At a minimum, the discord is expected to lead longtime allies of Harry M. Reid, the former Senate majority leader and the state’s most important political power broker, to build a political organization outside the state party structure. And it is fueling excitement among liberals nationwide who are pressing to increase the federal minimum wage, expand health coverage and combat climate change.
“These ideas are popular, and the party should embrace these ideas,” said Zaffar Iqbal, who was on the winning slate as the party’s second vice chair. “There has to be a balance between where our party has been and where it is going. Things are changing, and if we don’t adapt we will lose.”
While the Sanders wing of the national party has been relatively quiet recently, it has hardly faded away, and the drama in Nevada suggests Democrats are likely to continue to face disputes along ideological and generational lines. The Republicans’ divisions have been more evident, but Democrats face their own populist faction agitating for change, even as President Biden tries to hold the party together.
“People should not be afraid of change,” said Judith Whitmer, the new state party chairwoman, who said she has not spoken to Reid or other top elected officials. “A lot of people are concerned when there’s any shift or perceived threat to the status quo. But it’s time. It’s time to move in a more progressive direction if we’re going to get people to turn out to vote.”
The weekend developments were remarkable in part because Nevada Democrats have been highly successful in recent years, winning four straight presidential elections and holding almost every prominent statewide position, including both U.S. Senate seats. Reid, who declined an interview request, receives much of the credit within the party for building a powerful apparatus that relies upon turning out union-heavy areas around Las Vegas and Reno.
Some analysts say the current upheaval could change all that. “Say goodbye to the most effective Democratic Party in the country,” wrote Jon Ralston, a veteran political journalist and editor of the Nevada Independent.
In the lead-up to the state party elections over the weekend, Ralston reported, $450,000 was transferred from the state party account to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which coordinates the party’s U.S. Senate races. That money is likely to benefit Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who is up for reelection in 2022, along with others on the ballot, according to people familiar with the transfer.
To the victorious liberals, the exodus of party staffers — and funds — confirms their complaint that establishment Democrats look down on them and refuse to treat them as equals.
“It’s regrettable that folks think or assume that they simply can’t work with our wing of the party,” said Keenan Korth, who was the campaign manager for the winning slate of candidates. “But that’s not something that’s news to us. We know it’s incumbent upon us to prove that we have the organizing skills, that we understand how to win elections.”
Korth said the incoming party officials intend to tap a national network of grass-roots liberal groups to raise money needed for upcoming elections.
The outgoing officials and other top Democrats were reluctant to speak publicly as the fallout continued to unfold.
One former state party official said that while the Sanders supporters were highly effective organizers, the upheaval does not reflect a wider ideological shift within the party. However, the person is troubled by the possibility that the new leadership could support challenges in Democratic primaries, rather than supporting all Democrats.
“This was about gaining power and holding elected officials accountable — which is not the purpose of the state parties,” said the former official, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “There are groups who have that role, but it’s not one that the state parties should play.”
Several top Democrats said Reid and his allies could minimize any fallout by marshaling their own resources.
“The Reid machine is not the central committee; it’s political operatives and it’s fundraisers,” said one person familiar with the situation, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. “We used the party as a vehicle for this machine, but it can easily be moved to a different vehicle, and I believe that it will be.”
For all the drama, this is not the first battle to engulf Nevada Democrats in recent years.
At the chaotic 2016 Nevada Democratic convention, supporters of Sanders, a Vermont independent then mounting his first run for president, angrily charged that the proceedings were rigged against him, while backers of Hillary Clinton accused the Sanders faction of inciting violence.
Clinton prevailed that year, but in 2020, Sanders decisively won Nevada’s presidential caucus, coming far ahead of Biden. That empowered his supporters to begin taking control of county-level politics, and many party members came to believe it was only a matter of time before his supporters took over the state organization.
The efforts culminated in Saturday’s election, including Whitmer’s victory with the backing of the Nevada chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. She said fellow Democrats should not be scared when liberals are on the ascendant.
“Realistically, we’re not here to destroy anything,” she said. “We’re here to return the party to the people.”
As the party’s traditional leaders recognized that Sanders’s supporters were gaining strength, they tried to blunt the impact of the onslaught.
Cortez Mastro approached Tick Segerblom, a commissioner in Clark County, and asked him to run for party chair against Whitmer. Segerblom was a co-chairman of the Sanders campaign and is known as a liberal Democrat in the state, but he also has ties to more establishment figures.
He contended that the dispute was less ideological than it was a reaction to the traditional party structure.
“As far as me versus the woman that got elected, there’s not much difference,” Segerblom said in an interview, referring to Whitmer. “I’m an old-time person who was elected and in politics, and I’m close to the governor and senators. She is a new person.”
He added, “It’s like a throw-the-bastards-out kind of thing. But in terms of what they wanted to do, I’m not sure there’s a distinction.”
Shortly after Saturday’s election, the party’s executive director, Alana Mounce, informed Whitmer that she and others on the staff were resigning.
The Democratic National Committee had announced in February that Mounce was becoming its political director, so her departure was expected. But Whitmer said that she was surprised to learn of the resignations of four or five others.
“There was this false allegation that I was going to fire the staff,” she said. “I went out of my way to state that that wasn’t true. I had no plans to fire anyone. We’ve got résumés pouring in, and I’m optimistic we’ll be fully functioning.”
The incoming state party officials have been working to gain access to their new offices, transfer bank accounts and file other paperwork. The staffers who resigned were given severance packages through the end of the month, something that incoming officials did not approve but also have not opposed.
The newcomers said the old feuds should not overshadow the new opportunity.
“We don’t want ‘us against them,’ ‘Bernie against Hillary.’ That’s in the past,” said Howard Beckerman, who narrowly won the race for party treasurer. “Once everyone calms down, they’ll realize that the state Democratic Party’s goal is to elect as many Democrats as possible.”
The former state party official said that some on the staff had already taken other jobs and were planning to leave. Others had determined that working with Whitmer would be difficult, given that she in many ways was running against the existing party structure.
In addition, some Democrats worry that the intraparty fighting could damage Nevada’s chances at moving earlier in the presidential nominating contest. Reid’s influence helped the Nevada caucuses move up to become the fourth contest and the first in the West.
Now some Nevada officials want their state to replace Iowa as first in the nation, hoping to exploit the problems with the Iowa caucuses last year, when technical difficulties turned into a fiasco and results were not known for days.
“We were hoping to jump in front of Iowa,” said Segerblom, the candidate who lost the race for chairman. “The state party goes and makes the case: ‘We know what we’re doing and let us do before. Iowa screwed up, we didn’t. Let us move forward.’ ”
“How that plays out now, I don’t know,” he added. “Our political party is so well-known and so respected, but the fact that it’s changed hands may make an impact.”