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STEVE SEBELIUS: Nevada Democrats feeling frustration and hope

Frustration and hope.

Those are the currents buffeting Nevada Democrats these days, as longtime professional organizers come to terms with a state party taken over by progressive activists.

Although the once-and-forever head of the party — former Sen. Harry Reid — told the Nevada Newsmakers interview program that there was no dissension in the ranks, signs of it are everywhere.

The most visible: The Washoe County Democratic Party will house the state’s 2022 coordinated campaign, a joint effort aimed at electing Democrats up and down the ticket that’s heretofore been the province of the state party.

News of that development was denounced by newly elected leaders of the state and Clark County parties.

The tension dates back more than 20 years, to a prosciutto-thin election that gave rise to the machine named for Reid.

The year was 1998, and the state party was run by committed Democratic partisans, not professional organizers. Reid was running against then-Rep. John Ensign, and it was a close race. On election night, the two were separated by just 428 votes.

Reid’s narrow victory led him to make changes, seeking out a professional staff to transform the state party. The revamped party developed better voter data, a more aggressive field program and a top-notch get-out-the-vote apparatus. Separately, Reid tried to keep potential rivals off the field.

It worked: Reid went from barely winning in 1998 to defeating his 2004 opponent, conservative activist Richard Ziser, by more than 210,000 votes, his widest Senate margin ever. In fact, Reid never had another competitive election after 1998.

Not only that, the party apparatus he built won the state for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and for Joe Biden in 2020. It helped Catherine Cortez Masto replace Reid in the Senate in 2016 and helped Steve Sisolak become governor and Jacky Rosen become a U.S. senator in 2018. Democrats hold all constitutional offices but one, both houses of the Legislature and three of four congressional seats.

With few exceptions — including the anomalous “red tide” of 2014 — Democrats have dominated elections in Nevada since Reid and his people reformed the party.

That’s why those professionals were frustrated with the takeover. To them, the new slate of progressives seem more interested in enforcing progressive orthodoxy and issuing policy statements than in continuing the work that brought two decades of Democratic victories. It was, as one said, a descent into “debate clubs” rather than a continued focus on making the election machine run. Housing the coordinated campaign in the Washoe party is a way to ensure that machinery would continue, no matter what happens with the state party.

To be sure, progressives have their own frustrations. They believe the party backs any Democrat regardless of his or her commitment to the platform or progressive ideals. They were offended in 2016 when they believed the party’s leaders stacked the deck for Clinton over Bernie Sanders, an insult that led to the organizing effort that ultimately took over the state party last year.

This is nothing new in Nevada politics. In 2008, the state Republican Party convention was abruptly called to a close in part because of a dispute over delegates sought by a faction supporting former Texas Rep. Ron Paul. The Paul supporters organized and took over the state GOP in 2012.

Rather than risk losing, Republicans formed an organization outside their state party to do the work of fundraising, candidate recruitment, voter identification and turnout, the bread and butter of party politics.

Now, Democrats have done the same thing.

Which brings us to hope.

Despite their frustrations, the professionals who formerly inhabited the state party believe there’s still a role for that institution in next year’s elections. It won’t run the coordinated campaign; that’s off the table. But there are still plenty of things the state party could do, from attacking Republicans to supporting incumbents running for re-election with voter data files and other tools. The passion and commitment of those activists is a powerful force on the campaign trail.

The hope is that all Democrats — regardless of ideology or personal feelings — will come together for the purpose of winning in a midterm election year that’s typically tough for the incumbent president’s party.

And, if the progressives stopped to acknowledge the hard work and skill that built the incredibly successful Reid machine that’s been winning for 20 years, well that might be a nice bonus.

Contact Steve Sebelius at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com. Follow @SteveSebelius on Twitter.