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Some Nevada Democrats blame party infighting for defeats

Nevada Democrats’ vaunted political machine delivered wins for Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, Secretary of State-elect Cisco Aguilar and Atty. Gen. Aaron Ford last week.

But Gov. Steve Sisolak and his running mate, Lt. Gov Lisa Cano Burkhead, both lost. In a year when Democrats outperformed expectations almost everywhere in the country, Sisolak was the only incumbent Democratic governor to lose his seat.

Sisolak’s COVID-19 policies, which shut down casinos and led to high unemployment, were unpopular, and his opponent, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, is well known in the state. But some Nevada Democrats are saying party infighting is also to blame for Sisolak’s loss.

The progressive and establishment wings of the Nevada Democratic Party have been feuding since last year, when progressives and members of the Democratic Socialists of America were elected to every leadership position in the state party. Before losing the internal election, the establishment figures who had been running the state party sent its entire treasury to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. After the election, they quit their jobs and started a new group, Nevada Democratic Victory.

The party’s top elected officials picked sides. Cortez Masto and Sisolak allied with Nevada Democratic Victory. They, like all Nevada Democrats, worked closely with the so-called Reid Machine, a get-out-the-vote and canvassing operation that the late Sen. Harry Reid built. The machine’s paid canvassers — union members on leave from the Las Vegas casinos — knocked on more than 1 million doors this election cycle.

The NV Dems, as the progressive insurgents are known, decided to focus on electing Democrats to local positions.

“We’ve supported their work, but we haven’t been working together or coordinating any of our efforts,” Judith Whitmer, chair of the NV Dems, said of Nevada Democratic Victory. “We focused heavily on down-ballot races while they took the top of the ticket. But, of course, we’ve done everything we can to support all of our candidates.”

Most of the NV Dems have policy preferences that differ from their establishment counterparts, but all spoke highly of Reid, who died last year.

Reid was from an impoverished, working-class background, and both sides viewed him as a champion of Nevada’s working class. But without him, no one has been able to bring the progressive and establishment wings of the party together.

“There is a very real leadership vacuum,” said Chris Roberts, chair of the Clark County Democrats. “Sen. Reid was a coalition builder. … Different and disparate coalitions of people liked and admired him. And there’s no one who took his place to earn the respect and admiration of these different groups of people.”

The relationship between the two wings of the party is so contentious that the NV Dems weren’t invited to Nevada Democratic Victory’s election-night watch party at the Encore, a five-star hotel and casino on the Las Vegas Strip. Instead, the NV Dems phone-banked right up to 7:00 p.m., when polls closed across the state, and held a small watch party with a food spread from Olive Garden.

“We weren’t invited. We’re here doing the work; they can have their fun,” Roberts told The Times on election night. “It is not about partying right now, and having parties at the Encore isn’t something we should be doing.”

Mallory Payne, a spokesperson for Nevada Democratic Victory, disputed the idea that the party was divided. “Nevada Democrats worked together this year to deliver not only the Senate majority this cycle but also major wins up and down the ballot,” she said in a statement. “The Nevada State Democratic Party, in partnership with Nevada Democratic Victory, ran a successful multimillion-dollar voter turnout and persuasion program that helped our candidates in key races. We appreciate their efforts.”

People associated with Nevada Democratic Victory had previously expressed doubts that the newly elected progressives in the state party had their predecessors’ ability to raise money, campaign and select candidates who could win in Nevada. Donna West, a former chair of the Clark County Democratic Party, has criticized the new leadership, and Whitmer in particular, as hard to work with.

“I found that working with her could be really difficult, that she doesn’t really collaborate well and doesn’t work to build consensus,” West told the Intercept last year.

Democratic disunity is certainly not the only potential explanation for Sisolak’s defeat. His COVID-19 policies, which shut down casinos for two months and led to 28% unemployment, hurt him politically.

The NV Dems “had no impact on the wins or losses,” Chris Sloan, senior campaign advisor to the Democratic Governors Assn., told The Times.

Sloan cited three other factors as contributors to Sisolak’s loss: COVID-19’s impact on the local economy, big spending from out-of-state donors and Lombardo’s high profile.

“The fallout from the pandemic was too big a hurdle,” Sloan said. “Sisolak could have overcame two out of three, but three out of three proved too much.”

The tough decision to close down Las Vegas’ casinos saved lives but contributed to Sisolak’s loss, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper added on a DGA press call Wednesday.

“He did the right thing because he knew he wanted to look out for the health and safety of the people who lived in Nevada, and I think that that was an issue that hurt him significantly,” Cooper said.

Lombardo also hammered Sisolak over the governor’s ties to a COVID-19 testing company that billed the federal government at least $165 million for tests that didn’t work.

Still, this year’s Democratic campaign in Nevada was notably different from those of previous cycles. In the past, Nevada Democrats have worked together to elect all of the Democratic statewide candidates. This year was the first time in Nevada that a campaign coordinated outside the state party has taken charge of the top of the ticket, Whitmer said.

Historically, the state party also worked hand in hand with unions in coordinating campaign events. This year, however, the unions largely acted independently. The state’s largest teachers union, the Clark County Education Assn., declined to endorse a gubernatorial candidate this cycle, citing teacher shortages and low academic student performance.

Nevada’s Democrats aren’t the only ones pointing fingers over election defeats. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez blamed “calcified machine-style politics” for her party’s poor performance in New York, where Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, lost his seat.

“Not once has the New York State Democratic chair ever called me,” Ocasio-Cortez told the New York Times. “All he has done is antagonize myself and any progressive candidates. We need to get together as a team.”

Whitmer has similar views and hopes that top Democrats in Nevada will see “the error of their ways.”

“I think some of these razor-thin margins could have been wider margins, if we’d been able to work together as a team here in Nevada,” she said. “We need to pull back together and work together, because we’re stronger that way.”

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