Splintered Nevada Democrats Still Busy Fighting Each Other Ahead of Midterms

In the aftermath of the jubilance of winning her election as the new chair of the Nevada State Democratic Party in March, one of Judith Whitmer's first official acts was to send a letter to the executive director, officers and staff of the party, who were all quitting.

"I will need all keys, access codes, and account information for all party-owned accounts and properties, I will need login information for all databases and accounts belonging to the state party," she wrote, additionally forbidding outgoing staff and contractors from transferring state party funds or destroying or deleting party records or data.

Whitmer was the victor of an ugly intra-party battle, with a slate of progressive candidates backed by the local Democratic Socialists of America sweeping all five leadership roles.

But it was clear that the establishment Democrats were not going quietly.

Even before losing, the party transferred $450,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). Since then, the so-called "Reid machine," led by former Senate majority leader and Nevada Democratic institution Harry Reid, announced the creation of an outside group to aid Democrats through fundraising and voter registration.

Now, Nevada political observers and Democrats say the fractured state party faces a difficult path forward with the midterm elections coming next year.

Jon Ralston, the dean of Nevada political journalism, assessed the remade landscape in a March column, writing that "with four straight presidential victories, two Democratic U.S. senators, three of four House members, five of six constitutional officers and both houses of the Legislature, what exactly is this revolution supposed to change?"

He told Newsweek the rupture could complicate efforts to keep that winning streak going in 2022 and beyond.

"It's clearly not good for them to have essentially the establishment Reid machine pull out of the party and say we're going to run a parallel organization," he said. "That can't be optimal no matter how it works out. When it comes to registering voters they are amateurs compared to the people who ran [Reid's operation], and having two organizations that don't like each other is not a great thing."

"The party is getting their ass kicked, they're not a centralizing force anymore now that Senator Reid is not calling the shots," a former Reid staffer told Newsweek. "There's a vacuum, because in the past Reid sort of pulled the strings and there's nobody there anymore."

One looming Las Vegas congressional primary race in particular threatens to further expose the raw nerve in Nevada Democratic politics.

It would pit Representative Dina Titus, the first member of Congress in an early primary state to endorse Joe Biden's candidacy, who would be backed by the influential Culinary Union and the Reid apparatus, against Amy Vilela, the former Nevada co-chair for Bernie Sanders' campaign, who would have the support of the ascendant progressives who out-organized the old guard to wrest control of the party.

Backers of the challenger seek to paint Titus—who was a Medicare For All co-sponsor— as insufficiently progressive, but Vilela did not join that criticism in her comments to Newseek, saying only that "those we've elected to represent us are nowhere to be found."

But her criticism of the current representation in Washington was sharp.

"From COVID to climate change, ineffective leadership is failing to meet the significant challenges we face," said Vilela, who was featured in the Netflix documentary Knock Down the House, along with then-candidates Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cori Bush. "I'm looking forward to taking my experience, not only as a Chief Financial Officer and small business owner, but also as a mother to biracial children and an active duty military spouse, to the halls of Congress."

Titus spokesperson Kevin Gerson said she's busy working with the president to help Southern Nevada recover from the pandemic, "but she always looks forward to campaign season because it gives her an opportunity to make the case for progressive policies." She takes every election seriously "and this time will be no exception," he said.

Longtime Nevada Democrats say Titus is the most liberal member of the party in the state, and take issue with the rush to cast aside her progressive bonafides, which were established in a male-dominated political environment where she was often the only woman in the room.

"I get so frustrated with uber-progressive folks whose platform is all of nothing," said a former Biden Nevada campaign leader who is not authorized to speak publicly. "She's for Medicare for All, homegirl is in it for marijuana, incarceration reform. But because she's not in some Netflix documentary they don't think she's hip and cool and deserves to be primaried."

Laura Martin, a respected grassroots leader as executive director of PLAN Action, said Titus' cautious approach to governing "creates the illusion that she's beatable," noting that in her heavily-Democratic 1st Congressional District, where a large number of Latinos and the biggest population of undocumented immigrants live, there is a feeling Titus doesn't provide a "voice" on immigration.

Martin compared Titus unfavorably to Rep. Steve Horsford, who has been a louder and more pubic advocate on immigration issues going back to Reid's days in the Senate.

"She has the safety in her district to be more open on things. She hasn't joined the progressive caucus or supported the Green New Deal," Martin said. "It's nearly impossible to defeat her as an institution, but needing her to be more bold opens the lane for a candidate to take her on."

(For her part, Vilela took on Horsford in 2018, running a distant third and garnering less than 10% of the vote.)

Still, a lot has changed in three years. There is a belief among state Democrats that the widening fissures in the party means Vilela will put up a race, able to raise money from having Senator Bernie Sanders send emails to his powerful email list on her behalf, as he did in supporting the progressive slate. But longtime party figures, including the original Bernie supporter in Nevada, say Titus holds the advantage.

"As far as Dina goes, she's there for life if she wants it, she's well-liked and well known," said Tick Segerblom, who was recruited to face Whitmer for party chair because he was respected in progressive circles, but also had longstanding ties to Democrats in the state as part of a last ditch unity effort.

"Her votes are very progressive," he said. "She's not AOC, but more like a Pelosi Democrat, which is as progressive as you're going to get in Nevada."

There are those within the party who have watched Nevada Democratic politics for years who say the splintering could be a good thing, with the new progressive leadership spending money to organize "leftists," while Reid does his thing outside the party. Change doesn't necessarily have to mean chaos, they say.

But to others the lack of a cohesive strategy and a sense that everyone is rowing in the same direction is dangerous if the party hopes to keep the hard-fought gains in the state. Martin put the onus for that type of outreach and unity at the feet of Reid's acolytes.

"Are you really about a big tent party?" She asked. "If winning is a numbers game, what are they doing to make sure the new leadership is supported?"

She had a message for Reid's organization.

"Reid machine, if you are the fantastic organizers everyone has come to love," she said, "let's organize through this and make sure we protect our progress."

dina titus las vegas
In this screenshot from the DNCC’s livestream of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV) announces the Nevada delegates during the virtual convention on August 18, 2020. Handout/DNCC/Getty Images

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