, as organizers got to work, the Democratic margin grew: first to 61,000 in April, then to 63,000 in May, and finally to nearly 66,000 in June. For three straight months now, Democratic registrations have outpaced Republican registrations.

If Nevada Dems can keep this trend going, they will have a chance to prove in November that the Reid Machine can still win elections — even without Reid at the wheel.

_____

Read more from Yahoo News: