The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The extraordinary rise of the democratic socialists in Nevada

An organization whose endorsed candidates comprise only about 1 percent of Congress and 0.5 percent of state legislators suddenly has power in a swing state. Now it faces very tough tasks to prove itself.

Former senator Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) tips his hat during a fundraiser for the Nevada Democratic Party in 2019. (John Locher/AP)
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Something remarkable happened in American politics this weekend: Candidates allied with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and supported by the Democratic Socialists of America took control of the Democratic Party apparatus in the swing state of Nevada.

Candidates backed by the DSA and allied left-wing groups won all top party leadership positions, defeating candidates backed by former Senate majority leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who has guided the state’s Democratic Party for many years. Party staff quit en masse in response. As the Nevada Independent’s Jon Ralston has written, it was the culmination of a long-simmering conflict between backers of Reid and Sanders, with the Sanders wing winning in a rout.

And for maybe the first time in American politics, those allied with democratic socialists have some actual power to demonstrate, to borrow Ralston’s favorite phrase, that “we matter.”

As Ralston also wrote, though, it bears a resemblance to something else that has happened in Nevada before and didn’t carry a particularly lasting impact, either in Nevada or national politics: Ron Paul supporters effectively taking over the state GOP in 2012.

Indeed, the fact that this is happening in Nevada shouldn’t escape notice. Certain states are more subject to the influence and control of more extreme members of their bases because of how their systems are set up and the composition of their parties. Nevada has proved a particularly good venue for both sides on that front.

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So just how much does this reflect the actual ascendancy of democratic socialism and its allies?

Since Sanders’s surprisingly successful 2016 presidential campaign, we’ve seen DSA-backed candidates gain a foothold in Congress. The most visible examples are Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) winning in 2018. In the 2020 election, they were joined by fellow Democratic Reps. Cori Bush (Mo.) and Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.). Rep. Danny K. Davis (Ill.) has in the past allied with democratic socialists (though he faced a primary from a candidate they backed recently). Regardless of whether you include him, they comprise about 1 percent of the House and 2 percent of House Democrats.

The past few elections have also elevated a number of DSA-backed candidates to state legislatures. Between the past three elections — 2018, 2019 and 2020 — more than 30 were elected in 18 states. They join a handful who had been elected previously and allied with the DSA, bringing the total number to more than 40.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s a relative drop in the bucket. There are nearly 7,400 state legislators nationwide, meaning they account for about half of 1 percent.

As in Nevada, though, the organization has gained a particular foothold in certain states. A half-dozen candidates it endorsed were elected to the New York state Senate and Assembly in 2020, with some defeating established incumbents. That’s still a small percentage of the more than 200 members of the state legislature, but combined with Ocasio-Cortez’s and Bowman’s wins, it serves notice of democratic socialists’ ascendancy in New York City, in particular.

Their candidates have also won multiple seats in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Vermont.

Many of those who call themselves democratic socialists including Sanders define themselves as that rather than “socialists,” full stop. What’s more, not all who ally with the DSA define themselves as democratic socialists or play up that label. The slate in Nevada, for example, included only one candidate who wasn’t a dues-paying member of a local DSA chapter, but it labeled itself “The NV Dems Progressive Slate” rather than a democratic socialist one.

As it did in Nevada, the DSA works within the Democratic Party rather than charting its own course as a political party. But in doing so, it has snagged more representation than the Socialist Party ever did. According to data from Washington University, the high-water mark for Socialists elected to legislatures was about two-dozen in the 1910s. Socialist Party members made it to Congress around that time, representing Wisconsin and New York City, but never achieving true power beyond winning local offices and a handful of state legislative seats. The party faded quickly in the 1920s and has never reestablished itself.

In recent decades and before the past few elections, a small handful of members of Congress have allied with the democratic socialists, though it was often below the radar — not enough to even raise as an issue in the national dialogue. Today, though, the rise of a number of members holding office — along with Ocasio-Cortez’s high profile — has fueled conservative allegations that the Democratic Party is suddenly being overtaken by socialism. The development in Nevada is now a case in point for that GOP talking point.

Now we find out just what the DSA allies can do with real power. Nevada poses a particularly big test when it comes to how influential and formidable they can be. There is an effort afoot to merely work around it, as Republicans did when Paul acolytes took over the state GOP. Shortly before the impending takeover, the state party moved $450,000 from its coffers to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and the Reid machine has made clear it intends to be a force through independent expenditures and outside groups in the state. New state Democratic Party Chairwoman Judith Whitmer initially complained that the party’s ActBlue account hadn’t immediately been handed over, though is has now.

The Las Vegas chapter of the DSA has now encouraged people to direct their donations to the ActBlue page for the “People’s Democratic Party of Nevada.”

Perhaps more significant to the future of democratic socialism, though, is what happens with Nevada’s privileged place on the Democratic presidential nominating calendar, along with how the party fares in the 2022 election. The state features both a hugely important Senate race, with first-term Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto defending her seat, and a slate of statewide races, including governor. Nevada is a blue-leaning swing state, but midterms are generally difficult for the president’s party.

The Democratic Party under Reid’s control had been among the most successful in the nation; now those who often focused on antagonizing it are tasked with guiding the ship, and they’ll instantly face some very tough tests. Reid allies are expressing skepticism that they’ll be able to pull it off.

Whether they can will be perhaps the biggest question to date when it comes to the future of democratic socialism in the Democratic Party — and American politics.