LAS VEGAS — The Women's March "Power to the Polls" rally unfolded 2,417 miles from the Capitol, in a city where the daily work of Washington feels even further away. But the day's biggest cheers came when activists thanked Senate Democrats and said that the government shutdown should not end until immigrants brought to the United States as children won legal status.
"We stand in solidarity with the dreamers and with the senators who are fighting back and saying, they are Americans, too," said Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards.
"People are choosing my life for me right now," said Astrid Silva, a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program who spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. "You can protect us, every single one of you, here."
The rally had been designed for politics, pivoting the Women's March — the official organization, which has clashed with some affiliates and spinoffs — into a campaign to end Republican control of Congress and the states through mass voter registration.
The shutdown, which many activists said they had not expected, had clarified just what those politics were. Republicans have largely tied their fates and their 2018 organizing to their president; Democrats have largely followed the lead of a base that believes it can change the electorate by giving left-leaning non-voters reasons to join it.
"Our senators are doing what they're supposed to do," said Jo Beck, 70, an organizer with Nevada's Asian American and Pacific Islander Democratic Caucus. "For the first time, they've got some balls."
Republicans, who insisted from the start that the shutdown would backfire on Democrats, believe that the minority party has tumbled into "identity politics" that will clarify voters' November choice. Flush with cash, the Republican National Committee — like the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) — is hiring and training organizers to get out the traditional Republican vote.
Last year, Republicans found 18,634 low-propensity voters in Georgia's 6th Congressional District, helping the party win the congressional special election — a targeting operation it says it can repeat in 2018. On Saturday, while many Democrats spoke at Women's March events, the RNC held a national day of voter training, with 105 events in 22 states, graduating 1,700 "Republican Leadership Initiative" fellows.
"Under Chairman [Ronna] McDaniel's leadership, the RNC is not leaving a single vote unturned," said Cassie Smedile, the RNC's national press secretary. "We are as committed as ever to involving a diverse and wide-ranging group of people in the process and teaching them how to be leaders in their community."
The White House, meanwhile, spent the weekend defining what platforms Republicans would run on. In a digital ad that began running Saturday, the Trump reelection campaign called Democrats "complicit in every murder committed by illegal immigrants." A fundraising email on Sunday made the message even clearer: "The President won't let the Democrats get away with shutting down the American government over illegal immigrants."
Some Democrats, quietly, are worried about that message gaining steam. The "Power to the Polls" campaign was designed to prove that it couldn't; the Nevada location was chosen to demonstrate why. In 2016, while losing the presidency, Democrats carried the state for Hillary Clinton, gained control of the legislature and two House seats, and elected Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto to replace the party's former Senate leader, Harry M. Reid. Six years earlier, Reid had defied polls, taken advantage of a far-right challenger and won reelection.
In Democratic thinking, Nevada had become Exhibit A in how the party could overwhelm Republican voters by activating the base. It started with that Reid win in 2010, the first time that a Democrat had raised the profile of "dreamers" — the undocumented citizens who came to this country as children now at the center of the shutdown fight. The lesson Democrats and activists took from the race was that they could force fights on complicated issues, like immigration and gun violence, if they gave them human faces.
"The anti-immigrant message also turned off white independent women," said Jose Parra, a Democratic strategist who worked on Reid's campaign. "There were dreamers knocking on doors, both from the state and outside the state, when they started seeing anti-immigrant rhetoric on their TVs. They put a face on the issue. They're acculturated, and they know the language, and that changed minds."
At Sunday's rally, and around Las Vegas, organizers were working once again to make dreamers famous. Silva was one of several dreamers who spoke from the main stage — as did a survivor of last year's mass shooting at a concert on the Las Vegas Strip. They didn't make explicit pitches for Democratic candidates; their presence implied that the party would do the right thing, and win, if it told the stories.
"I feel like they understand where we're coming from," said Argelia Rico, a DACA recipient who has recently begun working with children with autism. "I was a baby when I came here. I've never known any other home. I feel like the Democrats are more sympathetic to that."
The farther from Washington they were, the more confident marchers felt about the shutdown fight. Linda Sarsour, a co-founder of the Women's March who had suggested that Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) should switch parties for voting for the DACA-free government funding bill, told the crowd that "there's nothing radical or leftist about believing that undocumented people should be able to live safely and freely in the United States of America."
State Sen. Yvanna Cancela (D), the former political director of the state's Culinary Workers Union, pointed out that Las Vegas casinos had favored a DACA fix — as well as a fix for immigrants with temporary status — because the industry employs them.
"I want to see a Democratic Party that's fighting back aggressively when Trump fights back against vulnerable populations, and I think the Democrats did that on Friday," Cancela said.
Democrats stuck in Washington chose their words more carefully. In video broadcasts, the state's female Democratic members of Congress referred to the impasse as "the Trump shutdown" and listed the DACA issue as one of many that needed to be solved.
"I can't tell you enough how badly I wish I was home in Nevada this weekend with all of you," said Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), the party's preferred candidate for U.S. Senate this year.
Every Democratic member of Nevada's delegation had opposed the funding bill. Outside the rally, which was held in Rosen's district, congressional candidate Susie Lee did not say whether she would have voted for or against it; instead, she said that "Washington has not worked for working Americans for a long time" and that the shutdown is the latest example.
"Republican leaders had months to deal with this issue, after President Trump and Jeff Sessions canceled DACA," said Lee, who favors a version of the Dream Act. "These are families working here, going to school here. Let's get together and fix this."
The rally itself, a showcase for every left-leaning interest group from the abortion rights movement to sex workers seeking legal protection, went to places that few Democratic pollsters would recommend. Tamika Mallory, another co-founder of the Women's March, used her speech to tell white women that they had "stood on the backs" of black women. They need to get out of their comfort zones, she said, and get their families to understand what embattled, politically inconvenient communities are feeling.
"It is your job," Mallory said, "to get uninvited from Thanksgiving and Christmas."