Nevada Democrats bypass state party, deepen internal split

LAS VEGAS (AP) — A divide among Nevada Democrats has deepened as top Democratic officials opted to bypass the state party and set up an alternate party organization in Washoe County ahead of next year’s election.

Tuesday’s decision to shift the coordinated Democratic campaign to reach voters, organize and fundraise for 2022 comes after progressive leaders took over the state party earlier this year.

The decision has the backing of U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Gov. Steve Sisolak, Democrats seen as moderates who are seeking reelection next year.

They will need to win independent and unaffiliated voters in the political swing state, but that outreach became more complicated when the state party was taken over by a group backed by Democratic Socialists of America.

Shifting the 2022 Democratic effort to the Reno-based party gives Cortez Masto, Sisolak and other incumbents a way to put distance between themselves and the new Nevada Democratic State Party leadership.

But it could further inflame tensions with the Democratic Party’s left flank, splitting the base and opening the door to competing messages reaching voters or more primary challenges of incumbents.

The new state party chair, Judith Whitmer, decried the move as “profoundly dangerous” and said it puts Democratic incumbents at risk.

“Once again, we find ourselves disappointed but not surprised, but this time it’s regarding an insurgency within our own party instead of in the Republican Party,” Whitmer said in a statement. “Despite this ill-advised and undemocratic shift to a one-county strategy by some members of the party, we remain confident in our ability to do what we were tasked to do: elect Democrats to office in the State of Nevada and provide thoughtful leadership on progressive issues.”

Similar party infighting has popped up with state parties around the country before, with incumbents and national political groups showing little confidence in state parties and instead channeling their efforts through county parties.

It happened in Nevada in 2012, when national Republicans began working through the Washoe County GOP to support then-Sen. Dean Heller’s releection, rather than working through the state GOP and its leadership aligned with former GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul.

Things have been rocky for Nevada Democrats since Whitmer and her allies took over the party in March, a move that prompted the resignations of the party’s staff and consultants. Many were veterans of the vaunted “Reid Machine” built up by former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada.

With the help of progressives aligned with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Whitmer’s party worked to raise money to replace $450,000 transferred from the party’s campaign accounts shortly before her win.

The money had been raised by elected officials to jump-start the 2022 Democratic campaign in the state and it was transferred to the political arm of the U.S. Senate Democrats.

Last month, Whitmer released a statement as party chair accusing Israel of committing “injustice,” and “atrocities and human rights violations” against Palestinians. Nevada Democratic officials, including U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen, criticized the statement and another state party official resigned in protest.

The new state party leadership also immediately attracted political attacks from across-the-aisle, with Republicans labeling the Democratic Party as “racial left” and the state GOP declaring: “Socialism is not the answer voters are looking for.”

A Republican candidate challenging Sisolak has already seized on the takeover. John Lee, the mayor of North Las Vegas, announced he was leaving the Democratic Party because of the leftward shift. Shortly thereafter, he announced his plan to run as a Republican for governor.

Sisolak had remained quiet about the new leadership of the state party but released a statement Tuesday night applauding the move to run the coordinated campaign through Washoe County.

“This election cycle couldn’t be more important for Nevada and for the country,” he said. “We will work together with the state party and county parties in every corner of the state to achieve our shared goal of protecting and expanding on our Democratic success.”

Cortez Masto, who so far is not facing a primary challenge or an announced Republican challenger, also released a statement backing the change.

“This will be an incredibly challenging election cycle in Nevada, and organizing statewide, including in our state’s largest swing county, will be key to Democratic victories,” she said.

Michelle L. Price
Michelle L. Price
Price is a New York-based national political reporter