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Nevada Democrats in tight races turn to a trusted ally, the ‘Reid machine’

Nevada Democrats have found themselves in a bit of trouble.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto has trailed her Republican challenger, Adam Laxalt, in recent polls. Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak is also trailing his challenger, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo. And the Democratic candidate for secretary of state, Cisco Aguilar, is in a close race with Republican Jim Marchant, a 2020 election denier who is linked to the QAnon conspiracy movement.

But in Las Vegas, the Democrats may have an ace up their sleeve: They have the backing of the highly motivated and influential Culinary Workers Union Local 226, a 60,000-member organization of Las Vegas hotel staff that has a strong history of canvassing and turning elections in their favor.

In 2020, the Culinary, as it’s known, knocked on over 650,000 doors across Nevada, handing out pamphlets and directing voters to their nearest polling locations.

This year, the Culinary aims to knock on a record 1 million doors. If the union reaches its goal, its organizers will have contacted nearly half of the state’s Black and Latino voters and more than a third of its Asian American voters.

“We’re not going to take anything less than total victory tomorrow on election day,” Ted Pappageorge, secretary-treasurer for the Culinary, told a crowd of over 400 union members during a pre-canvassing rally Monday morning. “There’s some folks out there today that don’t want room cleaners and cooks and food servers to have power. Well, guess what? We’re going to show them what kind of power room cleaners and food servers and cooks have.”

The Culinary canvassers, all paid union members on leave from their casino jobs, have been knocking on doors since March. They’ve focused on turning out their union peers who tend not to vote in midterm elections, as well as new citizens and minority voters.

“No one does comprehensive campaigns like Culinary does,” Bethany Khan, director of communications for the union, told the Times.

The Culinary’s canvassing efforts are part of a get-out-the-vote machine that grew to prominence in the late 2000s. The late Sen. Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader, relied heavily on the Culinary and its mostly Latino membership to help get President Obama elected in 2008 and to secure his own election victories as a Democrat in a swing state. Reid’s ability to galvanize broad union support that focused on canvassing working-class areas came to be known as the Reid machine.

But Reid died last year, and some Democrats are worried that the state has been drifting to the right. President Biden won Nevada in 2020, but only by a slight margin, and Republicans are hoping to have high turnout in the heavily conservative rural counties.

Laxalt, the Republican Senate candidate, is Nevada’s former attorney general and has a familiar name in Nevada politics—his grandfather was governor in the 1960s and went on to serve in the Senate during the ’80s. Cortez Masto, a former federal prosecutor, is seeking a second term in the Silver State and is Reid’s hand-picked successor. Clark County, where Lombardo serves as sheriff, is home to Las Vegas, giving the Republican gubernatorial candidate a high profile in the state’s Democratic stronghold.

Before heading out to knock on doors Monday, the canvassers heard from Nevada Lt. Gov. Lisa Cano Burkhead and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Silicon Valley), who both received a standing ovation.

“You’re fighting for the basic American dream,” Khanna said. “That if you work hard, you should be able to either rent a place or have a place that’s affordable.”

The Culinary has a slate of candidates, dubbed the “Neighborhood Stability Slate to take on Wall Street landlords” highlighting those who are in favor of a rent control measure that caps rent increases to 5% per year.

Nationally, Democrats have focused on restoring abortion rights and positioning themselves as a party that will fight to uphold American democracy. They’ve painted Republican candidates as extremists beholden to the fringes of their party who are hell-bent on destroying voting rights and stripping citizens of their right to access abortion. Those are potent issues for some Democratic voters, but economic concerns are at the front of many Nevadans’ minds.

“What we’re seeing on the doors is that working-class voters — whether they’re Latino working-class voters, Black-working class voters, white working-class voters — they’re concerned about the cost of living,” Pappageorge said. “They’re concerned about the price of gas and at the same time, these oil companies are making record profits.”

On Monday, Culinary canvassers hit the streets in teams of two, most wearing red zip-up sweatshirts with the slogan “Workers to the front” (and in Spanish, “Trabajadores al frente”) plastered in large lettering on the back. During the rally at the Culinary headquarters, leaders gave speeches that were often in brief sentences in either English or Spanish that were quickly translated back and forth. Most pairs of canvassers had at least one Spanish speaker.

Canvassers carry iPads with lists of registered voters, and if no one answers, they leave a door-hanging leaflet with their selection of candidates and position on key issues. Canvassing neighborhoods and getting people to vote is a simple way to help the Culinary, Maria Orozco, 64, said, adding that the Culinary means “everything” to her.

“I have insurance, good benefits and support from the community,” she told The Times while out canvassing. Orozco is a casino porter at the Westgate Resort and Casino. She’s been with the Culinary for 18 years and this is her fifth time out canvassing.

“We’ve been talking to a lot of people about the cost of living,” said Rory Kuykendall, 39, Orozco’s canvassing partner. Kuykendall is a bellperson at the Flamingo Hotel and Casino, and a seven-year Culinary member.

Most of the time no one answered the door as the two made their way through a working-class neighborhood with one- and two-story Spanish-style homes. The people who did answer either had already voted or were reluctant to disclose their voting preferences.

“If people don’t want to say, [then] I always just focus on turnout. I really trust that high turnout is good for our candidates,” Kuykendall said. “So I’m always happy to tell people about where they can vote [and] how they can vote.”

With Reid’s death, the influence of the political machine he helped build has been called into question, especially since Sisolak failed to pick up the support of the state’s largest teachers union. But the Nevada Democratic machine was always about more than just one person; it relied on the energy and enthusiasm of thousands of canvassers.

“We like to call it the Culinary 226 Machine,” said Pappageorge. “Senator Reid was a great man, who championed workers and working families. But our job has been to be able to continue that legacy. This year, we’re going to knock on a million doors by [election day], which will be the biggest mobilization that we’ve ever done. So we think if we knock on those doors, we’re going to win.”

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