Progressive group NextGen announces $1 million investment to keep Nevada blue in 2020

Two students at voter registration table

The progressive advocacy group NextGen America is ramping up its efforts ahead of the 2020 election in an effort to keep Nevada blue, with plans to spend $1 million on registering and turning out young people.

The group, which now has a year-round presence on the ground in Nevada, plans to register at least 8,000 young voters and mobilize thousands more through in-person, online and mail-based outreach ahead of the 2020 election in the Silver State. The organization plans to ramp up its current staff of six — a state director, an organizing director, an operations director and three organizers based at UNLV, UNR and the CSN campuses — to at least 21 spread across seven college campuses statewide in the coming months.

NextGen, which was founded in 2013 by billionaire turned Democratic presidential hopeful Tom Steyer, will focus on turning out Democrats generally to the polls and not in support of any one candidate. Steyer stepped aside as the organization’s CEO when he announced his presidential bid.

In 2018, NextGen registered more than 11,000 voters, collected 19,000 pledges to vote and knocked on 78,000 doors in Nevada. The group’s efforts contributed to significant increases in youth turnout in Nevada in 2018, with turnout at the UNR precinct reaching more than 300 percent of what it was in the prior midterm election in 2014 and turnout at the UNLV precinct exceeding 2014 turnout by more than 175 percent.

The increased youth turnout, combined with the work of other progressive organizations in boosting the turnout of underrepresented communities, helped buoy Democratic candidates to victory in the Silver State in 2018, including 5- and 4-point victories for Democrats in key U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races, respectively.

NextGen Nevada State Director Mark Riffenburg said that group’s efforts in 2018 provide a solid foundation heading into a presidential election year.

“What happened in 2018 didn’t happen in a silo, right? All the people we registered in 2018 are people we’ll be able to reach out to this cycle and get acclimated and ready to go,” Riffenburg said.

Nationwide, the group plans to spend more than $45 million to encourage youth turnout in 11 battleground states, with a goal of registering at least 270,000 new voters and running a volunteer driven get-out-the-vote effort in those states. The organization’s aim is to get 66 percent of young voters in those battleground states to back the eventual Democratic presidential nominee and Democratic U.S. Senate candidates.

Even with just three organizers, the group has already managed to meet with 117 young people on college campuses across Nevada about how to get involved in the last couple of weeks, Riffenburg added.

“Compared to 2018, the idea that you can meet with nearly 120 young people who are interested in getting involved in late 2019 not even 2020 calendar year yet, it’s a significant thing,” he said.

He said that while some students are focusing their efforts specifically on volunteering for individual presidential campaigns, most are broadly interested in the idea of sending a Democrat to the White House.

“Regardless who they are supporting, they all agree what’s currently happening is not acceptable,” Riffenburg said. “Whether they’re volunteering directly with NextGen or volunteering for a presidential campaign, it all stems from the idea that they’re fired up about the process in a way they’ve never been before.”

Ahead of the caucus, the organization is planning on hosting caucus trainings and encouraging young people to participate in the Nevada State Democratic Party’s first-ever early voting process. Several of the nearly 80 early voting sites will be on college campuses, including at UNLV, UNR, Truckee Meadows Community College and CSN’s North Las Vegas, Charleston and Henderson campuses.

“The barriers for young people to cast their vote in the nominating process are lower than ever before,” Riffenburg said. “If you want to be involved, you probably have your best shot ever this year.”

Updated 12-4-19 at 9:29 a.m. to correct the fact that NextGen America has six staffers on the ground in Nevada, not four.

Trump 2020 campaign eyes victory in Nevada after close election in 2016

Having barely lost Nevada in 2016, President Donald Trump will make a play for the state with the belief that the strong economy, successes of his first term and an improved field operation will be enough to make the difference, campaign officials said Friday.

“Nevada is one of the ones we think we can win,” Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s director of communications, told a group of regional reporters Friday. “We’ll be involved in Nevada.”

Murtaugh said the booming economy gives the president a potent message that he did not have as a first-time seeker of elected office. 

“The president's message: the economy is as strong as it has ever been,” Murtaugh said. “Last time, the president was just a candidate promising things and now he can point to a record of clear accomplishments.”

In April, the national unemployment rate hit 3.6 percent, the lowest since 1969, according to the Labor Department. It was 3.8 percent in March. Real gross domestic product (GDP), the broadest measure of economic activity, expanded by 2.9 percent in 2018, the strongest growth since 2015. The latest figures available for Nevada put the unemployment rate at 4.2 percent in March.

“Knowing how close he was the last time, with a superior ground game, now, our political guys think we can win,” he continued.

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won the state by 2.4 percentage points, which was fewer than 30,000 votes.

Trump campaign officials declined to provide any details about what a “superior ground game” would entail, though. They did say that they were aiming to recruit and train 2 million volunteers around the nation for the 2020 cycle. Those volunteers would come from the pool of attendees of Trump’s raucous political rallies.

“These things are valuable, valuable tools, which are voter data-mining machines and they are very, very effective,” Murtaugh said.

Nevada Democrats built on their 2016 successes in 2018. Over the cycle, Democrats knocked on 1.3 million doors, made 2.6 million calls, and sent 1.2 million text messages to voters, with most of that in the final three weeks of the campaign, according to the state Democratic Party. Those efforts resulted in victories in the competitive Senate and governor’s races, all but one statewide race and boosted the party’s advantages in both legislative houses.

The Democrats were bolstered by the Culinary Union, which in known for its get-out-the-vote operation. The union represents 57,000 guest room attendants, servers, bellmen and others at resorts in Las Vegas in Reno, and played a key role in the Democratic turnout operation in 2018, with 350 workers taking a leave of absence to urge voters to turn out to the polls. In total, the union knocked 370,000 doors, had 80,000 one-on-one conversations with voters, made 45,000 personal calls, sent 1.8 million pieces of mail, sent regular emails and texts to members and ran video ads with 3.5 million views. And in 2020, the hill for the GOP will be steeper with the state instituting motor-voter registration, same-day registration and, perhaps, extended early voting.

Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who is also chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is the campaign arm for Senate Democrats, said that the demographics of the state favor her party.

“I don’t know where they’re getting their demographics, their numbers, but I am not seeing the same thing,” she said, adding that she is “not at all” worried that Trump will win Nevada.

Latinos will likely have a significant influence as a voting bloc in 2020 when they for the first time are projected, at 32 million eligible voters, to be the largest ethnic minority group in the national electorate, according to the Pew Research Center.

“We are going to be working hard this election, just like every election,” Cortez Masto said. “The energy is out here. We have a strong, robust Democratic infrastructure here in the state of Nevada and we are going to make sure we stay connected to voters.”

Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that the campaign had hired Nevada political operative Jeremy Hughes to be its Pacific Region political director, which oversees Nevada, California, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Alaska and Idaho. Joe Weaver was hired to be Nevada state director.

Along with lowering taxes in 2017 and the surging economy, the Trump campaign cites as successes his tough stance on trade with China, which his opponents argue is hurting farmers and other sectors of the economy.

They also point to progress on building a wall on the southern border despite opposition from Democrats in Congress. Estimates from the Army Corps of Engineers, the officials said, predict that 450 miles of new wall would be built by Election Day. Pointing to action on the border wall is designed to help make the case that Trump is a successful president despite obstruction from Democrats.

“When the media comes to him and says, ‘hey, you didn't actually complete the wall’, he can say ‘well, look, I've done more than anyone else ever has done. I'm going to have more than 450 miles of the wall and I'm still going to press forward on it and look at the choice on the other side, that person has pledged never to give me a dime from the wall,’” Murtaugh said.

“That's what we're talking about how it's going to be a clear choice,” he continued. “And the people who view border security as their key issue know that Donald Trump is their champion. So it is their messaging and the energy and the direction of Donald Trump will be very similar to what it was in 2016.”

Kayleigh McEnany, national press secretary for Trump’s 2020 campaign, put Trump’s message more succinctly, citing ongoing efforts by Democrats in Congress to investigate and possibly impeach the president.

“‘I got it done,’” she said, characterizing the president’s planned messaging. “‘The obstructionist Democrats wouldn't work with me because they were so obsessed with disenfranchising voters, and basically overturning the results of the lawful election. So they investigated. I got things done’ — and we think it's a good message.”

The campaign also embraced Trump’s behavior which turns off some voters as much as it strikes a chord with others. 

“Let Trump be Trump,” Murtaugh said when asked whether the president’s style, which includes giving opponents unflattering nicknames and a never-give-one-inch attitude with regard to criticism, is a problem.

“He is unpredictable, of course, but he is a known quantity,” Murtaugh said. “That’s part of his appeal for many.”

But the president’s tough rhetoric on illegal immigration, for example, turned off many Latinos, according to a midterm-election eve poll commissioned by political opinion research firm Latino Decisions. An analysis the firm released last month found that Latino voters were the difference in Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen’s victory over former Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican.

Murtaugh argued that it would be a mistake, though, for Democrats to assume Latinos would respond only to a Democratic campaign based on Trump’s rhetoric.

“Democrats I think make a mistake when they think that they can just say the word ‘immigration’ and then ‘Trump’ and think that that wins the argument with Hispanic voters because that's not our experience,” he said. “Our experiences is, when we talk to them, and they themselves are a legal immigrant or have legal immigrants in recent generations, and they went through the proper process to become Americans, that they think other people should have to follow the rules, too.”

Recount upholds Republican victory in swing state Senate seat preventing Democratic supermajority

A recount has upheld Republican Keith Pickard’s victory earlier this month in a competitive Henderson-area state Senate race, denying Democrats a supermajority in the upper chamber of the Legislature.

The results of the recount, first reported by the Associated Press, determined that Pickard won the race by a narrow 24-vote margin over Democrat Julie Pazina in Senate District 20. Democrats, who had needed to win the seat in order to capture a 14-person supermajority in the chamber, will now control 13 seats in the state Senate and hold a 29-person supermajority in the Assembly.

The results will be officially canvassed on Thursday at 11 a.m.

With Pickard’s victory, Republicans will be better positioned to stall or stop Democratic efforts in the Senate next year. A supermajority in the Senate would have allowed Democrats in both chambers to pass taxes or override vetoes without Republican support.

Pazina, a national sales director for a temporary utility contractor, requested the recount earlier this month after vote totals showed her trailing Pickard by only 28 votes, or 0.05 percent. She conceded the election last week in a statement on Twitter.

“While the outcome ultimately was not what we hoped, this has been an incredible journey and I feel fortunate to have gotten to know so many of my neighbors over the past year,” Pazina said in the statement. “I would also like to congratulate Keith Pickard on his win. I wish him success in his service to our community in the legislature.”

Pickard, a first-term assemblyman and lawyer, said in a tweet on Thanksgiving that he was “thankful and humbled” to represent the Senate district.

“I’m committed to be an effective advocate for our community. Time to go to work,” he said.

The two candidates had traded barbs in the election, with Pickard sending out mailers accusing Pazina of being a “far left liberal” and Pazina criticizing Pickard over health-care policy. They were vying to replace Republican Michael Roberson, the former Republican Senate leader who made an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor this year.

Pickard’s victory also means that as many as 13 men and as few as eight women could serve in the state Senate next year, though the gender balance could tip to 11 men and 10 women should women be appointed to fill the seats of outgoing Democratic state Sens. Tick Segerblom and Aaron Ford. If that happens, there could be 32 women and 31 men serving between the two houses, the first time in both state and national history that a legislative body is majority female.

In 2016, Republican Jill Dickman requested a recount in a tight race in a Northern Nevada Assembly district against Democrat Skip Daly. After a recount of the more than 30,000 votes cast in Assembly District 31, the Washoe County Registrar of Voters determined that Daly defeated Dickman by 36 votes, down from the preliminary 38 vote total.

Updated 11-26-18 at 3:13 p.m. to include information from a Clark County spokesman.

Sisolak announces leaders of his transition advisory committee

Three women well-entrenched in Nevada’s political world will lead a transition advisory committee for Governor-elect Steve Sisolak.

Sisolak announced on Monday that Rep. Dina Titus will chair the committee, while Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve and former state Assemblywoman Barbara Buckley, who’s executive director of the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, will serve as co-chairs. Their recruitment adds even more female leadership to his transition team.

Earlier this month, Sisolak hired Michelle White, a longtime political advisor in Nevada, as the executive director of his transition team. He also brought on Christina Amestoy and Francisco Morales as deputy directors. Both of them worked on his campaign.

Nevada avoids delays in election calls thanks to unpopularity of voting by mail

The 2018 election was, for the most part, not a good night for Nevada Republicans.

But unlike their colleagues in California, Arizona, Maine, and Florida, who waited days to weeks for a final call in major races, Nevada candidates generally knew the results of their races within a few hours of polls being closed.

Despite conspiracy theorists and some high-ranking officials (including President Donald Trump) questioning the legitimacy of ballots being tallied after election days, states including Arizona, California, Washington and Utah often take days or weeks after Election Day to fully tally all ballots cast, with the outcome of races undetermined for days or weeks after polls close.

But Nevada has largely avoided that issue — quick calls on election night are a result of the state’s relatively strict deadlines for mail and absentee ballots and because of the popularity of early voting in the state, Deputy Secretary of State for Elections Wayne Thorley said in an interview with The Nevada Independent. Thorley said being able to call races relatively quickly helped solidify the integrity of election results and cut down on misinformation that festers when ballot counting continues indefinitely.

“When it comes to elections, perception is a big, important issue,” he said. “As you can see, it's happening in these other states that are taking a long time to get results in. It breeds, I don't want to say conspiracy theories, but it causes some people to think there's some stuff that’s going on that’s not on the up and up.”

Although they are typically lumped together, the state considers mail ballots and absentee ballots differently. Mail ballots are typically offered in precincts with a small number of voters (fewer than 200 residents or ballots cast in the previous election), and conduct elections entirely through mail. Absentee ballots are available to anyone in the state, but state law requires them to be in the hands of county election clerks by the close of polls (7 p.m.) or are otherwise considered invalid and not counted.

That’s in stark contrast to California, where mailed-in ballots will be counted as long as they are postmarked by Election Day and received by Fridays’ close of business. The number of mailed-in ballots was so large that in 2016, fewer than half of votes cast in the state were counted on Election Day. In Arizona, where Democrat Kyrsten Sinema declared victory more than a week after Election Day, nearly three-quarters of ballots cast came via mail in 2016 and a similarly high number expected this cycle.

Nevada is one of 27 states that allows for any qualified voter to request and receive an absentee ballot through the mail without a reason, a so-called “no excuse absentee” state. Lawmakers also approved a bill in the 2017 Legislature allowing for voters with disabilities or over the age of 65 to make a permanent request for mail/absentee ballots for all future elections, though all other voters must request an absentee ballot for each election.

Nevada also allows county election clerks to deliver sent absentee or mail ballots to a central county board for processing and counting at most four days before an election, which also cuts down on delays. The same 7 p.m. deadline also applies for military or overseas voters, though Thorley said they’re allowed to either fax, mail or email their ballots in to the state.

But despite that, only a small percentage of Nevadans cast their ballots via mail or absentee ballots. In the 2018 election, just over 88,000 voters cast a mail or absentee ballot out of the 976,000 who voted in total, making up around 9 percent of the vote. Absentee and mail turnout has typically come in between 7 and 11 percent of the vote in elections dating back to 2002, hitting a high point in 2004 with about 10.6 percent of the vote made through absentee ballots.

“It’s just not a popular voting option in this state,” Thorley said.

Instead, the largest change in voting behavior has been the rising popularity of the state’s two-week early voting period, which accounted for around 57 percent of ballots cast in 2018 and a majority of ballots cast in the last four elections. Although total turnout has ebbed and flowed, absentee and mail ballots cast have made up between 7 to 8 percent of total turnout in the last four cycles.

Another voting option that could lend uncertainty to races being called on Election Night are provisional ballots, given to voters whose eligibility to vote is in question. State law requires election officials to determine the validity of the ballots and the voters who cast them by the 5 p.m. on the Friday after the election.

Thorley said use of voting centers, which allow voters to cast ballots at any location as opposed to a designated polling precinct, would likely cut down on the number of provisional ballots cast as the majority of past provisional ballots came from voters going to the incorrect polling place in Clark County.

In the 2018 election, voters cast 2,061 provisional ballots but only counted 144 of them as valid, with the vast majority — 1,851 — cast by voters not registered to vote. The number of valid provisional votes was much higher in 2016 (2,324 out of 6,857 total cast) and even in 2014 (223 out of 426 total cast), meaning it's less likely going forward that close elections could be determined by provisional ballots.

How energy choice, the most expensive ballot question in Nevada history, went from a slam dunk to an airball

The sign at NV Energy corporate headquarters

In his 2017 State of the State address, Gov. Brian Sandoval made what seemed at the time like an easy prediction.

“With the overwhelming passage of Question 3 last year, it is likely Nevadans will have energy choice in the future,” he said in his last biennial address to the Legislature.

Sandoval’s comments were indicative of the air of inevitability that permeated the state and its policymakers throughout much of 2017 and 2018. But what once seemed a near certainty met its end on Election Night when Question 3, or the Energy Choice Initiative, was defeated with nearly two-thirds of voters opposed.

That result was a far cry from that of 2016, when more than 72 percent of voters cast a ballot in favor of the initiative, one of the largest margins of victory for a ballot question in modern Nevada history. Add in a coalition of powerful supporters — former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, data center giant Switch and one of the largest businesses in the state, the Las Vegas Sands — and the ballot question appeared to be a lock for the next election.

If approved, the measure would have amended Nevada’s Constitution to require the state adopt a retail competitive electric market by 2023, thereby ending NV Energy’s reign as the monopoly electric provider for most of the state. Although the proposed language contained few specifics, proponents said approving the ballot measure would lower electric rates while allowing Nevadans to shop and choose for their electric providers, rather than being forced to buy power only from NV Energy.

But it failed, and the first-ever attempt by any state to create a retail electric market at the ballot box is now consigned to the dustbin of history.

So why did it fail?

Supporters and opponents of the ballot measure chalk it up to two reasons: a misguided advertising message by supporters of the initiative that tried to make the question a referendum on NV Energy, and the unprecedented $63 million spent by the Berkshire Hathaway-owned utility to defeat the measure. 

When the money was tallied, opponents of the ballot question spent more than three times more than the amount reported by proponents. They were also able to bring together a diverse coalition of groups, including rural counties, organized labor, business organizations, pro-renewable groups, teachers’ unions and senior groups to publicly oppose Question 3 and appear in campaign ads laying out their issues with it.

Peter Koltak, the Coalition to Defeat Question 3’s campaign manager, said the PAC decided to focus on a core message of three “Rs,” — renewables, rates and reliability — and hammer the issue for months with their immense fundraising advantage, despite what Koltak acknowledged as a built-in advantage of an attractively written ballot question.

“The ballot language is extremely well drafted, and if you just were to read the ballot language and have no other context, it seems very logical, and it seems like it's something that makes complete sense, and it doesn’t seem like anything that’s going to do anybody any harm,” he said. “The voters, the people who were actually going to make the decision, we really were starting fresh with them; they didn’t remember voting on this in 2016. Yes, there was favorable ballot wording, but we had the opportunity to sort of define the issue, which is what we did.”

Beginnings

Origins of the the Energy Choice Initiative stem from long standing fights between NV Energy and the two proponents of the ballot measure — Switch and Las Vegas Sands.

In any energy market, the most valuable customers to a utility are typically large-scale energy users such as a casino, hotel or major industrial customer with a large, steady load that can help subsidize hard-to-reach residential and other customers. But larger power users in Nevada have chafed at working with the utility; Switch CEO Rob Roy said in a February interview with The Nevada Independent that much of his animosity with the company stemmed from their alleged refusal to work with his company to develop a large-scale solar project in 2014.

“The hardest thing for me in Nevada in 18 years of building this company, the hardest single thing to work on — not clients, not success, not technology, not politics, not any of those things, it’s been one thing, and one thing that’s been the hardest hurdle to overcome has been NV Energy,” he said at the time. “It’s how I feel. I know it’s how all of them feel. It’s how Caesars feels. It’s how the Peppermill feels. It’s how Barrick felt way before all of us, so much so that they left 10 years before us.”

Switch and other large power customers decided to leave the utility, possible under a 2001 state law left over from an aborted effort to move to a retail market. The so-called 704B process allows large power users to apply to leave the utility as a customer if regulators deem it to be in the public interest — and if they pay an “exit fee” to the utility to make up any extra charges that might be levied on other customers by their departure.

Switch was the first to file to leave in 2014, followed by Wynn Resorts, MGM Resorts and the Las Vegas Sands, though the Sands opted not to pay its assessed $23.9 million exit fee in 2016, calling it in regulatory filings unjustified and meant to “perpetuate NV Energy’s monopoly.”

Two months later, the casino giant helmed by Republican Party megadonor Sheldon Adelson contributed half a million dollars to the nascent Energy Choice Initiative — the proposed constitutional amendment that would prohibit electric monopolies and open up the state to retail competition.

Although proponents of the initiative largely focused on the benefits of a retail market and the possibility of more renewable energy, Sands executive Andy Abboud let the mask slip a bit in October when he said involvement in the measure was more about the assessed exit fees.

“I have a fundamental problem on the cost structure, of the PUC determining costs when they were unable to tell us how they determined our exit fee, and today it seems like those exit fees were completely unnecessary,” Abboud said last year at a meeting of the Governor’s Committee on Energy Choice. “I’m not here today to go after the PUC, but let’s be honest. That’s why a lot of us are here, that’s why this initiative was launched, was the lack of transparency on what consumers are being charged to leave the grid.”

The measure soon qualified for the ballot after supporters gathered more than the required 55,000 signatures, and more supporters piled on: Tesla, Switch, the Sands, MGM, the Nevada Conservation League, Patagonia, solar companies, every major newspaper in the state and even Reid, the state’s most powerful Democrat and longtime U.S. senator who had long tangled with the utility and brought together initial supporters for the ballot question.

“Nevadans are poised to gut energy monopolies’ rigid power grabs and directly participate in the clean energy economy,” Reid said in a 2016 statement. “Voting ‘yes’ on energy choice will represent a seismic shift for America and the world — a momentous example of how the people can take down an outdated, special interest monopoly and choose the future they want for their state and their country.”

Their efforts were aided by a low point in public perception of the utility, driven by its involvement in and defense of a controversial decision in late 2015 by utility regulators to drastically reduce reimbursement rates received by rooftop solar customers through the state’s net metering program.

Rooftop solar companies left the state, presidential candidates including Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders blasted the decision, protests were held at PUC meetings (including an appearance by actor Mark Ruffalo) and a ballot question restoring favorable rates for net metering nearly qualified for the ballot before being stopped by a lawsuit and a state Supreme Court decision.

More crucially, the utility opted to stay neutral on the ballot question, only releasing an eight-point policy document as a “guide” for use by “key stakeholders and leaders on the issue.”

Ultimately, backers including Switch, Sands and MGM Resorts contributed $3.4 million to the PAC supporting the ballot question, while an opposition group funded by the Nevada State AFL-CIO and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers raised more than $910,000 to oppose the effort.

The ballot question dominated on Election Day in 2016, winning 16 of 17 Nevada counties and a massive 72 percent of the vote.

It’s dominance permeated the 2017 Legislature, where almost every energy-related bill was peppered with questions of how it would work in a retail market and was cited as a prime reason by Sandoval when he vetoed a bill that would have raised the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard to 40 percent by 2030.

And as he asserted he would in his State of the State address, Sandoval also created a 25-member commission chaired by Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison tasked with studying how best to implement the ballot measure if it were to pass again. The group would spend most of the next year in preparation for a seemingly certain future: a retail energy market.

The campaign

Voter impressions of the Energy Choice Initiative were largely determined by fierce volleys over the digital and broadcast airways in the last months of the campaign cycle, but three key events helped shape the trajectory of the ballot question and seal its downfall.

On Feb. 5, the Coalition to Defeat Question 3 announced its formation, and set up an initial leadership board composed of a wide group of backers including business interests, urban Democrats, rural Republicans, union leaders, casino executives and NV Energy. More crucially, the group announced it was retaining the firm of Winner & Mandabach, a prominent national consulting firm. It also told The Nevada Independent that it was prepared to spend up to $30 million against the measure.

That initial announcement set the stakes high, and the utility ended up spending close to twice that amount on the campaign.

“When I started this, all the folks on our side, we knew NV Energy was going oppose this, they were going to spend some money,” Yes on 3 campaign manager Dave Chase said in an interview. “I don’t think anyone had any fathom of an idea of how much money they were going to spend and how hard they were going to go at this.”

Still, up through early 2018, most Nevadans still had a positive view of the ballot question. As late as April, a poll by The Nevada Independent found voters supported the initiative 54 percent to 16 percent, with 30 percent undecided.

That same month, Public Utilities Commission Chairman Joe Reynolds released a scathing 104-page analysis of the ballot question that questioned whether the measure would actually lower rates and said it could cost billions to repay costs associated with the utility’s “stranded assets,” as well as millions of dollars in other costs if a transition to a retail market was to be successful.

Proponents slammed the report as unfair — Sands executive Abboud called Reynolds a “rogue regulator” and said the report was “flatly unlawful” and “disgraceful” — but its findings were reiterated ad nauseum by opponents of the ballot measure to bolster claims that approving the measure could increase rates.

Koltak said elements including the PUC’s report helped highlight potential uncertainties with the ballot question, while the proponents focused their ad campaigns on attacking NV Energy rather than explaining to voters why the initiative should be approved.

“Voters aren’t dumb,” he said. “They figured out pretty quickly this was going to have a pretty significant impact on how things ran in this state. And they never told anyone why they should vote for it, and when you’re asking people to vote for a ballot question, you have to give them a reason to do it, and it can’t just be because this other thing is bad, it has to be, ‘It’s going to benefit me, here’s the reason why.’”

Another major turning point happened on May 31, when a prominent host of state officials watched as utility CEO Paul Caudill announced that the company’s next triennial Integrated Resource Plan — a state-mandated documented requiring the utility to lay out its planned energy supply and demand management — would include an ambitious proposal to add 1,001 new megawatts of new solar and battery projects to its portfolio, doubling renewable energy production in the state by 2023.

The historic announcement came with a massive asterisk — NV Energy asked the PUC, charged with overseeing the IRP process, to not approve any of the new projects if Question 3 passed, as such a circumstance would require divesting from its current electric plants and long-term power purchase agreements.

Again, the announcement was used prominently in ads by proponents of the campaign, who warned that approval of the measure would see the utility’s six proposed large-scale photovoltaic solar plants swept away.

Although supporters, including Chase, suggested the timing and scope of the IRP was politically motivated, renewable advocates largely applauded the utility’s decision and either joined the opposition or stayed neutral on the ballot question.

Andy Maggi, executive director of the Nevada Conservation League, said he thought the utility’s commitment to large-scale renewable production was genuine and made sense given the plummeting cost of solar — the proposed new generating stations included a potential record low price for solar in the U.S. NCL endorsed the ballot question in 2016 but stayed neutral this cycle, Maggi said, because of those commitments to more renewable energy.

“The reasons we were supporting it in 2016 had dimmed in terms of importance in our mind,” he said.

Funding

Doubtlessly, one of the primary drivers of the ballot question failing was the record-breaking sum of money spent by NV Energy.

In total, the Coalition to Defeat Question 3 raised more than $63.5 million from the utility throughout 2018, while spending about $63.3 million over the same time period. All cash contributions came from NV Energy, with several organizations including the AFL-CIO reporting in-kind donations in the high six figures.

Such spending on a state-level issue is unprecedented in Nevada political history. For comparison, both sides of the contentious 2016 ballot question over background checks on private gun sales raised $26.5 million throughout the entire campaign; supporters and opponents of the 2016 marijuana legalization ballot question cumulatively raised around $7.9 million. Total spending on the 2018 ballot question eclipsed outside spending in the state’s U.S. Senate race and far outstripped the amounts raised by both candidates in what many considered the state’s highest profile race.

Another PAC opposing the ballot measure, “Nevadans for Reliable, Renewable and Affordable Energy,” reported raising $4.2 million and spending $3.9 million over the election cycle. Its only contributors were IBEW, the PAC that opposed the ballot question in 2016, and more than $3.3 million from NextEra Energy Resources Inc — the company in line to develop two of the six massive large-scale photovoltaic solar plants announced by the utility in its May IRP.

Supporters of the initiative also raised a substantial amount of funds — “Nevadans for Affordable Clean Energy Sources” reported raising more than $33.3 million throughout 2017 and 2018, while spending around $21.5 million over the same time period. That amount would by itself have shattered fundraising records for state-level ballot initiatives, but the group was outspent 3 to 1 by the end of the campaign.

“I don’t think it's fair to say that our message didn’t resonate, or even that their message resonated better,” Chase said. “They outspent us so significantly that if you look at the share of the conversation on Question 3, we were one part, they were three parts. We got drowned out by them.”

In total, the PAC supporting the ballot question reported receiving $23.7 million from the Sands and $12.4 million from Switch. Chase declined to say why the PAC declined to spend the roughly $11.5 million in difference between the amounts raised and spent as of the last campaign finance report filed on Nov. 2.

Although supporters of the initiative often brought up NV Energy’s vast financial resources in opposition to the measure on the campaign trail and in television ads, Koltak said opponents choose not to highlight or go after the large businesses funding the measure, including Adelson, given their confidence in their messaging strategy.

“We were so confident that we could win on the actual policy question itself that we never even felt the need to get into a spat about who the funders were,” he said.

A referendum on NV Energy

Supporters of Question 3 initially launched their messaging campaign by focusing on the supposed benefits of retail markets, including lower prices and freedom of choice (rates in retail states are generally higher but have decreased faster over the last decade than those in monopoly states).

But the campaign’s primary strategy and ad campaign — including the first television ad — focused on asking viewers to “break up” with NV Energy, the first in a long list of attacks against the incumbent utility. Subsequent ads would highlight negative stories involving the utility including claims the company had “excessive” executive pay, a former CEO “pumped up profits and walked away with millions” and claims that the company overcharged ratepayers by nearly $346 million.

But by most metrics, efforts to make the campaign about the utility failed.

According to opinion polling conducted by Benenson Strategy Group for the opposition campaign and provided to The Nevada Independent, the utility’s favorability numbers have remained consistently high since December 2017. The polling shows the utility’s favorability numbers staying around 60 percent throughout the entire campaign, with a 61 percent favorable and 25 percent unfavorable opinion reported the day before Election Day.

The lowest reported favorability numbers set the utility at 55 percent favorable and 32 percent unfavorable — percentages far above most elected officials in the state.

“They attempted to make this a referendum on NV Energy,” Koltak said. “I think they misjudged how the public feels about status quo. I think they misjudged how people feel about having an electricity system generally thought to be reliable and affordable.”

Chase, who echoed many of the complaints against the utility in an interview, said that given a do-over he would likely not change the campaign’s message. He chalked up the loss to the massive amounts of advertising dollars used by opposing forces.

“The voters had two bites of the apple here,” he said. “We had a clean bite with really no information coming from either side, I don’t think either side ran TV ads in 2016, and when it was decided on the merits, they voted 72 percent for it. And then all of a sudden you have an unprecedented 64 million in ratepayer money spent behind documented lies, and they were able to flip the margin.”

But others say that in abandoning the “energy choice” message in favor of an explicitly anti-NV Energy stance, proponents stopped using one of their more compelling arguments.

One example comes from the Nevada AFL-CIO’s canvassing program specifically opposing Question 3. The group reported knocking on more than 147,000 doors and contacting nearly 26,000 voters, with roughly 70 percent of them saying they were opposed to the ballot measure.

An emailed analysis written by the union’s canvassing head after the election stated that contacted voters often wanted to focus on NV Energy’s involvement in the campaign, but that canvassers were often able to get voters to focus on other points such as potential rate hikes or the fact that the measure was a constitutional amendment. The analysis said the group’s door-to-door efforts were aided by the proponent’s change in messaging.

“Thankfully, Yes On 3 abandoned their ‘it’s your choice’ message that was hurting us at the doors for a more childish ‘break up with NV Energy’ messaging that did not resonate with voters much at the door,” they wrote in the post-election analysis email.

Political support

The political calculations changed over time, as well. Reid, who prominently backed the initiative in 2016, made no public comments on the measure this election cycle, and Democratic candidates including Gov.-elect Steve Sisolak and Sen.-elect Jacky Rosen either outright opposed the measure or said they were neutral.

Some top Republicans, including gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt, said they backed the initiative but typically didn’t run on it or highlight the issue on the campaign trail, possibly because their core constituency of rural voters overwhelmingly opposed the concept.

Sandoval, the state’s popular Republican governor, initially said he voted for the initiative in 2016 and would vote for it again in 2018. But at the utility’s unveiling of its Integrated Resource Plan in May, the governor said he hadn’t made up his mind on the issue. (According to a copy of his calendar, Sandoval met with utility CEO Caudill and a top utility lobbyist, Pete Ernaut, two weeks prior to the IRP event.)

Almost no politicians on the 2018 ballot appeared in ads for or against the initiative. One ad from proponents featured reality show star Jonathan Scott, while ads from opponents largely featured members of the various interest groups opposing the ballot question, from the Sierra Club, a firefighters union, consumer advocates and the Latin Chamber of Commerce (and several former elected officials, including Ross Miller and Frankie Sue Del Papa).

Koltak said the PAC made a conscious effort to feature “partners” in the ads as opposed to narration or models. He said the purpose was twofold; let voters see that opposition was being driven by residents of the state, and to depoliticize the arguments in a way that would allow liberal union workers in Clark County and ranchers in Northern Nevada reach the same conclusion.

“This is directly tied to something everyone does every month,” he said. “You couldn’t really put this one in a neat partisan box in any way, and I think that’s apparent based on the outcome.”

Disclosure: Several donors to The Nevada Independent are mentioned in this story. You can view a full list of our donors here.

After long lines during midterm, officials ask Washoe County to spend more on elections

On Election Night, all eyes were on Washoe County, where high turnout kept polls open nearly three hours after doors closed in some parts of Reno. The state watched as the last voters, who had arrived before polling places closed at 7 p.m., stood in line to weigh in on key races (under state law, election results cannot be posted until all eligible voters have cast their ballots).

It was not until after 9 p.m. that the last vote was cast at Cold Springs Middle School in northwest Reno. That meant some Washoe County voters had to wait more than two hours to vote.

The long lines were indicative of unusually high voter turnout for an off-year election. Washoe County reported that 70 percent of active registered voters cast early ballots or flocked to the voting booth on Election Day, far above the 51 percent turnout reported in 2014.

But with high turnout and long lines and turnout likely to be even higher during the coming presidential cycle, some officials are now calling on the county to dedicate more resources to its Election Day operations. During a Washoe County Commission meeting on Nov. 13, Greg Neuweiler, chair of the county’s accuracy certification board, urged the commission to consider purchasing more machines and bolster staffing before 2020.

“2020 is going to be a heck of a year for an election,” Neuweiler told the commission. “We need to have more volunteers. We need to have you guys pay a higher salary to these volunteers.”

As an example, the poll workers who access registration data when voters arrive to vote make about $9 an hour, Neuweiler said. One intake specialist told Neuweiler that she would be better off going to a department store where she could get hired for a seasonal job paying $14 an hour.

“How do you argue with that,” he asked the commission.

In an interview on Friday, Washoe County Registrar Deanna Spikula agreed that increasing wages could help the recruitment and retainment of poll workers.

“[The job market] is really competitive out there right now,” she said. “It would be nice to get a little bump for them so we can get more interest and make sure we retain those people as well.”

At the meeting, Spikula told commissioners that the county needed to place a special emphasis on recruiting early voting poll workers, who work two weeks straight at some polling locations.

Neuweiler, whose board is charged with auditing the election results in Washoe County, also told the commission that they should allocate more funding to election hardware. The county used about 1,027 voting tablets this year, but Neuweiler said that the number of machines it deployed did not keep up with increases in voter registration or population.

“We’ve increased the population in the community and increased the number of voters in the community, but we’re not increasing the...pieces of equipment,” he said. “So the ratio of equipment-to-voters is going down, which gives us [bad] customer service.”

Spikula said that when the county replaced old voting machines with new equipment for the 2018 election, it ordered the same amount of voting machines that it had used in 2004, despite population growth.

“Of course, we have grown quite a bit since 2004,” Spikula said.

Although the new machines, which cost $4.2 million (split between the county and state), were more efficient, Spikula said more equipment is necessary to keep up with the increase in registered voters.

In the interview, she also advocated for opening up more polling locations, especially during early voting and in parts of the region that are experiencing significant growth. The county currently operates 105 polling locations on a budget of about $1.6 million for the registrar’s office.

Even though part of the issues in this election stemmed from record high turnout in an off-year election, commissioners appeared open to finding more funds to meet population growth.

Marsha Berkbigler, the chair of the Washoe County Commission, said that she favored using county money to add more voting machines and pay poll workers higher wages.

“It’s something we’ll start looking at when we go into the budget cycle,” she said.

The number of active registered voters for this election — 269,236 — hit an all-time high for Washoe County. With the population projected to grow in the next two years, Spikula told commissioners she predicted the county would see another “very large increase” in registered voters in 2020.

Amy Rose, the legal director for ACLU Nevada, said it was important that local governments and the state work to minimize lines. Many voters, she added, do not have the luxury to wait on long lines and other voters might avoid voting altogether if they see a polling place with a line.

“Long lines are absolutely a hindrance to voters,” she said. “The more that we can do as a state to make sure it’s as easy as possible for people to vote, the better.”

Rose said the ultimate goal should be to eliminate all lines, even in high turnout years.

“If we can get to a place where Nevada has invested enough resources into election administration where there is never a long line, regardless of turnout, that is the ideal situation,” she said.

Berkbigler said she thought it would be possible to pull additional funding from other budgets.

“The county is financially stable enough that we can look for ways of moving funds from one place to another,” she said. “It will be something we take seriously.”

To provide better customer service to voters, Kitty Jung, the sole Democrat on the commission, also called for raising poll worker salaries and giving them shift breaks.

“The pay is a pittance,” she said in an interview.

Jung is organizing an election debrief with poll workers and the chairs of both county parties on Nov. 20 at the Washoe County Complex to generate more ideas for improving the elections.

She said the problem of long lines was not only experienced on Election Day, but also during early voting. Jung, who voted early, said she had to wait in line for about 45 minutes. For the first time this year, voters in Washoe County had the choice to vote at any polling place. She said some voters might not have known about the new rule when they waited at crowded polling locations.

“This was sort of a beta,” she said.

Update: This story was corrected at 7:31 a.m on Nov. 19 to indicate that the last in-person vote was cast at Cold Springs Middle School, not Cold Creek Middle School.

Anatomy of a blue wave: Why Nevada Democrats won decisively in races that were supposed to be close

Republican candidate for governor Attorney General Adam Laxalt speaks during a get out the vote event at the Laxalt field office in Las Vegas on Monday, Nov. 5, 2018. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

The night before the election, Republicans crowded into a Las Vegas campaign office with TV cameras rolling and told their volunteers that they were feeling great about their chances.

Attorney General Adam Laxalt said he firmly believed there were enough Nevadans to put him in the governor’s office and help him “save” Nevada. State Sen. Michael Roberson confided to the audience that they were going to win. And state party chair Michael McDonald proclaimed that “this is the greatest team we’ve ever assembled in the history of the state.”

“Take tomorrow off,” McDonald said. “Because tomorrow night, you’re going to celebrate when we turn this entire state red!”

But as Election Night rolled on, it became increasingly clear that there would be no celebration on the Republican side. In spite of Laxalt’s suggestion on the eve of the election that the governor’s race might come down to 500 votes, races like his that polls indicated were pure toss-ups were won by Democrats by margins of tens of thousands of votes.

In the aftermath, Republicans who had trusted deeply in their enhanced ground game and laser-focused approach to voter targeting grappled for answers. An incredulous McDonald told conservative radio host Kevin Wall that he didn’t trust the integrity of the election.

“I just don’t believe what happened. I really don’t. I want to see proof. I think there’s some shenanigans,” he said, without offering evidence of that conclusion. “I think there’s fingers on the scale more than anything.”

(Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske’s office has since said they received no credible reports of voter fraud stemming from the election.)

Others have sounded tones of resignation — that two consecutive elections have established that Nevada is a blue state, that the conventional wisdom of a low-turnout midterm no longer applies, and that Republicans can’t compete in years where Democrats are motivated to vote.

“I don’t believe there's one thing we could have done differently that would have improved our chances of success,” Republican Danny Tarkanian wrote in a Facebook post after losing a House race against Democrat Susie Lee by a wider margin that he lost the same district in the 2016 presidential cycle. “Nevada has become a blue state. When the Democrats are motivated to vote it will be tough for any Republican to win.”

Others still have posited that the messaging simply worked against Republicans this year — the economy wasn’t as salient an issue in Nevada because the economy here was already good before the tax reform bill passed last December and Democrats and independents were energized on health care.

To hear Democrats tell it, the victories in competitive Senate and governor’s races, all but one statewide race, two competitive House races and a large number of competitive legislative contests are a product of reaching out to voters on the ground early and often, of a political infrastructure years in the making, and of courting infrequent, younger and minority voters. They also believe Republicans misstepped by hewing too closely to a polarizing president, focusing on a base that’s euphoric about the president’s leadership at the expense of the moderates they needed to cross the finish line.

“Certainly Trump has a lot of supporters here, and strong supporters,” said Michelle White, state director of the progressive organization For Our Future. “But I think they overestimated how big that percentage was and they underestimated how much that was turning off folks in the middle.”

To hear it from billionaire progressive activist Tom Steyer, whose wealth funds For Our Future and other groups active in Nevada, the results were an extension of sentiment expressed across the country by Democrats who picked up at least 32 more House seats and seized the chamber from Republicans.

“This was a referendum on our president and this administration,” he said in a post-election debrief call with reporters last week. “The biggest takeaway is the president was on the ballot … and he got creamed.”

High school volunteers A.J. Vanchieri, left, Emily Wendl, Faith Zeleniak canvasses in Desert Shores for the Nevada Republican Party on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The Republican ground game

Republicans were enthusiastic headed into this election cycle.

They understood they had been out-organized by Democrats — and undermined by their own internal divisions — in the past and were determined to not let that happen again. They even took a page out of the Democratic playbook and set out to gather as much data on voters as possible while building out a robust volunteer infrastructure.

The Republican National Committee landed on the ground in Nevada in June 2017 and, a year later, had trained 1,300 fellows and volunteers under its neighborhood team organizing model. The goal was to build as many neighborhood teams across the state as possible consisting of a leader, who was responsible for building relationships within the community; core team members, who specialized in certain areas such as data or faith-based initiatives; and volunteers.

The RNC also doubled down on its predictive analytics system — called the National Voter Scores program — that crunches the numbers on how likely voters are to turn out to the polls or vote Republican based on billions of data points collected on Nevada voters. Those data points included everything from purchased consumer data to information obtained at the door or over the phone from the voters.

The overarching goal of the volunteer and data programs was party cohesion. While individual campaigns focused on winning primaries, the RNC was hard at work building its volunteer army to activate ahead of the general election, and those volunteers would know who to focus on urging to the polls because of the data the party had gathered on them.

By August, Republicans had made one million voter contacts — a number that included both attempted and successful contacts made with voters via door knocking or phone call — in Nevada surpassing the number of contacts they made in the entire 2016 cycle. They touted their work as “unprecedented.”

And it was. But it also wasn’t enough.

Rick Gorka, deputy communications director for the RNC, believes that the work that Republicans did on the ground in Nevada staved off an even worse defeat.

"Based on the margin of defeat, I have no doubt that what the RNC was able to do with the Nevada GOP and with the campaigns made it as close as it was,” Gorka said. “... We kept it a lot closer than it could have been."

In spite of the loss, he said the RNC put a “historic level” of investment into training volunteers in Nevada this cycle and that those volunteers now have the know-how to organize within their communities, no matter how big or small the race.

“They’re trained to recruit volunteers and get organized in their communities. It could be around a ballot initiative, a school board race, or around the president’s race in 2020,” Gorka said. “Those individuals are still there with the skills to carry on and get ready for the next battle. We did a historic level of trainings in Nevada and there’s undoubtedly success in that to have a lasting impression in the state even though we fell short on Tuesday.”

Dan Coats, left, Nevada State director for the Republican National Committee gathers with a group participating in the Republican Leadership Initiative on Wednesday, May 30, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

But there’s also been much post-election soul-searching among Republicans about the impact that the national political climate had on Nevada. Pete Ernaut, a longtime Republican strategist, chalked Republican losses up to Trump.

"I think there’s really only one way to analyze this election, and it was a referendum on the president,” Ernaut said. “There’s no other explanation for the consistency of who won the races and by what margin."

Ernaut said that rural counties turned out in droves to support the president, while voters in suburban and metropolitan areas turned out in significant numbers to oppose him and, by extension, Republican candidates. Frustration with incumbents leads to a midterm election pattern in which the party in power typically loses ground.

But he also attributed part of Republicans’ losses to the focus throughout the election on health care and not the economy.

"Independent voters tend to be very focused on the issues, hence the reason they’re independent,” Ernaut said. “They tend to be very discerning about the narrative of the election. Again, if the narrative of the election would have been on the economy, those voters would tend to lean Republican."

A focus on preventing Nevada from becoming California also didn’t seem to do the trick, according to UNLV political science professor David Damore, who said that message didn’t address anyone’s real needs.

“The Democrats had a pretty disciplined message and the Republicans didn’t have much,” he said. “Just hoping that voters in Clark County stayed home like in 2014 just seemed like a real mistake.”

Other Republicans acknowledge that tax reform may not have been as successful an issue for members of their party to campaign on in Nevada simply because the voters here already felt like the economy was doing well — with booming construction and a host of new tech companies relocating to the state in recent years — before Congress passed its tax reform legislation last December.

But with those new jobs — and an influx of even more Californians to the state — there is a concern among some, though not all, Republicans that the state may be indelibly shifting toward the left.

Voters in the Silver State have swung for the Democratic presidential candidate in the last three elections — President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016. They’ve also elected a Democratic Senate candidate in three of the last four elections — former Sen. Harry Reid in 2010, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto in 2016 and now Sen.-elect Jacky Rosen in 2018.

That’s not to say Republicans haven’t had any victories over the last decade — notably, the red wave of 2014 in which Republicans swept all six constitutional offices and took control of both chambers of the Legislature and Republican Dean Heller’s win in the U.S. Senate race in 2012 — but some Republicans are increasingly viewing those wins as exceptions to the rule.

Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, who chaired Heller’s unsuccessful 2018 re-election campaign, said Republicans need to be “clear-eyed” that Nevada is more a blue state than a purple state, and adjust their approach accordingly. He called for attracting more conservative and blue-collar Democrats, and more of an outreach to minority communities.

“We had a big turnout of our voters and I love our Republican turnout. We had a … bigger turnout for the Democrats. So we’ve got to say, how do we increase the size of the tent?” he said in an interview last week on the Kevin Wall radio show. “I still believe the fundamental principles, the fundamental reasons that we’re Republican — limited government, limited regulation, low taxes, individual freedoms — resonates with people far beyond our party.”

Others, including conservative political consultant Chuck Muth, chalk the losses up to candidates who were too bland to inspire their conservative base and flip-flopped or flocked to the middle.

“A political campaign is about marketing. Donald Trump gets it. Ronald Reagan got it,” he said in an interview with Wall, adding that Republicans also needed to do a better job of clearing the field of conservative “spoiler” candidates such as nonpartisan gubernatorial candidate Ryan Bundy.

Regardless of the reason, the losses up and down the ticket are a tough swallow for Republican Assembly Leader Jim Wheeler, whose party will be in a super-minority next session. Assembly Democrats will be able to pass any bills — including tax increases that require two-thirds support — without a single Republican vote.

Wheeler said he thinks too much attention and resources went to top-of-ticket races, and might be better spent winning over voters in smaller, more personal legislative races in a ground-up approach. Campaign donors, who predicted Democratic dominance, focused their money on Democratic legislative candidates and made it difficult for Republicans to get their message out, he said.

“I think we need to show the people in the middle that the conservative message is the correct one,” he said. “In the urban areas, we’ve been portrayed as the enemy for so long. It’s going to be hard to overcome that.”

He also thinks press coverage did not help. (Several top Republican candidates refused to talk with The Nevada Independent throughout the campaign cycle.)

“While I’m not going to blame the press,” Wheeler said, “the press is not friendly to us.”

Selena Martinez, 18, registers to vote during the Power to the Polls rally kicking off a nationwide voter registration tour on Sunday, Jan 21, 2018 at Sam Boyd Stadium. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The Reid machine

While Republicans focused on diligently growing their political machine this cycle — and were vocal about their efforts to do so — Democrats quietly dusted theirs off, added a little oil and turned it on.

The state had gone blue in 2016 with Clinton’s and Cortez Masto’s victories and Democrats flipping control of two House seats and both chambers of the Legislature. They needed to do it again, but this time with a reminder in their rearview mirror that they don’t always get what they want.

“Because in 2016, we did everything right in Nevada and we still got Donald Trump as a president, I think we knew what was at stake,” said Annette Magnus, the executive director of the progressive group Battle Born Progress. “We didn’t let off the gas. In fact, we just kept pushing harder and harder and harder as we got closer to Election Day and that is what really made the difference.”

If the strategy seems simple, it’s because it is: Register as many voters as you possibly can, recruit and train volunteers, and use those volunteers to get those voters to turn out to the polls through door-knocking and phone-banking. It’s what the Republicans tried to replicate but what helped Democrats ultimately prevail.

Over the cycle, Democrats knocked on 1.3 million doors, made 2.6 million calls, and sent 1.2 million text messages to voters, with most of that in the final three weeks of the campaign, according to the state Democratic Party.

“It’s simple. It’s not glamorous, but we know that’s what we need to do,” said Alana Mounce, executive director of the Nevada State Democratic Party.

Democrats attribute their victory in part to treating the election more like a presidential year and less like a midterm, with Mounce noting that the party is aided by a year-round infrastructure that allows it to “turn on a dime” instead of ramping up cycle after cycle. Democrats had about 7,000 active volunteers that completed nearly 40,000 volunteer shifts over the course of the cycle, roughly comparable to the 7,300 active volunteers who completed nearly 35,000 shifts over the 2016 cycle.

“The organization felt like and looked like a presidential level organization to me,” Mounce said. “... I think the RNC invested in the state and talked a lot about the organization they were building, the doors they were knocking, the voters they were registering … but we still have a better turnout program than they do because of the state party and the year round infrastructure we’ve invested in the long-term growth of our Democratic voter registration advantage.”

Democrats managed to widen their voter registration advantage from its low point — 59,084 or a 4.2 percentage point advantage in March — to 74,923 or 4.8 points at the close of registration in October. (Democrats were still at a disadvantage compared to their voter registration advantage during the red wave of 2014, 5.1 points, or the blue wave of 2016, 6.1 points.)

“Being able to expand the electorate is part of how we win here,” Mounce said.

This operation that Democrats have built cycle over cycle — nicknamed the Reid machine for the eponymous de facto head of the Nevada State Democratic Party and built by longtime operative Rebecca Lambe — is less one discrete entity and more the assemblage of the party, labor organizations and third-party groups committed to electing Democratic candidates.

While they are not allowed to directly coordinate with the campaigns, some 30 “independent expenditure” unions, organizations and PACs aligned with Democrats banded together under an umbrella entity called “America Votes,” which helped conduct the orchestra of different groups and ensure they were not duplicating efforts.

“We really do work together well, and we’re consistently talking to each other,” said Lindsey Harmon, executive director of Nevada Advocates for Planned Parenthood, one of the America Votes partners. “And we have some great leaders and minds in this state that are of the Reid school of thought which is let’s get together and let’s win this as a group and let’s turn out the people that are underrepresented.”

The Reid machine is also a function of mentorship: Magnus credits Lambe and Democratic operative Megan Jones with helping cultivate a new generation of progressive leaders, many of them women, who carry on their advocacy even in the off-season.

“It’s not just this thing that comes in every cycle, does all this work and then leave. We all live here. We all work here. Our issues are important. We are doing this work all the time,” Magnus said. “I don’t necessarily see it as a machine as much as a movement that they have really worked to build.”

Supporters listen to former Vice President Joe Biden while he speaks during a Democratic Party get out to vote rally at The Culinary Workers Union headquarters on Saturday , Oct. 20, 2018. (Jeff Scheid-Nevada Independent)

The politically powerful Culinary Union, which represents 57,000 guest room attendants, servers, bellmen and others at resorts in Las Vegas in Reno, again played a key role in the Democratic turnout operation this year, with 350 workers taking a leave of absence to urge voters to turn out to the polls. In total, the union knocked 370,000 doors, had 80,000 one-on-one conversations with voters, made 45,000 personal calls, sent 1.8 million pieces of mail, sent regular emails and texts to members and ran video ads with 3.5 million views.

It was even more effort than the union put in two years ago, when 300 workers took a leave of absence to knock 350,000 doors and talked to 75,000 voters, or in 2012, when 110 workers took a leave of absence to register and turn out members and their families to vote. (Focused on a major contract fight, the union did not run a political program in 2014.)

“I’m inspired by the women of color and young voters who were engaged and completely rejected Trump, his anti-worker/anti-immigrant agenda, and candidates in Nevada who were not fighting for our families and our communities,” said union spokeswoman Bethany Khan in an email. “We deserved better representation and elected officials, so we fought and won exactly that.”

Steyer-backed NextGen America focused on a demographic that is the least likely to vote — young people. State Director Tyson Megown said the group’s months of outreach in high schools and on college campuses included removing barriers to voting — starting with educating them on when, where and how to vote, and providing rides from campus to voting centers.

“Sometimes a lot of young folks don’t vote because they simply don’t understand the process and they feel too embarrassed to ask,” Megown said.

The group also found that young people often register nonpartisan, even if they tend to vote 2-1 in favor of Democrats. NextGen’s approach started with talking about issues rather than party identification, and then providing potential voters with information about the candidates’ stances on those issues.

“We operated on the assumption that if we have these kinds of conversations, that we can see this level of turnout. And they proved us right,” he said.

Backing up those efforts were groups including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which launched an aggressive outreach program to Latino and other minority voters. That included the committee’s first-ever multi-state Spanish-language TV ad that aired in Las Vegas as competitive races played out in Nevada’s 3rd and 4th congressional districts, zeroing in on a single Latino family to highlight the need to change the balance of power in Congress.

“We wanted voting to feel good rather than simply what is at stake and kids in cages and Trump,” DCCC Executive Director Dan Sena said in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday. “So we spent a fair amount of time studying how to create urgency without it feeling overly heavy or overly sad.”

The energy showed in a poll of battleground districts taken by Latino Decisions in the days just before the election. It found that Latino engagement was at an all-time high, with 77 percent of Latinos reporting they had been talking with their family about voting and 53 percent of respondents saying they had been contacted by a campaign.

“I think the Democrats and organizations like [For Our Future] and on the other side made a really concerted effort to reach out to voters in communities that are oftentimes overlooked, particularly communities of color so they might not have been found in the targets because maybe they haven’t voted in the last three elections, maybe they just got registered,” White said. “A lot of these communities, rightfully so, felt overlooked. They felt discouraged that their voice wasn’t being heard in this process.”

And as for whether the Reid machine lives on two years after Reid himself has left office? White thinks so.

“We saw it as our responsibility to carry this on. This isn’t about one man or one operative or one staffer or one candidate. This is a movement and a movement is never about one person or one election cycle,” White said. “When I look at this cycle, the first cycle without Sen. Reid in office, I think we made him really proud.”

Rep. Jacky Rosen gives her victory speech during the Nevada Democratic Party election night event at Caesar Palace in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. Rosen won the U.S. Senate race against incumbent Republican Dean Heller.(Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

How first-term congresswoman Jacky Rosen defeated incumbent Dean Heller to become Nevada's next U.S. senator

Heading into Election Day, the U.S. Senate race appeared to be a true tossup.

U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger, Rep. Jacky Rosen, were statistically tied in public polls, and no survey over the course of the cycle had her up by 5 percentage points; at most, three polls had her winning by 4 points. Even the Rosen campaign’s own internal polls didn’t have the first-term congresswoman winning the race with more than 50 percent.

But when all the votes were tallied, that’s exactly what happened: Rosen defeated Heller, who had served in the Senate since 2011, by 5 points with 50.4 percent of total votes cast in the race, 0.1 points more than former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid captured in his victory over Republican Sharron Angle in the 2010 U.S. Senate race. The result wasn’t a total knockout for Rosen, but it wasn’t nearly as close as Republicans or Democrats had thought it would be.

It came as a shock to Republicans. Heller had never lost a race before in 28 years in public office and, in fact, had a history of winning close races.

"Dean had such a strong record of winning tough races as a great campaigner with a message,” said Rick Gorka, deputy communications director for the Republican National Committee. “While you have to examine everything when you lose by five, the fact is this is a senator who has run and won those tough places before. Something changed in Nevada between '16 and now, '12 and now."

Throughout the race, Rosen’s campaign viewed the congresswoman as a slight favorite, though Heller was an incumbent running with the full support of the president and his party. But her team attributed her eventual 5-point victory to undecided and swing voters breaking late in favor of Rosen.

“I know we never had polls with us breaking 50, so there’s no question that voters who broke late in the election broke in our direction,” said Danny Kazin, Rosen’s campaign manager. “It showed the program we did was working.”

Heller’s campaign did not respond to three requests for an interview for this story.

Rosen’s campaign believes undecided voters came to Rosen at the end of the campaign because of their dissatisfaction with President Donald Trump, but that voters didn’t want someone who would only say no to the president, either. In fact, the campaign released an ad in the final weeks of the campaign in which Rosen, talking directly into the camera, touted that Trump “signed my legislation to improve the VA” and that she “broke with [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi to cut middle class taxes.”

"The swing and undecided voters were leaning against Trump,” said Stewart Boss, Rosen’s communications director. “I think that made sense that they came to us at the end. I think Jacky was more explicitly making a 'I’ll work across party lines' message."

And Trump may have been Heller’s Achilles heel in the race.

After saying he was “99 percent” against Trump in 2016, Heller had to spend much of the campaign running to the right in an effort to fend off a primary challenge from Republican businessman Danny Tarkanian — who ran against him for several months before Trump nudged him out of the race — and to shore up support with the Trump portion of the Republican base ahead of the general election. Doing so never afforded him the opportunity to court moderate voters.

Pete Ernaut, a longtime Republican strategist and a close friend of Heller’s, described it as a nearly “impossible” balance.

"It’s a very awkward teeter totter, because if you try to distance yourself from the president you risk losing a substantial portion of your base, and if you embrace the president too tightly you enrage the other side and many independents as well. It’s almost such a delicate balance that it’s impossible to achieve,” Ernaut said.

Rosen also likely benefited from the fact that health care, the biggest issue she focused on in her campaign, was not only a top concern among Democratic voters but independents as well. Rosen ran numerous ads attacking Heller as “Senator Spineless,” accusing him of waffling on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act through the imagery of an orange inflatable tube man.

“Health care was on voters' minds from the very beginning,” Kazin said. “They liked what they had to hear on Jacky’s record on health care."

Heller’s response to the “Senator Spineless” attacks was to run a spot saying he was “fighting to protect pre-existing conditions” and suggest that Rosen’s only idea to fix health care was running a campaign commercial. Though she continued to hound him on health care through Election Day, Heller only ran the response ad for a month and a half, spending $240,000 on it, according to an ad tracking website.

As with other Republican candidates, the intense focus in the race on health care and not the economy didn’t help Heller, either. Heller’s campaign tried to make the economy a focal point in the race, releasing an ad in August talking about the strength of Nevada’s economy and suggesting Rosen would raise taxes, implement “job killing regulations” and operate under a “big government knows best” philosophy.

“I like where we’re headed. Jacky Rosen doesn’t,” Heller said in the ad.

Rosen pushed back on the ad by running a spot of her own, saying that she supported “responsible middle-class tax cuts” while her Republican opponent “voted for the new tax law that gives almost all the benefits to the richest 1 percent and big corporations.” It was one of a few response ads she released over the course of the cycle.

But Heller’s campaign spent much of its time and effort in the final days of the campaign not on tax reform but hammering Rosen for having accomplished “nothing” in Congress before making a run for the Senate, forking over about $1 million on two ads to that point. It was the main point of attack Heller settled on after he and other Republican groups supporting him tried a number of others during the course of the campaign, including attacking her on immigration, saying she "built a business" and over her computing degree.

Rosen’s campaign tried to inoculate her against those attacks by going up on television in April — four months before the attacks ads started against her — with positive spots introducing Rosen to those who didn't know her. One ad highlighted Rosen’s experience waitressing in college, working as a software developer in a field dominated by men and caring for her ill parents, while another had her acknowledging on camera the “real problems” with the Affordable Care Act but promising to fix those problems without repealing the federal law outright.

Rosen’s campaign believes that those early ads made voters interested in hearing her side of the story when the negative ads did begin. In message-testing, Rosen was actually received more positively after responding to Heller’s attacks over her experience than she was even before he had attacked her, according to her campaign.

Her campaign attributes her victory at least in part to focusing on the right issues.

Heller’s campaign “tried to fight this race on much narrower issues and tried to put issues on voters’ minds that weren’t on voters’ minds,” Kazin said. “We met them where they were.”

How Democrat Steve Sisolak defeated conservative rising star Adam Laxalt in bid for governor's mansion

Adam Laxalt greets supporters at the Nevada Day Parade in Carson City on Oct. 27, 2018. Photo by David Calvert.

After pouring everything into a hard-fought Democratic primary against fellow Clark County commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, Steve Sisolak had to spend much of the summer regrouping and reloading.

Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt, on the other hand, had fully stocked campaign coffers after a blowout victory in the primary. The day after that June election, his team went up with its first ad painting Sisolak as a corrupt politician wrapped up in pay-to-play deals during his time as a county commissioner.

But in spite of Laxalt’s head start on the airwaves, and in spite of warnings that commissioners like Sisolak are unelectable because they deal daily in a world of contracts and campaign donations that can look unseemly, Sisolak defeated Laxalt by four points, or almost 40,000 votes. How?

Sisolak’s team credits his win to sticking to three key themes — health care, jobs and education — consistently for more than a year.

“That steady message discipline showed independent voters across the state that Steve was going to be a steady hand at the tiller … and focused on things that matter to working Nevadans and independent voters,” said Campaign Manager Chris Sloan.

While Sisolak’s campaign went dark on TV for weeks, the Democratic Governors Association stepped in to fill that gap with a campaign arguing Laxalt would take Nevada backwards on those issues — including by repealing Gov. Brian Sandoval’s Commerce Tax and rolling back the expansion of Medicaid. The DGA believes that helped Sisolak transcend his party label and his place on the Democratic spectrum.

“I think that it really came down to not being about progressive, moderate, liberal. It was just about the state moving forward,” said Corey Platt, the DGA’s political director.

Laxalt softened on those issues as the campaign carried on. He noted that it would be difficult to repeal the Commerce Tax because Democrats had a lock on both chambers of the Legislature. He argued that he would preserve protections for people with pre-existing conditions, and that he would not roll back Medicaid. And he promised to put $500 million of new money into education.

But Sisolak’s campaign believes the pivot came too late. From Labor Day onward, Sloan said, their internal polling showed them within the margin of error.

Laxalt’s campaign and allies continued with ads alleging corruption, dubbing the commissioner “Shady Steve.” Sisolak’s team says the initial attacks had some effect, but they believe they didn’t touch voters personally enough. 

“They were just attacking character without a clear line on how it affects voters, and I think that was a miscalculation on their part,” said spokeswoman Christina Amestoy.

His team also thinks that ads suggesting Sisolak would raise property taxes did not cut deeply enough in light of his record as a self-described fiscal conservative who made cuts to the county budget during the recession.

“I think telling that story and showing that Steve is somebody who was very thoughtful and very budget-oriented, means that those attacks, while they break through to some people, were sort of grazing shots, if you will, that didn’t hit home with enough people because Steve has this reputation and record of doing exactly what voters want from an elected official,” Sloan said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Sisolak, left, talks to Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval during the Vintage Vegas Luncheon sponsored by the Latin Chamber of Commerce on Friday, Oct. 19, 2018. (Jeff Scheid-Nevada Independent)

In a focus group they conducted, Sisolak’s team said, one particularly effective message for Republican and independent voters was that popular moderate Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval had opted not to endorse Laxalt. UNLV political science professor David Damore said Laxalt’s departure from the generally successful “Sandoval model” — including Laxalt’s criticism of the Commerce Tax and his frequent intervention as attorney general on hot-button issues such as abortion — was puzzling.

“When you have the Republican candidate treating the outgoing Republican more harshly than the Democratic candidate, you might want to scratch your head on that one,” he said. “That was sort of the stunning part because the secret to Sandoval’s success was he focused on things people cared about and he let the divisive social issues be ignored.”

Platt said Sisolak’s victory came down to his ability to show himself as authentic and memorable on a human level. He pointed to the ads in which Sisolak and his two adult daughters talked directly to the camera about Sisolak’s experience as single dad — that was a unique storyline that helped distinguish him from “cookie-cutter” candidates, Platt said.

Laxalt, on the other hand, was pictured jogging or spending time with his youthful family but almost never spoke in his own ads. His wife Jaime, mother Michelle and father-in-law, or a narrator, were the primary voices in his TV commercials.

“I don’t know how much that allows voters to get to know a candidate,” said Michelle White, director of the group For Our Future, which supported Sisolak. “In a large scale race you can’t go door to door as a candidate when you’re running statewide. And so that’s your opportunity to really get yourself out there. And while it’s always great to have those third-party validators, I think it’s important for voters to see the actual candidate, get to know them.”

Sisolak, who is known to give out business cards with his cell phone number on them and answer when people call, was also much more likely to grant interviews.

“If you’re not talking to the press, you’re not talking to voters so you’re missing out on a lot of opportunities to get your message across,” said Barb Solish, a top Sisolak aide. “If you’re unwilling to do that, then you’re losing that opportunity.”

His team said the strategy was to let Sisolak be himself and attend as many events in the community as he could.

“He is the best asset we will have on the campaign, no matter how much TV or digital or anything we could purchase,” Sloan said. “At the end of the day, Steve being Steve and Steve getting out there and talking to voters is the best asset we have … [we] put him in front of real people as often as we humanly possibly could.”

Steve Sisolak, right, greets a woman dressed in a Halloween costume while campaigning in Carson City during a Nevada Day celebration on Oct. 27, 2018.

Laxalt was diligent in reaching out to rural Nevada, kicking off his campaign by barnstorming in all 17 counties when Sisolak skipped some. Driving up turnout in rural Nevada was what helped him win his attorney general race in 2014 even when he lost both Clark and Washoe counties.

But some observers believe his biggest mistake was not spending enough time in the county where 72 percent of the population lives, and then at one point tweeting an excerpt of an op-ed that suggested Sisolak would usher in an era of southern domination. Sisolak was an emblem of Clark County as chair of the commission and advocated for the southern institutions as a member of the Nevada Board of Regents.

“One of Sandoval’s secrets to success was that ‘One Nevada’ mantra,” Damore said. “Even though everyone knows there’s tensions and differences but you don’t make them explicit, and they did, and it just seems unbelievable. Maybe they didn’t think people down here would notice. But they just didn’t spend any time down here.”

In the end, far more people turned out in 2018 than in 2014. And the techniques that play well with the Republican base — preventing Nevada from becoming California, the hard line stances on the Commerce Tax and Obamacare, and the public appearances with Trump — did not carry the day for Laxalt or Sen. Dean Heller.

“It’s the middle that will be deciding elections in the future for sure and had a large part in the outcome of Tuesday,” White said. “I think they did not do a good job of messaging to them and really just went after their base and did not predict that folks would be turning out at the levels they were turning out at.”

Laxalt’s top adviser, Robert Uithoven, explained in an email that he believes the loss was a numbers game.

“The days of the midterm cycle in politics may be gone — at least in swing states — and we end up with almost presidential-level money, competition, interest and organization,” he told The Nevada Independent. “I hope Nevada can remain a swing state, but that’s in jeopardy when Republicans are already down 75,000 voters before the first ballot is cast.”

Laxalt’s advisers said he worked extremely hard on the campaign trail, phoning many voters personally in the final runup to Election Day. In an emotional concession speech, he told supporters “we left it all on the field.”

“Both candidates ran good campaigns, fought hard, and while 2014 wasn’t their cycle, 2018 was not ours,” Uithoven said. “Closing the registration gap must occur for Republicans to be competitive in the future.”

But the question remains whether groups such as the Republican National Committee — which invested so much to register voters and cultivate the ground game that helped Laxalt and other Republicans compete — will be as interested in Nevada in the future after a second consecutive blue year.

“That’s how I sort of looked at 2018 — as a potential tipping point. If the Republicans could hold their own this cycle, they would have some representation in government but also feeling pretty good about 2020,” Damore said. “Now the worry’s got to be Texas, Arizona. At the end of the day, by the time the next Senate race is here, [Nevada’s] going to be pretty blue.”

With his wife, Jamie, by his side, Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt delivers his concession speech at the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)