Breaking down the push to break up Nevada’s higher education system

As Gov. Steve Sisolak delivered his second-ever State of the State address last month — one delivered in the shadow of a yearlong pandemic and a grinding economic recovery — there came something of a higher education policy surprise, tucked roughly halfway through the 30-minute speech. 

“We need to recognize that our community colleges will play an even bigger role in workforce training,” Sisolak said. “That’s why I will be asking the Legislature to work with the Nevada System of Higher Education over the next two years to develop a framework to transition Nevada’s community colleges to a new independent authority that will focus on making Nevadans job ready. Community colleges, together with union apprenticeship programs, are critical elements in building Nevada’s workforce and economic future.”

Those three lines — just 80 words in all — were the only mention of community colleges in the governor’s 18-page-long speech. But in the time since, they’ve triggered a flurry of questions with no apparent answers, all centered, theoretically, on a simple idea: transition Nevada’s four community colleges out from underneath the Nevada System of Higher Education. 

A spokesperson for the governor’s office, Meghin Delaney, told The Nevada Independent in a statement that the governor’s office had yet to submit a bill draft request — the first step of any prospective legislation — and that “we look forward to more discussions in the future.” 

Interviews with nearly a dozen higher education officials, administrators and faculty advocates show that, as of now, few of those discussions have taken place. 

The heads of all four Nevada community colleges — the College of Southern Nevada, Truckee Meadows Community College, Great Basin College and Western Nevada College — as well as Chancellor Melody Rose and Regent Cathy McAdoo, who chairs the regent’s Community College Committee, all declined to comment on the proposed idea, and all cited the lack of any specific proposal to comment on. 

“We [at NSHE], I think, share a common goal to make sure our community colleges are strong and healthy and well-supported,” Rose said. “I'm just looking forward to learning more. We haven't seen language yet, and so I'm hopeful that there will be further conversations with the governor as he sharpens pencil and works on the language.” 

With no clear plan yet articulated by either the governor or legislators, it remains unclear how or when such a plan will take shape. But, some advocates said, the bones of such a plan could easily form from the patchwork of higher education systems across the country — a patchwork that includes dozens of state-level governance structures devoid of any unified, central system and some that draw a clear distinction between two-year and four-year schools. 

All the while, the governor’s decision to spearhead a possible breakup of NSHE comes only as the latest attempt to apply high-level macro-fixes to a system long plagued by a deep-seated institutional mistrust between system administrators and Carson City. 

In just the last 10 years, that mistrust grew so vast that legislators sought to remove the Board of Regents — a body of thirteen elected officials who govern the state’s higher education system — from the state Constitution. 

In a proposed constitutional amendment that would later come to be known as Question 1, legislators argued that NSHE and the Board of Regents had for decades used its position in the Constitution to use legal backdoors to evade legislative scrutiny and meaningful oversight.

Both at the time and since, regents laid the blame for these issues at the feet of bad actors — long ago ousted from the system — and said Question 1 amounted to a “solution in search of a problem.” 

Question 1 narrowly failed last fall, rejected by voters by a margin of just 0.3 percentage points. In doing so, voters — who advocates for Question 1 said were confused by a lengthy, dense and difficult-to-answer ballot question — preserved the status quo for at least the next five years, or the time it takes to propose and pass a new constitutional amendment. 

But even as a new chancellor, two new university presidents and a soon-to-be new state college president have entered the fold since last August, the tense relationship between Nevada legislators and NSHE has yet to publicly thaw. 

As lawmakers convened last summer, the promise of incoming fresh leadership did little to stem the tide of incoming cuts. Not only did legislators vote to approve more than $110 million in cuts mandated by the governor’s office, they went further in slicing an additional $25 million from the system.

In the time since, the mood on the budget has lightened some as the governor pledged to restore a number of cuts — pledges that include millions for new construction projects and a promise to end state-worker furloughs by the start of the next fiscal biennium. 

Still, even with such restorations, Nevada higher education institutions will stare down a minimum budget cut of 12 percent through 2023, equating to roughly $85 million per year in system-wide reductions. 

And as the money question looms in the forefront of this year’s expected higher education legislation, it is in large part the broader implications of just how each college gets its money that has defined the earliest stages of a potential NSHE breakup. 

Western Nevada College as seen in Carson City on Wednesday, February 6, 2019. (Luz Gray/ The Nevada Independent)

A question of funding

Often at the core of recent pushes to reform, adjust or update Nevada’s higher education system has been the budget itself, and more precisely, the foundation of that budget: the funding formula. 

Overhauled in 2013 and later approved by lawmakers and the governor in 2015 and 2017, the formula includes both a “base formula” and a “performance pool” for institutional funding, with the former being based upon student credit hours, weighted differently depending on the coursework being completed. 

That weighting occurs in so-called “discipline clusters,” with more expensive clusters, such as graduate or technical programs, often receiving the highest weight. 

Still, critics of the new formula say it is too uniform in its treatment of wholly different institutions, even if student credit hours are weighted differently. 

Among those critics is David Damore, a professor and chair of the UNLV Department of Political Science, fellow at Brookings Mountain West and one of several co-authors of a “recovery and resilience” report prepared for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) alongside the consulting firm SRI in December of last year. 

That report, among other things, recommended the “redesign [of] governance and funding mechanisms for the community college system.” Part of the reasoning for that, Damore said, is a funding formula that utilizes a “university structure” is too opaque in its weighting of different classes, and that fails to consider an institution's capacity to deliver different courses. 

Because the largest institutions can offer the largest classes, large intro-level lectures with hundreds of students, Damore said there will always be an advantage over institutions forced to provide the same courses at drastically smaller class sizes. 

“So it really advantages the schools that have more capacity and can offer that kind of stuff,” Damore said. 

But for the community college presidents, the issue of the funding formula, and budgets more broadly, is a complex one that lacks a simple solution. 

“[The challenge] is not necessarily about the differences, it’s about how each institution navigates the challenges of these budgets and the limitations of the budget,” WNC President Vincent Solis said. “So I don't know, it's not going to be a one size fits all. It's a complicated process … the only thing that I can say is that it's expensive, the budgets have to keep up with expenses and every year expenses go up.”

Part of the funding issue unique to community colleges stems from the delivery of highly specialized technical programs. From welding to diesel technology to electrical, these programs — the same ones touted as necessary by the governor’s office, the SRI/GOED report and others — often come with outsize monetary costs that, absent built-in state funding, have been offset by private funding and state grants. 

“These are not cheap programs,” GBC President Joyce Helens said. “Ely, for example, when the mine there, Komatsu, said, ‘we need diesel, we’re trying to get people from Salt Lake, we can't, there just aren't anymore, can you start a diesel program?’ Well, to start a diesel program costs minimum, like, half-a-million dollars. So it was through the governor’s grants, and through industry, through Komatsu and others, they chipped in, and we were able to create a diesel program.”

This pooling of resources creates what Helens called a “well-lighted pathway” for students in rural Nevada, “a ladder up and a ladder out” of upward mobility that remains critical for students without the resources of the state’s urban corridors. 

And though Helens praised the existing system for creating a “tight-knit fabric” between institutions with different specialties and unique benefits — “I could work with UNLV or UNR if I can’t afford to offer anything they can” — she said she would have liked to have seen lawmakers revisit the funding formula, especially amid the budget crisis triggered by the pandemic. 

“Because one size doesn’t fit all,” Helens said. “And I knew that there were others who said ‘yes, they wanted to do that’ …  I just think maybe taking a look at the funding formula, to say ‘how does it work for all of us,’ would be a good idea.”

Amid broader discussions of the equity of the existing funding formula, the ongoing pandemic — and the economic crunch that followed — have created new concerns, especially among the faculty saddled with much of the burden of reduced operating costs. 

Cheryl Cardoza, an English professor at TMCC and chapter president of the Nevada Faculty Alliance at the college, said she was glad to see the governor pledge to end furloughs by the next fiscal year. But she also questioned the lack of protections for part-time faculty hit with those same furloughs, as well as rapidly “eroding” health care coverage. 

All the while, Cardoza said the hyper-focus on workforce development and other technical programs belies the fact that most community college students — roughly 60 percent at TMCC alone — are on track to transfer to a university. 

“I find it very difficult to understand why the governor is proposing this sort of ‘Workforce Development’ theme when it's outside the purview of what any other community college is doing in the United States,” Cardoza said. “Not to say that there aren't work training facilities, but that's not what community colleges do in the United States.”

Then, there is the issue of grants — or, for some critics, the lack thereof. Some proponents of a split have argued that NSHE’s unitary system has pushed the state’s four colleges away from their original mission as “community colleges,” and in so doing, risked jeopardizing potential federal dollars. 

In an op-ed published in the Las Vegas Sun last month, Damore and his two co-authors, Robert Lang and William Brown Jr., — who also helped write the SRI/GOED Recovery and Resilience report — argued that “Nevada has no publicly funded community colleges,” according to classifications by the U.S. Department of Education.  

This, they wrote, is largely due to the “proliferation of four-year degree programs at all campuses,” a proliferation that has, in their view, led to the erroneous categorization of the state’s community colleges as four-year institutions — a label that has left them ineligible for federal workforce development grants targeted at community colleges. 

However, these facts are disputed by NSHE officials and other experts, who say the federal IPEDS classifications in question — short for the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System — would have no impact on the ability of the state’s colleges to apply for or receive federal money because they are still classified as “majority associates” institutions.    

David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges, said that the offering of four-year baccalaureate programs by community colleges “in no way” rendered them ineligible for funding. 

“For those programs that are targeted specifically on community colleges, policymakers ensure that institutions that primarily award the associate's degree, which is one of the defining characteristics of a community college, are eligible to compete for funds,” Baime said. 

More than 130 community colleges award some number of baccalaureate degrees, Baime said, or roughly 15 percent of all community colleges nationwide. 

“The offering of baccalaureate degrees by a community college in no way makes them fundamentally different from other community colleges that do not offer baccalaureate degrees,” Baime said. 

Still, those in favor of removing colleges from NSHE’s purview — including Damore — have pointed to an incident in 2014 in which CSN was forced to withdraw a bid in the fourth round of federal Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grants — a federal grant program aimed specifically at two-year education and career training programs. 

But documents from that period show that the issue arose from a misalignment between the programs included in CSN’s application and the federal requirements for that particular period, not any apparent issues with IPEDS classification. 

Instead, the college axed its bid after the U.S. Department of Labor ruled that the CSN programs in question “were not enhanced enough” to meet the TAACCCT requirements, according to a report prepared by an outside consultant for the remaining three Nevada colleges that did receive that final round of grant money. 

And though the college abandoned the fourth round of grant funding, CSN still received TAACCCT funding in two other rounds of applications. That includes the second round of grants, where CSN was the sole Nevada institution to receive any federal money through the program. 

Setting aside the technical specifics of the grant application process, proponents of a split have argued vocally that the TAACCCT saga represents, if anything, a missed opportunity for the state’s colleges, which, according to the SRI/GOED report, received less than $24 million of $2 billion made available by the Labor Department. 

Still, the loss of one grant may not transfer to the loss of another. To wit, CSN was awarded nearly $7 million from the U.S. Department of Commerce just this month for education and workforce training in West Las Vegas. 

Students gather inside the Donald F. Stone Classroom Complex at the College of Southern Nevada Charleston Campus on Wednesday, March 22, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

A question of governance

For those in favor of the push to separate the state’s universities from the community colleges, the question of budgeting is inseparable from the question of governance. 

“You have to both do the governance and the funding,” Damore said. “It just can’t be one, so you're talking about defining what these schools’ mission is, and then providing a governing structure that's going to support that and providing the funding that's going to support that.” 

Though Nevada’s economy is highly regionalized, Damore said, the centralized statewide system “doesn’t really respect the notion” of those regions. 

“Northern Nevada has very different interests and interfaces with a very, very different part of California than Southern Nevada does,” Damore said. “Elko is going to interface with Utah, and even into Denver, through mining, and we don't recognize that fact. We just say you're all going to be colleges, and some of you will be allowed to give PhDs and some of you will be allowed to give B.A.s, but we're going to call you a two-year institution.”

As a result, the wholesale determination of community colleges statewide has done little to define the structural differences in mission between colleges like CSN and TMCC — deeply embedded in their respective urban centers and adjacent to the state’s two universities — and a college like GBC, which maintains several far-flung rural campuses with unique specializations in technical trainings. 

However, administrators were largely skeptical of the structural impact of classifications such as two-year or four-year, or any kind of clerical distinction between the workforce development programs undertaken by institutions as different as CSN and GBC. 

And without another clear indication of what issue would be solved by a separation in governance, some administrators said they were unsure of why such a move should be pursued at all. 

“I've never been a person who's protected structure for structure’s sake, or even my own position, so I don't care about that,” GBC President Joyce Helens said. “What I care about is creating [a] well-lighted pathway for students — so how can we do this? I've heard what the governor said, too, so it seems like we're being offered a solution, but I don't know what the problem is yet.”

Helens said “of course” she saw room for improvement within NSHE, but said that in the course of her career elsewhere she’s seen “very fractured systems,” and that they were defined by a need to “raise your hand” in order to secure the necessary resources. 

And though she, too, would not comment on plans with “zero detail” available, TMCC President Karin Hilgersom said she viewed the timing of such a proposal as “weird,” especially in such close proximity to the failure of Question 1. 

“For me, personally, I would hate to fix what ain’t broken, you know, and I think we finally are at a place with our regents … there’s a group of regents now that I really love working with because they’ve developed, just, an appetite for all things two-year-college.”  

Regent Cathy McAdoo, who chairs the board’s Community College Committee, also defended the existing governance structure, saying in an emailed statement that “Within the integrated system of NSHE, we are able to strategically develop clear pathways to advance our students' career mobility at all levels.”

But for advocates of systemic higher education change, the failure of Question 1 has only created a new urgency to commit to new reforms. Chet Burton, a former president of WNC, former NSHE chief financial officer and outspoken supporter of Question 1, said he believes “we [don’t] have any more time to waste.”

“The status quo, in my opinion, it's just not sustainable anymore,” Burton said. “And I applaud the governor for seeing that. There's a lot of things we want to see happen in our state in terms of economic diversification and bringing new industry, and you have to have a trained workforce — and he understands the role of the community college plan, and I think he's come to the same conclusion.”

Noting that the regents are embedded in the Constitution as the governing body for the state’s universities, Burton said an ideal system, in his view, would allow the state’s colleges to utilize a “mix of statewide and local representation in their governance that understands the unique roles they play in their communities.” 

With so few details fixed in stone — or even articulated publicly — exactly what state might become the model for a new Nevada system remains to be seen. Though Nevada, which has a single statewide board charged with overseeing all higher education institutions, is not necessarily unique, it is just one system in a mottled patchwork of governance structures scattered across the U.S. 

Thus far, there have been at least a handful of options floated by proponents: Arizona State University is mentioned explicitly by the SRI/GOED report, which praises its use of public-private partnerships as a supplement to state-appropriated funding; California has long separated the governance of its universities and community colleges under two separate boards. 

And though some states similar to Nevada also maintain a singular, statewide board — most notably Idaho and Utah — those states still maintain key differences in the finer details of governance itself. Idaho, for instance, also utilizes a separate division for “community and technical education,” while Utah, though it combined its regents and “technical college” trustees into a single board last year, also utilizes a system of appointed regents, including at least one appointment of a trustee from a technical college.

Through the first few weeks of the legislative session, however, there appeared to be little movement on the governor’s promise, and thus, few details, concrete or otherwise. And, in the absence of such details, the only thing left for administrators, faculty, students and the rest to do: 

Wait, and see.   

Correction, 2/10/21 at 9:20 a.m. — This story was updated to accurately reflect a quote from TMCC President Karin Hilgersom, who said regents had an "appetite for all things two-year college," not an "appetite for all things your-college."

Biden’s victory, key House wins upheld Nevada’s blue wall while Republicans chipped away at it down ballot

As the sun dipped below the horizon, closing out the seventh to last day before the election, Kamala Harris had a message for the supporters who had gathered on socially distant red, white and blue picnic blankets at an East Las Vegas park to hear her speak.

“You all are going to decide who is going to be the next president of the United States. You will decide,” the Democratic vice-presidential nominee told the crowd, to hollers and applause. “A path to the White House runs right through this field.”

President Donald Trump, speaking at a rally a day later just over the state line in Bullhead City, Arizona, was equally as bullish on his chances in Nevada.

“Six days from now, we are going to win Arizona, we are going to win Nevada, and we are going to win four more years in our great White House,” Trump told the crowd of thousands who had gathered.

It wasn’t just talk. Nevada, of course, mattered to both campaigns this election cycle. It’s why the Trump campaign focused on building out its Nevada operation long before there was even a Democratic presidential nominee. It’s why Joe Biden’s campaign doubled down on its voter outreach this summer when it felt like the contest was narrowing.

By the time the night of the election rolled around, though, it seemed as if, in many ways, Nevada’s importance had been written off. Polls had Biden several points ahead. The prognosticators anticipated Nevada would lean blue. Both Biden and Trump spent their final days in the battleground states that were ground zero for the 2016 election — states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

When results started rolling in on election night in Nevada, Biden had a sizable, if not overwhelming, 3 to 4 percentage point lead at first, as many had predicted. But by early Wednesday morning, as the votes continued to be tallied, Biden’s lead over Trump had shrunk to 0.6 percentage points, or 7,647 votes.

Suddenly, what had seemed like a sure bet for Democrats in Nevada earlier in the evening, wasn’t anymore, and the Silver State was thrust into the national spotlight as the presidential race here remained too close to call.

Of course, it wasn’t really. Over the span of several days, Biden managed to steadily grow his lead as outstanding mail ballots, most of which were in Clark County, the state’s Democratic stronghold, continued to be counted, as anticipated.

But to the rest of the country, which remained on pins and needles as the presidential race nationally also remained too close to call as votes continued to be counted in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona and North Carolina, Nevada’s vote counting seemed impossibly slow, inspiring countless memes across social media.

Finally, four days later, the race in Nevada was officially called for Biden, just about half an hour after some media outlets called the entire race for the former vice president. Though a small number of ballots still remain to be tallied, Biden’s lead in Nevada stands at 2.39 percentage points, or 33,596 votes, as of Saturday.

From the outside looking in, Biden’s victory in Nevada may seem predictable because Nevada looks like a blue state. Its governor is a Democrat, both of its U.S. senators are Democrats, three out of four of its House members are Democrats and both chambers of the Legislature are controlled by Democrats. But neither Republicans nor Democrats here have been willing to concede that Nevada is, in fact, a blue state.

For Democrats, those victories have all come hard fought, some won by the skin of their teeth. In 2016, Catherine Cortez Masto won her U.S. Senate race and Hillary Clinton won the presidential race both by 2.4 percentage points. Though margins of victory widened two years later with Steve Sisolak’s 4.1 percentage point victory in the gubernatorial race and Jacky Rosen’s 5 point victory in the U.S. Senate, Democrats knew that 2020 would look different.

Republicans knew this too. They knew that Trump voters who didn’t turn out to vote in 2018 would show up this year to vote for the president, and they hoped those voters could also be persuaded to vote Republican all the way down the ticket. They also hoped to persuade moderates that overwhelming Democratic control in Carson City wasn’t a good thing.

On that front, Republicans appear to have succeeded. While Democrats celebrated their win at the top of the ticket, they actually lost ground down the ballot in the Legislature. Three Assembly seats that Democrats had picked up in 2018 returned to Republican hands, meaning that Democrats no longer have a supermajority in that chamber, and they lost a key state Senate seat as well, narrowing their majority.

And while Democrats held onto two competitive congressional seats, their victories were narrower than they were two years ago.

Still, Democrats look at the results of this election and see a blue wall. Even with their losses in the Legislature, they still hold majorities in both chambers. To them, the election once again demonstrates that ensuring Nevada votes blue takes work, and a lot of it.

“It should be crystal clear now that Biden would not have won Nevada but for a well-funded ground game ... We win in Nevada because we leave it all on the field — every cycle,” Rebecca Lambe, a longtime Democratic operative in the state responsible for building the Reid machine, said in an email. “We fund communications, we fund mail, we fund field —  we knock doors to push our voters to vote.”

Republicans, however, are hopeful in the wake of this election. They see the narrower margins as a sign of hope for the 2022 election. They also look at specific victories, such as the fact that Heidi Gansert, a Republican, was re-elected to her Washoe County state Senate seat even as the county swung decidedly for Biden, and that educator Carrie Buck flipped a state Senate district that has two Democratic Assembly seats nested beneath it as glimmers of hope for the future of their party — that the state might still be more independent than it has in recent years appeared to be.

"The biggest surprise to me in this election was the historic DNA of Nevada — being independent and looking at the person before the party — reappeared,” said Pete Ernaut, a longtime Republican consultant in Nevada. “The idea that there were ticket-splitters was as refreshing as it was surprising."

Voters line up to cast their ballots at West Sahara Library on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

How Biden won Nevada

Over the summer, some Democrats fretted that the presidential race in Nevada might be closer than anticipated. The coronavirus pandemic had forced them to toss their usual playbook out the window and, as the Trump campaign returned to knocking doors in person in June, their campaign remained virtual, hindering, in the eyes of some, their ability to effectively connect with voters.

Of course, Democrats had been hosting Zoom events, phone banks and text message drives, utilizing the framework of “relational organizing,” or the principle of having supporters tap into their personal networks to turn voters out to the polls. But the face-to-face connection was missing.

Enter the Culinary Union.

The politically powerful labor union, which represents 60,000 hotel workers across the state, has earned a reputation cycle after cycle for turning the tides in favor of Democrats in close elections, most notably in Harry Reid’s 2010 U.S. Senate race. But its membership was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic: Ninety-eight percent of the union’s members were furloughed this spring, and only about half are back to work.

The union’s finances were hit hard, too. It had no money for a political operation. So, for the first time, they set up a super PAC, Take Back 2020, asked for help, and it came, from the Carpenters Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Operating Engineers, the American Federation of Teachers, AFSCME, and more, D. Taylor, international president of the Culinary’s parent union, UNITE HERE, said.

“If it had not been for other unions, individuals, organizations contributing to us, we never could have done this — ever, ever ever,” Taylor said.

The super PAC raised money nationally for Unite Here’s efforts, which included political operations in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Florida. But Taylor said the union raised more than $10 million for its Nevada operation alone, which deployed 500 canvassers in the field who knocked 500,000 doors in Las Vegas and Reno and talked to 130,000 voters, including more than 42,000 eligible voters who did not participate in the election four years ago. 

“We didn’t have the money,” Taylor said. “Frankly, even if we had had the money, we still probably needed to set up a PAC. Just here in Nevada, Trump’s campaign was much more robust in 2020 than it was in 2016.”

Plus, there was an extra added benefit: The political operation also helped out-of-work union members put food on the table.

“Up in Reno we had folks come in from our locals in California who were laid off too and other locals besides Las Vegas,” Taylor said. “In Las Vegas a lot of folks were laid off workers who got to earn some money and change the country.”

It represented the Culinary Union’s largest — and earliest — political effort to date. When the union started talking to voters at the doors on Aug. 1, it was the only Democratic-aligned organization in the field. For Our Future, a super PAC focused on grassroots Democratic turnout, launched an in-person canvassing operation on Oct. 1, eventually knocking on 150,000 doors, in addition to making 650,000 calls and sending over a million text messages. 

Other organizations focused primarily on virtual or non-face-to-face outreach. Mi Familia Vota, for instance, made nearly 100,000 calls and sent more than 80,000 text messages to Latinos in Nevada on Election Day, while One APIA Nevada dropped literature in five Asian languages at 30,000 doors, in addition to making 180,000 phone calls and sending 6,000 text messages.

The Biden campaign, meanwhile, engaged in a mostly virtual campaign until the final three weeks, when it started in-person door knocking as well.

Combined, Democrats report knocking on more than 1.3 million doors across Nevada this election cycle, while the Trump campaign reported knocking more than 1.1 million.

"It is one thing to get the green light to go knock doors. It’s another to move an entire organization to really take on that challenge and do it in a way that’s safe,” said Shelby Wiltz, the Nevada State Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign director. “In 21 days, really, we were able to put together a massive door-knocking operation and lit-dropping operation across multiple counties to talk to voters that we didn’t have phone numbers for, that we hadn’t reached in the first two months of the campaign, including young people and people of color."

The Culinary Union, for its part, attributes its decision to knock doors so early to the conversations that it had with epidemiologists and industrial hygienists around workplace health and safety as it pushed for employee protection legislation in Carson City over the summer. Using that knowledge, union leaders established health and safety protocols canvassers had to adhere to while out in the field, including wearing masks, requiring those they spoke with to wear masks, and practicing social distancing.

 “We said if not us, who? There was no other who,” Taylor said. “We did what we do without a lot of bells and whistles and just did the work.”

The Culinary Union engaged in other kinds of voter outreach, too, sending emails and texts to 60,000 members, mailing 5.6 million mail pieces, making 2 million personal calls and 240,000 automated calls and running digital persuasion ads that racked up 11.6 million views — the kind of outreach that other organizations engaged in as well. 

But what set the union apart was the size and scope of its door-knocking operation. Taylor said that where the union’s typical contact rate at the door is usually 7 percent, it was more like 30 percent this year.

“I think that’s been proven over and over and over, and we know that it’s a three-legged stool to move folks,” Taylor said. “One, you have to have the TV stuff, two, you have to have the phone bank and text but, three, it’s the actual conversations with folks.”

Taylor, for his part, does not think Biden would have won Nevada without the Culinary Union.

“I know who we turned out and that was the difference in Washoe and Clark,” Taylor said. “I don’t think Joe Biden would’ve won and I don’t think a lot of Democrats would have won.”

Other Democrats in the state painted the election as a team effort, but acknowledged the decisive role that the union played not just in Biden’s victory but in key down ballot races as well, including Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro’s tight re-election campaign in Senate District 6.

"If Culinary was not out there in a meaningful way starting in August, I think this race would’ve been a lot closer,” said Megan Jones, a longtime Democratic operative in the state. “I think we would’ve eked it out, but we may have lost Nicole’s seat and we would’ve probably lost a couple more Assembly seats."

Democrats believe that Nevada could have easily become the next Wisconsin or Michigan from 2016 if not for the investments in the Culinary Union, For Our Future and other organizations on the independent expenditure side of the campaign, in addition to the Biden campaign’s decision to put canvassers back on doors at the end of the race.

The Biden campaign acknowledges they wouldn’t have been able to win in Nevada if not for the help of those other Democratic-aligned organizations.

"You have to remember that it’s a team effort and that there is institutional knowledge and organizations, like the NV Dems, like the Culinary Union, have been building relationships with voters for many cycles,” said Alana Mounce, Biden’s state director in Nevada.

As far as the tight margin of victory in the presidential race in the state, it doesn’t come as a surprise to Democratic operatives who know Nevada well.

"We knew from very early on that this was going to be a close race. Nevada is a battleground state,” said state Sen. Yvanna Cancela, a senior advisor on Biden’s Nevada team. “The margins haven’t been 5 to 10 point margins, they are 2 to 5 point margins, which means every vote really matters."

A group celebrates president elect Joe Biden's victory on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. Around 50 people gathered at the Commercial Center in Las Vegas. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Republican gains down the ballot

While Democrats celebrate their success at the top of the ticket, it is Republicans who are finding reasons to be hopeful further down the ballot, including in the four legislative seats that Republicans were able to wrest from Democrats.

To some, it feels like a reset back to the way things were four years ago, before Democrats extended their reach in the last election. The only difference between the makeup in the Assembly this year is that Republicans picked up District 31, giving them one more seat than they had in 2016. In the Senate, Democrats and Republicans have the same split they did in 2016; they have just since swapped control of Senate Districts 5 and 9.

“From the Assembly Republican perspective, we’re happy where we’re at,” said Eric Roberts, executive director of the Assembly Republican Caucus. “We had four seats we were looking at picking up, and we got three of those.”

Perhaps the biggest upset, though, was Republican Carrie Buck’s victory over Democrat Kristee Watson in Senate District 5. Buck had run for the seat four years ago against state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, the term-limited incumbent, and lost by 0.9 percentage points. 

This year, Buck won by 0.5 percentage points, even as the two Assembly districts nested beneath the seat swung for Democrats. Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen won her re-election bid in Assembly District 29 by 2.5 percentage points, while newcomer Elaine Marzola won her election in Assembly District 21 by 3.9 percentage points.

“We were fortunate Carrie Buck decided to run again. She ran four years earlier, and it was a close election,” said Greg Bailor, executive director of the Senate Republican Caucus. “Carrie has deep roots in that district being an educator and she really campaigned hard and was able to talk to Democrats and nonpartisans in a way that helped gain that support in the district.”

In many ways, the Republican pickups in the Legislature mirror what happened at the national level, where Democrats lost several key House races to Republicans that they had picked up two years ago.

“Democrats won too much in 2018, if you will. They got farther out than they probably should’ve because there was so much energy on the Democratic side,” said David Damore, a political science professor at UNLV. “In 2020, you didn’t see that. They lost ground or held their own.”

Democrats, for their part, aren’t entirely shocked they weren’t able to replicate their successes from 2018, though the losses still sting. Jones said that, in looking at the data, it is “abundantly clear” that nonpartisans in Clark County did not break for Democrats.

“We're up in Clark County by the amount of Democrats that voted essentially, which means nonpartisans were a wash or we lost a few,” Jones said.

Republicans are also celebrating their successes in Washoe County, including in Senate District 15, where Gansert was able to fend off a challenge from a newcomer Democrat, Wendy Jauregui-Jackins. Gansert won by 3.6 percentage points when Biden won the county by 4.5 percentage points.

“Washoe County as a whole has seen growth and a lot of that growth has come from new constituents and voters that are a little bit more moderate,” Bailor said. “Senator Gansert does have a track record in the community and with her constituents, but she had to reintroduce herself to voters.”

Still, Gansert’s victory this year was narrower than her 11 percentage point victory in 2016, which has some Republicans worried about their prospects down the ballot there moving forward. 

“The trend in Washoe is concerning,” Roberts said. “As a Republican, we have to look at that and say, what’s happening here?” 

There is also one down-ticket race that political operatives believe was likely specifically affected by the pandemic. Assemblyman Skip Daly, a Democrat, has earned a reputation cycle after cycle for his relentless doorknocking that has allowed him to represent a Republican-leaning district for eight of the last 10 years. But, because of the pandemic, he didn’t door-knock this cycle, and former Assemblywoman Jill Dickman, a Republican, bested Daly by 3.5 percentage points in their fourth head to head in Assembly District 31.

“It’s as close as you can get to a control group of a comparative analysis. Same candidate, same campaign management, it’s the same basic everything from 2018 to 2020,” said Riley Sutton, a Democratic consultant in Washoe County who managed Daly’s race. “The only difference is who is at the top of the ticket and if we knocked doors or we didn’t. Skip didn’t knock doors.”

In the two competitive congressional districts, Reps. Susie Lee and Steven Horsford both faced tighter contests this year than they did in 2018. Lee won by 3 percentage points this year, compared the 9.1 point margin she won by two years ago, while Horsford won by 4.9 points after winning by 8.2 points in 2018.

Republicans attribute the closeness both in the presidential race and down ballot elections, in part, to the decreased Democratic field operation this cycle.

“There still wasn’t the Democrat presence on the doors that I had seen in the past,” Roberts said. “Even when there was, it almost had more of a feel of a lit drop. I didn’t see any Democratic operatives out knocking doors. In past cycles I’ve always seen that.”

But they also point to the successes of an enhanced field operation that they say was boosted by the fact that Chris Carr, a Republican operative with deep ties to Nevada, was political director for the Trump Victory organization this cycle. They also highlight that the Republican operation in Nevada has now existed continuously for four years instead of getting reset cycle after cycle.

“I would say this was the largest field program we’ve had,” Bailor said. “Prior to 2020, 2018 was the largest, and 2016 was the largest before that. We’ve continued to build on that.”

The Trump campaign declined to comment for this article, citing ongoing legal fights. Though it has yet to file a new legal challenge in court since the election, the outcome of any legal battle, even if favorable for the Trump campaign, is unlikely to change the results of the presidential election in Nevada because of Biden’s relatively wide margin of victory in the state. Any legal action could, however, potentially affect close down ballot races.

Trump aside, Republicans believe they’re well-situated headed into the 2022 election, where there will be a competitive U.S. Senate and gubernatorial election in Nevada.

"Republicans won some close races and Democrats won some close races. I think both sides did a really good job and ran good campaigns,” Ernaut said. “The biggest difference was in the last four cycles the Republicans really hadn’t. They really didn’t have much of a ground game and this time they did — and had a good one."

Jan Moody during the GOP watch party at the South Point Hotel on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Voter turnout

The biggest puzzle that remains about the election in Nevada isn’t why Biden won or why Republicans succeeded down ballot: It’s why even more voters didn’t turn out to the polls in such a high-interest election and with voting easier than ever before with mail ballots sent to every active registered voter this cycle.

That’s not to say that turnout isn’t significantly up: Turnout in Clark County was about 80 percent this cycle, after subtracting about 75,000 inactive voters who should have been removed from the county’s voter rolls, about 5 percent higher than it was in 2016. Washoe County’s voter turnout was about 83 percent this year, up from 80 percent four years ago, while statewide turnout was about 81 percent, up from 77 percent in the last presidential election.

While those numbers are high, they’re not as high as perhaps some had expected.

“When we came out of the blocks this time with the mail and early voting and numbers were coming in, there was a question of, ‘Could we get to 90 percent turnout?'” Roberts said. “Instead, I think we just saw a pretty major shift in how people vote.”

Democrats had predicted a turnout of about 1.4 million based on vote enthusiasm and turnout in past presidential cycles, which ended up being correct with just a little more than 1.4 million ballots cast in the election. 

“Given the challenges Nevada faced in terms of the economic downturn and the pandemic, I don't think it's surprising that we didn't exceed that expectation,” Lambe said.

Damore, the political science professor at UNLV, additionally noted that the best predictors of turnout are residential stability, age and education, factors that don't bode particularly well for high turnout in Nevada.

“It’s just part of our culture,” Damore said. “This isn’t a civic engagement state.”

Another possible reason that the voter turnout percentage wasn’t even higher this year is because there were simply more registered voters who weren’t actually interested in participating in the election, since, for the first time this year, Nevada offered automatic voter registration at the DMV. About 57.4 percent of the voting age eligible population cast ballots in Nevada in 2016, according to the United States Election Project, compared to about 65.3 percent in 2020.

As far as why more people didn’t participate on Election Day, Roberts speculates that there just weren’t that many people left who wanted to vote.

“I think people were fearful of the long lines they saw in the primary, which wasn’t an apples to apples comparison,” Roberts said. “I think people prepared for that.”

And while mail ballots split essentially two to one in favor of Democrats this election cycle — largely the result of Democrats encouraging voters to take advantage of mail voting while Trump cast doubt on the integrity of the process — political observers say there’s no reason it needs to be that way in elections moving forward. 

"Everybody has the same opportunity to vote, whether it’s mail ballot or traditional absentee or early voting or Election Day. It shouldn’t favor any party. It’s a matter of your strategy, your organization,” Ernaut said. “If one party did better than another in those areas, it’s either because they worked harder or had a better strategy."

The other surprise was the fact that roughly an equal number of Republicans and Democrats took advantage of the state’s new same-day voter registration law, which was passed during the 2019 legislative session. The policy was expected to offer a boost to Democrats, and was staunchly opposed by Republicans, though in the end 22,701 Democrats and 22,886 Republicans took advantage of the same-day registration process this year.

"Whether or not this cycle proves that those who utilize same day weren’t necessarily our voters, I think in the long term same-day registration benefits democracy by expanding turnout,” Jones said.

A voter returns his ballot card in Sun City Summerlin on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Looking forward

For those who know Nevada well, the close election results this year don’t come as a surprise. Greg Ferraro, a Republican consultant in Washoe County, recalled working on President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign when he won Nevada by only 21,500 votes, or 2.6 percentage points, over John Kerry.

“It’s not new that these races continue to be close because Nevada still, I think, is fairly evenly divided despite some of the registration differences,” Ferraro said.

Democrats, however, are still considering this year largely a blue wall year.

“There was no blue wave in 2020 anywhere — in fact, quite the opposite,” Lambe said. “Nevada became part of the Blue Wall that secured a Democratic presidential win against increased turnout and enthusiasm for Trump.”

All the same, Republicans are optimistic.

“I think it was going to be a big lift to completely flip the state,” Bailor said. “So to then see the Nevada Legislature hold Republican seats and pick up seats, I would have to say in Carson City it’s not a wave but we definitely got some Republicans down ticket.”

If this election cycle proved anything, though, it’s that it’s not enough for Republican running statewide to run up the ballot count in the state’s ruby red rural counties if they continue to lose by a wide margin in Clark County and a still sizable margin in Washoe County, as they did in the presidential election this year.

The challenge for Republicans, then, moving forward is to somehow translate those down ballot wins into statewide victories. If they can’t find a way to win across the state, the blue wall will continue.

“The question is where their next statewide candidate is coming from,” Damore said. “They’re going to be in that problem of the primaries, the Dean Heller dance that fell flat in 2018. What’s going to happen in 2022? Are you going to put more hardcore Trump folks in statewide races with Catherine Cortez Masto? That’s probably not going to go well.”

As blue as Nevada has been in recent elections, though, this election served as a reminder to still expect the unexpected.

"Nevada works better when it works like this, when it’s not so partisan and not so polarized,” Ernaut said. “Everyone, regardless of whether their candidate won or lost, should feel a lot better about this election than they have about any of the last few."

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at the May Museum at Rancho San Rafael Park in Reno on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Voter rolls swell as automatic registration takes effect

People wait at the DMV office in Henderson on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018

Thirty-year-old construction worker Jesse Speights walked into the Reno DMV on Monday, not knowing if he was even registered to vote.

When he walked out shortly afterwards, he was officially a registered nonpartisan, one of the first customers to undergo what he called a “quick and easy” process under Nevada’s new automatic voter registration law (click here for a video explainer of that). But while he affirmed that “voting’s cool” because you can pick the leader of the U.S., he wasn’t sure he would do it in November.

“Maybe ... we’ll see,” he said.

Speights is among thousands of new voters added to the rolls in January, driven primarily by new nonpartisans, but also by a smaller number of Democrats and Republicans. The surge of well over 6,000 new voters in Clark County during the first 10 days of January was close to the average amount the county saw in an entire month under the prior system. The increased registrations appear to be because under the new law, people who complete DMV transactions automatically have their voter records updated unless they opt out.

Although the early numbers could foreshadow a strong turnout and possible trouble for the Republican Party, which is seeing its ranks grow more slowly relative to other party registrations, it is uncertain how many of the newly registered voters will show up at the voting booths. Many have no prior experience casting a ballot.

Professor David Damore, chair of UNLV’s political science department, said turnouts for elections in Nevada are low and voting process reforms making it easier to vote usually have “marginal” effects. For example, Nevada’s voter participation rates remain low even after the expansion of early voting and addition of competitive races and heavy campaign spending, he said.

“The best predictors of voting are residential stability, age, and education and Nevada is a very transient state, is 45th in college grads, and some segments of the state's population, particularly Latinos, are relatively young,” he said. “Most people who are interested in politics, understand the process, and are in the habit of voting, do participate. There are just fewer of those types here than in other states.”

Nonpartisans turn out at lower levels than those affiliated with a major party. Voter turnout for registered voters in Nevada’s 2016 general election for Republicans was 73.6 percent, for Democrats was 67.6 percent, and for third-party and nonpartisan voters was 57.5 percent. 

Voter turnout rates are usually higher for elections held during a presidential or on-cycle election. The DMV said it does not have estimates for how many voting-age Nevadans who are unregistered will become registered through the new law, although Clark County Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria testified in 2017 that he estimated up to 120,000 new voters in Clark County would be registered through AVR, based on Oregon’s experience with the policy.

In Clark County, which holds the bulk of registered voters totaling over 1.1 million, roughly 6,100 new nonpartisans, 3,400 Democrats and 1,700 Republicans were added to the pool of active registered voters in January as of Jan. 18. That translates to a 0.76 percent increase of new registered Democrats, a 0.54 percent increase in Republicans, and a 2.4 percent increase in nonpartisan voters.

A Trump Victory spokesman said in an interview on Wednesday that the campaign is not worried about the sheer numbers of newly registered Democrats and nonpartisans because the party predicts that in terms of proportions, the percentage breakdown of party affiliations will stay more or less the same. 

Trump campaign spokesman Keith Schipper also hinted at a plan to reach out to conservative-leaning nonpartisans and lauded the GOP’s sophisticated voter information database, saying it “gives us that much more of an advantage understanding which issues resonate with nonpartisan voters.”

Nevada as a swing state

Nevada has gone for the winning candidate in every presidential election in the last 108 years except for the elections of 1976 and 2016, when Nevada voted for Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter and Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. 

Nevada’s vacillations between parties in presidential elections have demarcated the state as a swing state. However, a growing non-white electorate — which tends to vote more Democratic — combined with the fact that Nevada went blue in the past two election cycles have left some wondering whether the swing state designation is still accurate.

Many Democrats and Republicans, however, still view Nevada as a battleground state. Nevada’s pivotal early state status in the presidential nomination process — the Silver State is the third state to vote in the upcoming Democratic caucuses and primaries — mean a steady flow of candidates are including Nevada on their campaign stops.

Republicans point out that Democrats winning statewide in Nevada typically take more moderate stances than their peers in other states.

“If Gov. Sisolak would’ve run on gun confiscation and health care for illegals, I think you would say he would’ve lost this race … This is what the Democrats nationally are running on,” Rick Gorka, a spokesman for the Trump Victory Campaign, told The Nevada Independent in an interview in Nov. 2019.

Gorka said he believes the state is still in play in spite of Democrats’ marquee victories in Nevada in 2018.

“When you look at where the 2020 field is now, I think Nevada is a much more competitive place today than it was a year ago. That’s just me being honest about it,” Gorka said.

Damore, however, said Republicans will struggle not just with a numbers disadvantage, but a Democratic Party that has been relatively successful turning out even hard-to-turn-out voting blocs.

“Participation among many Democratic constituencies is uneven and requires a good deal of investment in [get out the vote efforts],” he said. “The problem for the GOP is that there are not enough Republicans to offset the Democrats' demographic advantage and the party's superior machinery.”

Early setbacks

Gov. Brian Sandoval at the ribbon cutting at the Northern Nevada Veterans Home in Sparks on Dec. 17, 2018. Photo by David Calvert.

The proposal to automatically register voters at the DMV faced setbacks before it ultimately became law. Though it passed the Democrat-controlled Legislature in 2017, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed the so-called “motor voter” petition when it appeared on his desk.

Sandoval said he vetoed the measure over concerns the law would “increase the possibility of improper registration” and change the DMV process, which already includes access to voter registration. Under the prior “opt-in” system, voters had the opportunity to register at the DMV; the new system updates a person’s registration unless they proactively “opt out.”

Sandoval also said that he wanted the public to decide the matter because the new law would affect them directly. A majority of Nevada voters approved the automatic voter registration measure when it was on the statewide ballot in 2018, sending it to victory with a margin of 19 percentage points. 

But fears that the automatic system might sweep up non-citizens still persist, including for Brandon Blankenship, a 55-year-old Libertarian from Sparks. 

“My largest concern is registering voters who are not legally here in the country or who may have some other restrictions that aren’t vetted properly here at the DMV,” he told The Nevada Independent outside the DMV earlier this week. 

Originally from California, Blankenship cited accidental ineligible voter sign-ups in California as a reason for caution regarding automatic voter registration.

Preventing non-citizens from registering

Nevada DMV spokesperson Kevin Malone said there are safeguards in place to ensure that ineligible voters are not registered. 

Per Nevada DMV procedures, eligible voters, also referred to as “electors,” are provided an “Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) Options” form after filling out their application for driving privileges, renewal, or change of address. The form enables customers to opt out of AVR, in which case the transaction will not be used to register to vote or to update their party affiliation with the secretary of state. 

Customers who do not opt out, who do not already have a party affiliation or who do not specify a party affiliation on the AVR Options form are registered with the secretary of state absent a party preference. 

Customers who submit documents that deem them ineligible to vote, such as a permanent resident card or any documentation indicating the person will not be 18 years old by the next election, are excluded from the AVR system and their documents are not sent to the secretary of state. Instead, the customer receives a Notice of Ineligibility print-out, with information on alternative ways to register (such as through the secretary of state website) if the customer believes they are indeed eligible.  

There is also a checkbox on the DMV application that asks whether the applicant is a citizen. A negative answer would result in exclusion from AVR. 

The exclusion of Driver Authorization Card (DAC) holders from AVR has raised concerns among voting rights groups. DACs, which authorize a person to drive but cannot be used as formal government identification for other purposes, are commonly used by non-citizens. 

Last year, Mi Familia Vota, the national Voting Rights Project of the ACLU, Demos and the Brennan Center for Justice raised concerns that excluding DAC holders and applicants might exclude eligible voters from AVR. Advocates said that AVR should not be denied based on whether a customer holds a DAC, but rather that DAC holders should be allowed to affirm eligibility to vote, under penalty of perjury. 

Although the DMV moved forward with excluding DAC holders from AVR after the public comment period, the process is such that documents submitted in past transactions indicating that the customer is a non-citizen, are not considered by the AVR system for new transactions, allowing for the possibility of AVR for those whose status has changed since their last transaction.  

Malone says that eligible DAC applicants who want to register or update their registration “will be provided assistance by staff in completing a voter registration form that is processed separate from the AVR System.” Furthermore, applicants will be screened out of the AVR process during a transaction based only on the identification they present during that same transaction. 

“This approach ensures that someone who has naturalized since their last DMV transaction will not be improperly denied the opportunity to participate in the AVR process, based on the identification they presented prior to being naturalized,” said a letter submitted by the Brennan Center for Justice in October 2019. 

How are voters reacting to AVR?

People stand outside at the DMV office in Henderson on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The Nevada Independent interviewed voters at DMV offices in Reno and Las Vegas about two weeks after automatic voter registration took effect on Jan. 1, 2020. Although some voters were excited about the new policy, others, such as Richelle Claughton, were more wary.

“I don’t know. It’s just … seems like a little too automatic for me, because it just feels like more personal information is out there. I’ve had my identity stolen before. Somebody went to college on it in another state, and somebody worked on my social in another state,” said Claughton, a commercial class A driver and a longtime Democrat. “It feels like there’s like a loophole somebody could use to probably get access to my personal stuff.”

Retired law enforcement officer Glen Davis said although he appreciates the attempt to register more voters, he does not believe increased registered voters will correlate with increased voter turnout.

“Is it gonna change participation? No, because those who wanted to participate would have registered by the means that were available,” he said. “So, even with automatic registration, if they don’t wanna participate, they’re not gonna participate.”

Dwight Cabanilla, a Truckee Meadows Community College student, said he thought automatic voter registration was beneficial for voters who may not know where to register.

“I think [automatic voter registration is] a huge benefit,” he said. “Especially if [people] don’t really know or aren’t registered. It’s something that can really help.”

Cabanilla also noted that once people register to vote, “it’s up to the people to really get the information that they need to really figure out the kind of candidate that they want to vote for.” 

Sixty-four-year-old Mark Service, a newly registered voter, echoed Cabanilla’s sentiment that automatic voter registration was positive and hopes automatic voter registration laws will get more voters to the polls.

“Knowledge is power,” he said. “I think everybody should vote. I don’t think enough people do. And, the ones who don’t and complain about it — it irks me.”

Impeachment and Senate trial could spur voter turnout on both sides

Dina Titus at a podium in a blue shirt and tan jacket

The likely House impeachment of President Donald Trump and subsequent Senate trial could jolt Nevada, where voters showed up in droves in the last midterm and presidential elections. 

The effects of impeachment proceedings in Nevada are seen by lawmakers and political activists as two-fold: to motivate voters and to give an advantage to Democratic presidential candidates who aren’t in the Senate and won’t be detained in Washington during a potentially lengthy Senate trial. 

“If anything, people are more energized, probably, to turn out because they're more fired up by what they're hearing and what they will be hearing,” said Rep. Dina Titus, a Democrat, who last month endorsed Vice President Joe Biden.

On the GOP side, Nevada Republican Party Executive Director Will Sexauer predicted that the House impeachment and Senate trial would excite Republican voters on Election Day. The state GOP plans to nominate Trump and will not hold a 2020 caucus. 

“All it has done is motivate Nevada Republicans to turn out in force to re-elect President Trump and hold Democrats up and down the ballot accountable next year,” Sexauer said in a statement.

A Senate trial, expected to begin in January, could benefit Biden, who leads in Nevada, according to a recent poll conducted for The Nevada Independent. His closest competition comes from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who would be pulled off of the campaign trail to be jurors in the trial. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who poll below the frontrunners, would also have to come off of the trail.

“They basically have to attend and if the trial drags on at all, then those are days not in Iowa, New Hampshire, and especially Nevada,” said Eric Herzik, the chair of UNR’s political science department. “I say ‘especially Nevada’ as that is a long flight from Washington, D.C.”

“As the early primary states rely heavily on more ‘retail’ and face-to-face work, this is no small advantage,” Herzik continued. “Biden can also claim a kind of special status in comments about impeachment given that Trump specifically went after him and his son. He can hammer the point that he is the candidate Trump most fears.”

Of course, that advantage could fall to South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is in fourth place in the state, if Biden is called to give testimony in the trial. 

The Democrats argue that Trump abused his power when he asked the Ukrainian president on a July 25 phone call to investigate Biden, a political rival, his withholding of military aid and possible efforts to cover up his actions.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi moved the House closer to impeaching Trump when she instructed the Democratic leaders of the Judiciary Committee and five other panels Thursday to draft articles of impeachment, which would formally charge the president with violating his oath of office. The move came a day after the Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the constitutional grounds for presidential impeachment.

Once cleared by the judiciary panel, House Democrats are likely to approve the articles, with little to no GOP support, by the end of the year.

The Senate would then hold a trial which is expected—as with the trial following the impeachment of President Bill Clinton—to end with a climactic vote on whether to remove Trump from office. 

The trial, which could begin in January and have an unknown duration, would come weeks before Nevada Democrats begin early caucus voting on Feb. 15 through Feb. 18. The caucus will take place on Feb. 22. Clinton’s trial began on Jan. 7, 1999, and ended Feb. 12, 1999. 

As with the House’s public hearings, the Senate trial will receive intense media coverage and Nevada voters will be inundated with news stories documenting Democrats’ arguments that Trump abused the power of his office by pressing a foreign government for assistance in the 2020 election.

But with Republicans holding a 53 to 47 majority in the Senate, Trump’s acquittal is, at the moment, the likeliest outcome. That’s because Republicans in both chambers have closed ranks behind the president against his removal and a two-thirds majority vote is needed to succeed in the Senate. That means that 20 Republicans would need to vote with all Democrats to remove Trump—an unlikely scenario. 

“Acquittal will activate the base vote in each party,” Herzik said. 

He added that Trump’s base will be buoyed by a Senate vote that falls short of convicting the president. They “will claim full innocence and that nothing unseemly happened,” he said.

Herzik cautioned that Democrats will need to “stay focused on defeating Trump” and refrain from rehashing the impeachment “since regular — less partisan — voters will be suffering investigation fatigue and move on to the election ahead.”

But David Damore, a professor and chair of UNLV’s political science department, said anyone who participates in the Democratic caucus is already energized, so the impeachment and trial may not have much effect.

“My sense is that any Democrat who participates in the caucuses already strongly supports impeachment and anything that happens in a Senate trial is just going to reinforce that,” he said.

He believes that Republicans may have lost an opportunity to strengthen campaign infrastructure and solidify support for Trump by not holding their caucus.

“By canceling their caucuses, which were just glorified straw polls anyway, the GOP denied itself an opportunity to demonstrate Trump's support in the state in the face of impeachment,” Damore said. “This also deprives the party of an opportunity to register new voters and build its anemic infrastructure."

Public careers, private lives: Part-time lawmakers must navigate inevitable conflicts

Every two years for four months, 63 lawmakers travel from all corners of Nevada where they meet as members of a part-time, citizen Legislature.

Most leave behind spouses, children, and careers, but bring a rich diversity of experiences — and, sometimes, conflicts — from back home.

Nevada’s lawmakers are tasked with squeezing two years’ worth of legislative business — including approving an $8.9 billion budget — into 120 days. Nevada is one of only four states with a Legislature that meets every other year; the other 46 have annual sessions.

The benefit of a citizen legislature, at least in theory, is that lawmakers bring a variety of career and life experiences to the lawmaking process; unlike career politicians, they must live with the laws they create when they return. The reality is more complicated.

“I think that’s the ideal, but unfortunately I think what has become of the citizen Legislature … [is] only people who have the ability to actually serve, versus maybe the most qualified people to serve,” said Democratic former Assemblyman Justin Watkins, adding that the peculiarity of Nevada’s system “results in people that have an idea towards a career in politics, not a career that they then apply into politics.”

And then there are conflicts of interest. Doctors, for example, may bring a wealth of real-world knowledge to the table when it comes to crafting health-care policy, but also create laws that could directly benefit them in their line of work.

The short session, coupled with the facts that lawmakers are relatively inexperienced compared to those in decades past and have limited staff, pushes off a significant amount of power to Nevada’s full-time governor and lobbyists who roam the halls of the Legislature.

Although they understand the ideal of laypeople making up the Legislature, some former lawmakers say they’d prefer the role was full-time so they could give it their all.

“It would be easier honestly if it was a job,” said former independent state Sen. Patricia Farley, “so if you went and did it, it was your profession.”

Assemblywoman Shannon Bilbray with her family on opening day of the 2017 legislative session on Feb. 6, 2017. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Careers and conflicts

In Nevada, the Legislature is often an entry-level job. Politicians typically get their start in the Legislature and later run for the Las Vegas City Council or the Clark County Commission, positions that represent a larger number of constituents than does a state Assembly or Senate seat.

“In most any other state you would leave, say, the City Council and run for the Legislature,” said Eric Herzik, chair of the University of Nevada, Reno’s political science department.

Although the part-time model is attractive because it doesn’t involve full-time professional politicians, the reality is not always so rosy. Lawmakers’ day jobs mean the Legislature is rife with conflicts of interest. While lawmakers typically disclose obvious conflicts of interest on legislation, they only sometimes abstain from voting.

This session, Democratic Clark County Deputy District Attorney Nicole Cannizzaro will chair the Senate Judiciary Committee and another employee of Southern Nevada’s most powerful prosecutor, Democrat Melanie Scheible, will sit on it. The committee will deal with issues that their boss, Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson, has expressed clear positions on: the death penalty and Marsy’s Law, for example.

Two Republican doctors, Sen. Joe Hardy and Assemblywoman Robin Titus, will again join legislative health committees and deal with bills that will affect their day-to-day operations — such as ones regulating opioid prescriptions.

And two Democratic educators, Brittney Miller and Selena Torres, will be members of the Assembly Education Committee. They’ll bring with them a wealth of subject-specific knowledge, but also potential conflicts as they vote on bills that will directly affect their day jobs — including a budget that gives them raises.

There will also be less obvious potential conflicts. For instance, Republican state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer is director of client relations for the lobbying firm McDonald Carano, which is already slated to represent dozens of clients this session ranging from a water authority to two medicine boards.

Some lawmakers will also continue to hold jobs in state and local government as they serve in the Legislature, something that has been a legal point of contention over the years. The Nevada Policy Research Institute, which has been outspoken on the topic, argues that all public employees are members of the executive branch and that also serving in the Legislature violates the separation of powers principle.

“The nice thing about a citizen legislature is you have people who really have to live under the rules they are then creating. You don’t have an elitist class that then gets to impose rules and exempt themselves,” NPRI spokesman Michael Schaus said. “Of course that benefit kind of goes out of the door when you do have people who are part of the government.”

NPRI filed a lawsuit against Republican state Sen. Heidi Gansert last session for working as the University of Nevada, Reno’s executive director of external relations. Schaus said that the plaintiff in the case — a man who said that he believed he would be able to fill Gansert’s position were she not occupying it — decided not to go through with an appeal after a lower court dismissed the case.

This session, more than a dozen lawmakers will work for state or local agencies or are retired public employees drawing government pensions. That group includes state Sen. Dallas Harris, an administrative attorney with the Public Utilities Commission; Assemblyman Mike Sprinkle, a Reno firefighter; and state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, a retired public educator.

Though NPRI takes particular exception to public employees serving in the Legislature because of the power that executive branch wields, others argue that it’s no different than the conflicts created by those in private business.

“You do have government workers who get conservatives all upset,” Herzik said. “Meanwhile, they have no problem with the head of the builders association down south, or Mark Amodei, who was in the Senate and [president] of the mining association.”

Children at the Nevada Legislature on March 9, 2017. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The citizen legislature

The challenges posed by a citizen, part-time Legislature today weren’t as apparent when Nevada’s Constitution was drafted in 1864. By 1870, the population was only a little more than 42,000 — most of it in Northern Nevada — and state government was a more limited affair.

“Certainly it was the intention of the Nevada founders to have a really limited legislative body, and, for easily 100 years, it wasn’t an issue,” Herzik said. “Nevada had an incredibly small population. Prior to World War II, it was overwhelmingly concentrated in the northern part of the state. Government didn’t do much anyway.”

That changed over the decades as Southern Nevada’s population surpassed Northern Nevada’s. Today, nearly three-quarters of Nevada’s lawmakers hail from the Las Vegas Valley and make the trek to Carson City every other year for the legislative session.

Those from Elko and Pahrump face similar travel difficulties, and even the 30-minute drive from Reno or Sparks can take its toll on Northern Nevada legislators, especially after long days or in bad weather.

Some lawmakers choose to move their families up with them for the legislative session. After much research into schools and housing, Watkins brought up his wife and two daughters — then in 2nd grade and preschool — for the 2017 session.

The family approached it as an adventure, taking advantage of the weekends to visit historic Virginia City and San Francisco and learn to ski. But with his girls getting older and school demands growing, he realized the toll that all the moving would take on their academic performance.

“In a nutshell, that’s the reason that I didn’t run for re-election,” he said. “Whatever challenges we faced with my daughter in 2nd grade, we thought that they were only going to be amplified for a 3rd and 1st grader.”

Other lawmakers shell out hundreds of dollars each weekend on flights home to Las Vegas, though doing so becomes increasingly difficult as the session progresses with committee hearings that stretch into the weekends. For lawmakers with kids at home, that may mean missing important milestones.

“There was a legislator who missed his daughter’s prom because — think about when proms are — they’re closing out the budget and whatnot. He couldn’t get the flight home,” Herzik said. “There’s a terrific burden on these people.”

Watkins said he wouldn’t have considered serving in the first place if he had to live apart from his family — having them with him helped strike a healthier work-life balance.

“I don’t fault anybody who does and I think in all honesty you may be a more effective legislator if you don’t relocate with your family. But just who I am as a person, I just can’t,” said Watkins, who has no plans to return to the Legislature. “If my family had stayed in Vegas, I think that the amount of time I offer to each of those aspects of my life would have been unequal in a way that would have been harmful either to my business or to my relationship with my kids.”

Watkins said his situation was easier because he owns his own law firm. It’s more complicated for people who have to seek permission from an employer and might forgo career advancement for years as they invest in their legislative work.

“Imagine going into an employer and saying, ‘Hey, I really want this job I’m passionate about it but I’m going to leave for four months every two years,” said Elliot Anderson, a former Democratic lawmaker who did not run for re-election and instead is focusing on his legal career, with plans to clerk for a Nevada Supreme Court justice in the fall. “It’s not a recipe for success.”

Farley said it was a struggle to balance her legislative duties with her responsibilities as both a single mom and a construction business owner. As she raced out of drawn-out afternoon committee hearings to pick up her daughters from school or fretted whether the babysitter could keep watching the girls when floor sessions dragged past midnight, she also had to make payroll.

"For me, every decision I make, I have 60 families that could pay ... the ultimate price for that," she said. "I was not only doing legislative [work], but after that I had to look at receivables and payrolls and paychecks, or somebody hit somebody with a trailer. And my business wasn’t benefitting me from being there."

Assemblywoman Amber Joiner and her family on opening day of the 2017 legislative session on Feb. 6, 2017. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Lawmaker pay

Lawmakers are paid $150 for each of the first 60 days of the 120-day session, plus a $140 per diem allowance meant to cover housing, food and other living expenses. In all, that’s just short of $17,000 over a four-month session.

The financial arrangement is what has deterred former congressional candidate John Anzalone from seeking election to the Legislature. The pay doesn’t match what Anzalone makes as a high school principal in Las Vegas, which he said would put a burden on his young family. He would need to take an unpaid leave of absence from the school district to serve as a state lawmaker.

There are also calendar-related challenges. The session runs through early June, meaning Anzalone would miss a critical chunk of the academic year that includes springtime testing and high school graduation. Anzalone said he’s not sure how parents would feel about an absentee principal.

“Yes, in a way you’re working for a greater good, but on the other hand, people want to speak to the principal,” he said.

Nevada’s Legislature is technically part time, but with interim committees meeting throughout the off-season, political observers note that the lawmakers who treat it as a full-time job typically wield the most power.

“Instead of being a more democratic institution, you often have power concentrated in one or two leading legislators because they treat it as a full-time job,” Herzik said.

That’s why the Legislature has a high concentration of lawmakers with more flexible schedules, including retirees, small business owners and lawyers, whose firms are sometimes more than happy to boast that they have a legislator on staff. Others try but find that being a member of the Legislature just isn’t feasible.

“You’ve seen folks like Elliot [Anderson] and Amber [Joiner] and [Justin] Watkins and those folks who you’d think, ‘These are people I’d like to be legislators,’” said David Damore, a political science professor at UNLV. “It just wasn’t workable for them. People, they try. But it really affects who can do it.”

Money committee chairs Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, left, and Sen. Joyce Woodhouse on May 17, 2017. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Turnover in the Legislature

The difficulties associated with being a lawmaker contribute to the high turnover in the Legislature, a problem exacerbated when voters approved term limits in 1998. Since the limits kicked into effect in 2010 and capped service at 12 years in each house, Nevada has had between 15 to 21 freshman lawmakers join each session. This year, there are 17 out of 63, or 27 percent.

On the flip side, term limits have helped boost diversity within the Legislature. Nevada became the first state last year to have a female-majority Legislature and more than a third of lawmakers are people of color.

“We know that term limits obviously bring in new people, and I don’t think you can dispute how that’s transformed the Legislature in terms of the increased number of women and minorities,” Damore said. “That wouldn’t have happened with term limits.”

But turnover has also decreased the institutional knowledge within the Legislature. Democratic state Sen. David Parks, who is beginning his 12th legislative session, is term-limited and cannot run for re-election to the Senate in 2020. Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, who heads the budget committee, is on her 11th session — she ran for her current office after being term-limited in the Senate but will be term-limited in the Assembly after the 2020 election.

Although 17 lawmakers are just beginning their first terms, another 16 are only on their second. That lack of institutional knowledge among lawmakers gives veteran lobbyists and the executive branch an upper hand. Lawmakers typically rely on a single staff member, known as an attaché, for day-to-day help, and lean on their caucus’ staff for additional support.

“The governor controls all the data and all the agencies. It really strengthens the governor,” Herzik said. “What we do know in political science is the Nevada governor is not that strong on paper, but in practice he really is.”

Will it ever change?

Proponents of more frequent legislative sessions say it would raise the profile of the Legislature, giving the “people’s branch” more power instead of ceding it to the executive or judicial branches that can act year-round. Opponents say the biennial format keeps costs down, serves as a check on hasty decision-making and allows breathing room between sessions in which to study issues.

“[The Legislative Counsel Bureau] ramps up, like they’re ramping up now, hiring temporary administrative assistants, hiring more analysts and their people are earning overtime like no other,” Herzik said. “But if you went to a more professional yearly legislature, those positions would become permanent and that’s an increased cost and that’s real hard to sell in Nevada.”

A more palatable solution than an annual session might be changing the session to include 120 working days, rather than calendar days, and splitting it into one 90-day session and a shorter 30-day session in the off year — as a proposed constitutional amendment recommended last year. Another suggestion is tying legislator pay to the median income for Nevadans in an effort to help recruit and maintain a diverse pool of lawmakers.

Anderson would like to see the state paying lawmakers a base, year-round salary —  at least $60,000 a year — and health benefits, then prohibiting them from holding outside employment. That would allow lawmakers to delve more deeply into the issues they’ll work on during the session, and avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.

Watkins said he’s not bothered by the pay arrangement, but he wishes the legislative session corresponded more with the school year to ease the burden on parents. His proposal is having a 60-day session in Las Vegas one year, and a 60- or 90-day session the next year in Carson City, where summer weather is far more bearable than in Southern Nevada.

But with any major changes in the legislative structure far off at best, today’s politicians will continue to make the tough decision between pursuing what could be meaningful and impactful public service in the Legislature, and their goals for their personal and professional lives.

"It was difficult to choose between something that sometimes was the most fulfilling part of your life," Anderson said, but "when you realize it’s affecting your ability to save up for retirement, when it affects your ability to have health insurance, when it affects your ability to have a family … you really have to focus on the numbers and sense.”

Jackie Valley contributed to this report.