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)

Election Preview: Assembly Republicans fighting to get out of the ‘superminority’ as Democrats seek to protect seats in swingy districts

Democratic lawmakers have, for the last two years, enjoyed a supermajority in the Assembly.

Because they control two-thirds of the seats in the chamber, Democrats have had the ability to pass tax increases and override vetos from the governor — should the need arise — at their discretion. The only limit on Democrats’ legislative power has been in the Senate, where Democrats are one seat shy of a supermajority.

While Senate Democrats have been eyeing state Sen. Heidi Gansert’s Washoe County seat in their quest to secure a supermajority in that chamber, they have largely been playing defense on the Assembly side.

Only five of the 42 seats in the Assembly are truly competitive this year, including four districts where Democrats narrowly won elections in 2018 — Assembly Districts 4, 29, 31 and 37. The fifth, Assembly District 2, is a potentially swingy seat that has been held by a Republican for more than a decade.

Of the remaining 37 seats, 25 are guaranteed or likely to swing Democratic and 12 are guaranteed or likely to swing Republican. Five Democrats and seven Republicans are running unopposed in the general election, with the rest of the seats likely to swing either Democratic or Republican because of the overwhelming voter registration advantages in each district.

Democrats have a 29-13 supermajority in the Assembly — meaning that they can only afford to lose one seat if Assembly District 2 stays in Republican hands.

That’s why Republicans say they have ramped up an independent expenditure operation — that is, an outside campaign not run by the candidate themselves — this cycle focused on boosting their prospects of getting out of what is sometimes referred to as the “superminority.” Assemblyman Tom Roberts, who is helping to spearhead the effort, said that the independent expenditure campaign is the result of Republicans narrowing their focus after the last cycle.

“We knew that we needed to remain focused on the seats that were winnable,” Roberts said. “We were critiqued by some donors to that effect, and so we developed a plan that was fairly narrowly focused based on voter registration.”

Between Roberts’ Nevada Victory PAC and Assemblywoman Jill Tolles’ Lead Forward PAC, Republicans have raised $117,000 this year toward those competitive Assembly seats.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm on the Republican side,” Roberts said. “There wasn’t so much on the Democrat side, but I think they’re picking up steam so it’ll be interesting to see who can turn out the most and who can attract independents — and how the presidential race plays into down ticket races will be telling, too.”

But Megan Jones, a Democratic consultant who works on independent expenditures on the other side of the aisle, thinks Democrats’ chances of keeping their supermajority is strong. And, by comparison, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson’s Leadership in Nevada PAC, which has existed since 2015, has raised $240,000 this year.

“The way they've been running the campaigns has been smart. They've been well resourced,” Jones said. “So I'm hopeful there. I think we have a good shot at retaining a governing majority."

But there’s a possibility that there could be significant drop off down the ballot because of the prevalence of vote by mail this cycle, Jones said, noting that Democrats, particularly those in Nevada, tend to vote less straight ticket than Republicans do.

“If you're a Republican, you're usually a Republican all the way down the ballot,” Jones said.

Though former Vice President Joe Biden is leading in the polls in Nevada, Eric Roberts, executive director of the Assembly Republican Caucus, is hopeful that Republicans could still pick up some seats even if President Donald Trump narrowly loses the state.

“I don’t know how much a candidate can truly outperform the top of the ticket,” Roberts said. “I don’t know how much range there is to separate, but that’s where Republicans have to go to find that because Trump looks like he is performing about on voter registration or a little bit below it.”

Below, The Nevada Independent explores those five Assembly races this year. Click here to read more about the Senate races and check out our election page for more information overall.

Assembly District 2

Of the five competitive Assembly races this cycle, Assembly District 2 is the only Republican-controlled seat. It is currently represented by termed-out Republican Assemblyman John Hambrick, who has represented the Summerlin-area seat since 2008.

Republicans recruited Heidi Kasama — her first name is pronounced “hey-dee,” for the record — managing broker of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices-Nevada Properties, as Hambrick’s successor. She faces Democrat Radhika Kunnel, a graduate of UNLV’s Boyd School of Law and a former professor specializing in cancer biology, in the race. Garrett LeDuff, a nonpartisan, is also running for the seat.

Hambrick won his re-election bid in 2018 by 1,054 votes, or a 3.7 percentage-point margin. Republicans currently have a 969-person voter registration advantage in the district, or 2.2 percentage points. Republicans had an 1,829-person advantage in 2018, or 4.5 percentage points.

Kasama has raised $193,000 this year, including $104,000 over the last three months. However, more than half of that three-month total, $55,450, was self-funded. She also received a $10,000 donation from BORPAC (the Board of REALTORS PAC in Las Vegas) and $5,000 each from Assemblyman Tom Roberts and the Reno-Sparks Association of REALTORS.

Kunnel, by comparison, has raised about $59,000, with about $39,000 over the last three months, including $2,000 from Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, $1,000 from SEIU Local 1107 and $1,000 from EMILY’s List.

LeDuff has not raised any money this cycle.

Kasama has about $68,000 in the bank to finish out her campaign, while Kunnel has about $26,000.

Assembly District 4

Republicans are hoping to wrest control of this northwest Las Vegas Assembly seat from Democrats this year after losing it by only 120 votes two years ago. The race is a rematch between first term Democratic Assemblywoman Connie Munk and Republican Richard McArthur, who previously represented the district between 2008 and 2012 and 2016 to 2018. 

However, there is one significant difference this year: Munk and McArthur are the only two candidates in the race. Two years ago, an Independent American Party candidate also ran for the seat, securing 671 votes that might have otherwise gone to Munk or McArthur — and made the difference in the race. 

The Independent American Party is a far-right political party, though some people mistakenly register with the party thinking they have registered as an independent, when independents are called “nonpartisans” in Nevada. Still, Republicans speculate that McArthur would have won the lion’s share of those 671 votes, enough to have secured him a victory over Munk in 2018.

Voter registration numbers between Republicans and Democrats in the district continue to be extremely close. Democrats have an 11-voter registration advantage — 0.02 percentage points — over Republicans; two years ago, Republicans had a 33-voter advantage, or 0.07 percentage points.

Munk has, however, significantly outraised McArthur in her re-election bid. Her most recent campaign finance report shows that she has raised $137,000 over the course of the year — including $67,000 in the last three months — including several $5,000 donations from local groups including White Rabbit PAC (affiliated with the Laborers Union Local 169 in Reno), the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 525, SEIU Local 1107, the Committee to Elect Daniele Monroe-Moreno and Citizens for Justice Trust (a trial lawyers PAC) and, nationally, from EMILY’s List.

McArthur, who has raised $35,000 over the year, including $34,000 in the last three months, received one $6,000 donation from Assemblyman Al Kramer and three $5,000 donations, from the Barrick Gold Corporation, Assembly Republican Leader Robin Titus and Keystone Corporation. He also received one out-of-state donation, $2,500 from the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

As of Sept. 30, Munk had about $103,000 in the bank to finish out her campaign, compared to the $36,000 McArthur had on hand.

Assembly District 29

Democratic Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen is running for re-election in this Henderson Assembly district against Republican Steven DeLisle, a dentist anesthesiologist. Cohen first represented the seat between 2012 and 2014 and again since 2016.

Cohen won her 2018 re-election bid by 1,336 votes, or 5.1 percent, in a district where Democrats had a 1,550-person, or a 3.7 percentage point, voter registration advantage. Democrats now have a slightly narrower 4.9 percentage point, or 2,233 person, voter registration advantage in the district.

Cohen has raised $93,000 this year toward her re-election bid, including $53,000 over the last three months, while DeLisle has raised about $87,000, including $66,000 in the last three months. Some of Cohen’s top donors over the last few months include Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, who contributed $5,000; Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, who also contributed $5,000; and SEIU Local 1107, which contributed $4,000.

DeLisle’s notable contributors include the Keystone Corporation, which donated $5,000; the Vegas Chamber, which donated $2,500; and Las Vegas Sands, which also donated $2,500.

Cohen has about $107,000 in the bank, while DeLisle has about $70,000.

Assembly District 31

Democrat Skip Daly and Republican Jill Dickman are, for the fourth time in a row, going head to head in this Washoe County Assembly district. Daly has represented the district for eight of the last 10 years — from 2010 to 2014 and from 2016 until the present — with Dickman representing the district the other two years.

In 2014, Dickman defeated Daly by 1,890 votes, or 10.6 percentage points, during that year’s red wave. Daly defeated Dickman narrowly in 2016 by 38 votes, or 0.1 percentage point, before securing a wider margin of victory over her in 2018 — 1,105 votes, or 3.8 percentage points.

Daly, the business manager of Laborers Union Local 169, is known for relentlessly door knocking his way through the district, helping him secure recent victories in a district where there have consistently been more Republicans than Democrats. Republicans currently exceed Democrats in voter registration numbers by 1,966, or 4.3 percentage points; in 2018, Republicans had a 2,376 person advantage, or 5.8 percentage points.

Daly has raised a total of $67,000 this year toward his re-election bid, including $13,000 over the last three months. That sum includes a $5,000 donation from Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, $2,500 from the Nevada State Association of Electrical Workers and $2,000 from Southwest Gas.

Dickman, by contrast, has raised $59,000 this year, including $53,000 over the last three months. She’s received significant support from fellow Assembly Republicans — including $6,000 from Assemblyman Al Kramer, $5,000 from Assembly Republican Leader Robin Titus and $2,500 from Assemblyman Tom Roberts — but her biggest contribution in the last three months was a $10,000 check from Nevada Gold Mines, the joint mining venture between Barrick and Newmont.

Daly has about $53,000 left in the bank to spend toward his re-election campaign. Dickman has $56,000.

Assembly District 37

Democratic Assemblywoman Shea Backus is fighting to keep control of this Summerlin-area Assembly seat this year. She faces Republican Andy Matthews, who was formerly policy director for Adam Laxalt’s 2018 campaign for governor and president of the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

Backus, a lawyer by trade, defeated Republican Jim Marchant, then the incumbent, in 2018 by 135 votes, or 0.5 percentage points.

Democrats currently have an 845 person, or 1.9 percentage point, voter registration advantage in the district. In 2018, Democrats had a 245 person, or 0.6 percentage point, advantage.

Matthews has far outraised Backus individually, receiving $135,000 in contributions over the last three months compared to the $51,000 Backus received. Matthews has raised $210,000 over the course of the year, while Backus has raised $132,000. But Backus has slightly more money in the bank — $132,000 to Matthews’ $130,000.

Backus has received significant contributions from labor — including $5,000 from the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 525, $4,000 from SEIU Local 1107, $2,500 from IBEW Local 357, $2,000 from the Laborers Union Local 169 and $2,000 from the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council — and her fellow Assembly Democrats. She also received $5,000 from EMILY’s List and $1,000 from Republican consultant Pete Ernaut.

A significant share of Matthews’ contributions are from individuals, but his other top donors include Keystone Corporation, Hamilton Company, MM Development Company and Cortez Gold Mine, each of which donated $5,000.

Pandemic may narrow Trump, Biden race in Nevada as Republicans campaign in person, Democrats stay virtual

Nevada Democrats have, for years, been fine-tuning their political machine.

Two years ago was, perhaps, their best proof of concept. Democrats spirited away a key U.S. Senate seat, took control of the governor’s mansion for the first time in two decades and secured a veto-proof majority in one chamber of the Legislature while retaining a majority in the other. It was a blow to Republicans, who had devoted significant resources to building an operation they hoped would rival Democrats’.

The playbook for Democrats’ recent electoral successes has been relatively simple: Register as many voters as possible, recruit and train volunteers, and use those volunteers to make phone calls and knock doors to get those voters to turn out to the polls.

The thinking heading into 2020 was this: If Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist senator from Vermont, was the nominee, Nevada, which has tended to favor moderate Democrats in recent statewide elections over progressive ones, would certainly be in play. If it was Joe Biden, the middle-of-the-road former vice president, the state would be much less so.

But in the time of coronavirus, a significant chunk of the Democratic playbook has been torn out and tossed out the window, with campaigns, the party and outside organizations nixing door-knocking from their get-out-the-vote plans in favor of phone banking, text message campaigns and literature drops. They’re also working double time, not only to persuade voters who to vote for but how, exactly, to vote in the middle of the pandemic.

Two months out from Election Day, Democrats are facing a Nevada that feels much more in play than many anticipated it to be, though it’s hard to tell because there has been no public polling on the race since late April. That survey, taken by Democratic pollster John Anzalone, found Biden up by only 4 percentage points in the Silver State.

Some Democrats point to the pandemic, specifically, the switch to a virtual campaign and the challenges associated with educating voters on how to participate by mail. Others say that contests always feel tighter as they draw nearer.

"Every experiment done on talking to voters and persuading voters points to old fashioned door knocking and conversations in person as the number one way to persuade and mobilize voters,” said Megan Jones, a longtime Democratic operative in the state. “It absolutely has an effect and will have an effect and is an important component of what we do on the ground. But, frankly, so is keeping people safe and protecting people’s lives.”

Democrats’ absence from the field has been filled by Republicans, who halted in-person campaigning at the beginning of the pandemic but resumed door-knocking and in-person events in mid-June. And they’re champing at the bit to get President Donald Trump re-elected in a state he lost by 2.4 percentage points four years ago, and they are eager to prove the strength of their political operation, which they activated early this cycle.

Scott Scheid, a Republican consultant who worked on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, said the Trump Victory team is already bigger at this point than Romney’s was by Election Day in 2012. Scheid said that Romney’s campaign totaled 40 staffers by November, where the Trump Victory campaign already has 60.

“We’re sitting here in mid- to late August, and we’ve passed what Romney’s campaign was able to accomplish in ‘12,” Scheid said. “Part of that is the early start and investment that the Trump Victory team made shortly after President Trump’s election, getting staffed here early, personally developing relationships with these volunteers and getting engaged and active early on.”

There is, however, one Democratic-aligned group out in the field with Republicans: the Culinary Union, the politically powerful labor organization that represents 60,000 hotel workers on the Las Vegas Strip and across the state.

The union’s workers have been hard hit by the virus. Forty members of the Culinary Union and their immediate family have died from COVID-19 and 367 have been hospitalized with the virus, while thousands more have suffered financially after casinos shuttered in March and have been slow to fully reopen. Ninety-eight percent of the union’s members were furloughed this spring, and only about half are back to work.

But the Culinary Union, which failed earlier this year to defeat Sanders in Nevada’s Democratic presidential caucus but otherwise has a reputation for turning tides in close elections, isn’t sitting idly by. The union deployed more than 200 of its members, most of them workers who have yet to return to their jobs, into the field on August 1, an earlier and larger political operation than it has activated in previous cycles.

“This is a global pandemic. Everyone around the world has been deeply impacted, but Culinary Union members are resilient,” union spokeswoman Bethany Khan said in a text message. “Nothing is promised and that’s why we are committed to defeat Trump on Election Day in Nevada.”

The outcome of the election right now is anyone’s guess. Republicans and Democrats alike are preparing for an intense race at the top of the ticket, with implications for down-ballot races, from legislative seats to school board contests.

If there is only one thing Republicans and Democrats in Nevada agree on, it’s likely this: Two blue waves do not a blue state make.

The Republican operation

Trump, standing on the South Lawn of the White House, accepted the Republican presidential nomination on Thursday, capping off four days of party festivities centered in and around Washington, D.C. instead of Charlotte, where the entirety of the Republican National Convention was originally slated to be held before the coronavirus pandemic. In Nevada, Trump’s campaign spent those four days rallying the troops by hosting volunteer trainings, MAGA meetups and a thank-you barbecue for law enforcement officers, 

Former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, speaking to volunteers in Reno on Wednesday, issued a call to action: Get Trump elected, and he’ll carry Republicans down the ticket to victory with him. This year, the biggest focuses down ballot for Republicans are two competitive congressional seats and a handful of key legislative races.

“If Trump wins Nevada, they will all win. So long as we keep our focus on Trump getting elected, I do believe it will have a sweeping effect with some of the other races that are across the state,” Heller said. “So keep the focus ‘Trump Trump Trump’ all the time, and I think we will be successful.”

And much of the focus over the last year has been, as it necessarily is in a presidential cycle, on Trump. While Democrats were still sparring over who their nominee would be, the Trump Victory campaign was training volunteers and otherwise making preparations for its general election campaign. 

In total, the campaign reports that it has made 2 million attempted voter contacts in Nevada this cycle, a statistic campaign officials say only includes doors knocked and phone calls made and not numbers of those contacted through their texting program or who have downloaded their official campaign app.

“We’re excited where our capacity sits and where our voter contacts are at this point,” said Jeremy Hughes, Pacific regional political director for the Trump Victory campaign. “Knowing where we sit and where we’re at historically, I think we will have the best ground game in Nevada history on Election Day.”

In March, two days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and four days before non-essential businesses in Nevada were ordered to shut their doors, the Trump Victory team transitioned to an entirely virtual campaign in the span of 24 hours. Then, as businesses started opening their doors again across the state, so, too, did campaign, slowly returning to door knocking in mid-June.

“It makes a massive difference,” said Keith Schipper, Trump Victory campaign spokesman, of the campaign’s door-knocking program. “We’re doing it safely. Our volunteers are adhering to all the guidelines. But it is more of a personal impact when you’re able to have a conversation face to face about what’s at stake in Nevada.”

It took Trump until late July to embrace masks, and there was little-to-no mask wearing or social distancing at Trump’s White House speech Thursday night. However, Schipper said the campaign requires staffers to wear masks and that masks are required inside campaign offices. He added that volunteers are told that the campaign requires masks, though he noted that they can’t enforce whether volunteers actually follow those rules while out door-knocking.

Republicans are hoping that their decision to return to the field, as well as host in-person events, will give them an edge over Democrats.

“It’s hard to try to manufacture that excitement over the computer,” Schipper said.

One area where the Republicans have, notably, gained ground is with their voter registration numbers. Republicans out-registered Democrats during the month of July statewide by about 862 voters, and, in Democratic-leaning Clark County, Republicans have registered 158 more voters this month so far than Democrats, as of Saturday afternoon.

Still, Democrats had a sizable 5.7 percentage point voter registration lead over Republicans statewide as of the beginning of August, greater than the 5.4 and 4.5 percentage point advantages they held over Republicans at the same point in 2016 and 2018, respectively. Their voter registration advantage is, however, smaller than the 6.1 percentage point advantage they had before the general election in 2016 but bigger than the 4.8 percentage point advantage they had in 2018.

Even Democrats acknowledge that their voter registration efforts have been stymied this year by the pandemic, with in-person operations for the most part halted and, particularly, in light of a three-month closure of DMV offices across the state, which diminished the impact of a new automatic voter registration law that kicked in on Jan. 1. In the first three months of the year, Democrats gained more than 20,000 new voters statewide, while Republicans gained 4,500; since then, Democrats have gained about 7,000, while Republicans gained 8,500.

Hughes said that while some people like to say that "the registration numbers are looking good for Republicans because the Democrat machine isn’t working,” Democrats are still registering voters — Republicans are just registering more.

Republicans are also viewing the Democratic-controlled Legislature’s decision to quickly push through expanded mail-in voting during a special session this summer as a sign that Democrats are worried. Generally, efforts to expand mail-in voting are seen as benefiting Democrats more than Republicans.

“To do it at the last minute was, they clearly are seeing something in the numbers to make them think their numbers aren’t going to turn out,” Hughes said. “We don’t talk about how it will affect our GOTV strategy, but I think the last-minute panic from the governor shows that they’re worried about the state.”

The Democratic operation

While the Republicans try to run a campaign that looks more like the typical Democratic playbook, Democrats are re-writing their own. Their watch parties for the Democratic National Convention earlier this month were virtual. Their phone banks are virtual. Even their weekly appreciation events and supporter get-togethers are virtual.

"Obviously, organizing in a pandemic has never been done before,” organizing director Susana Cervantes said. “We are literally writing the book on this.”

The good news, the Biden campaign says, is that so much of their campaign was virtual already. During the caucus, the hot topic was “relational organizing” — that is, having supporters download an app and then use that app to encourage their friends and family members to turn out to vote. Democrats also organized virtually in other ways, such as in rural Nevada where Democrats hosted major presidential candidates for tele-town halls.

“They have really taken the lead in a lot of ways in terms of teaching the rest of us how to do this well in a general election,” said Shelby Wiltz, coordinated campaign director and, previously, the state party’s caucus director. “We’ve actually learned a lot from our rural counties about organizing virtually."

Wiltz said the Biden campaign has “not missed a beat” and that the all-virtual strategy has not stopped them from connecting to voters, whether through virtual phone banks or encouraging people to download their official app to send text messages to their networks. The campaign has even found that the virtual campaign makes it easier to recruit volunteers who wouldn’t have shown up to an office but are more than happy to help from their couch.

Additionally, the campaign has been able to lean on the infrastructure of the Nevada State Democratic Party, which operates year-round and has its own volunteer base instead of having to stand up an operation every election cycle, as other state parties across the country do.

But an all-virtual campaign isn’t without its drawbacks. For instance, on Wednesday evening, organizer Yesenia Moya was tasked with leading a virtual, bilingual phone bank of about a dozen people over Zoom.

“For those folks that already know how to make calls, please feel free, the links are in the chat,” Moya said. “If you've never made calls, please hold off for just a second.”

Moya walked the group through the process of phone banking and answered their questions, just as she might have had the event been in person. But there were other things out of her control, such as people joining and leaving the phone bank at different times and difficulties trying to get participants to identify themselves over Zoom so that she could walk them through the set-up process. 

They’re the kind of challenges common to hosting any kind of meeting over Zoom — now familiar to many — but also the kind of difficulties that don’t exist when attending an event in person.

The Biden campaign declined to provide the number of staff it has hired, only saying the number is in the dozens, or the number of voter contacts they have made. The campaign does, however, say that it has hundreds of volunteers who are talking to thousands of voters on a weekly basis.

Wiltz said that the campaign has actually seen voter engagement increase because of the switch to a virtual campaign, possibly because more people are receptive to that kind of outreach in the current milieu of the pandemic.

"I don’t think us valuing the health and safety of our volunteers means that we are at a disadvantage here,” Wiltz said. “I believe we’re strong, we’re motivated, we are working hard, our volunteers are excited and energized and we have a ton of engagement we’re seeing and a lot of conversations we’re having."

Biden’s Nevada team also isn’t taking the blue waves of 2016 and 2018 for granted.

"People in Nevada know this, and I think the campaign knows this well nationally, that Nevada is a battleground state. We’ve seen it cycle after cycle. We know we have swing districts, we have swing counties, we have a lot of nonpartisan voters, we have a lot of undecided voters,” Wiltz said. “I think that our campaign knows very well just how competitive Nevada is.”

Four years ago, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton beat Trump in Nevada, but by a narrow 2.4 percentage-point margin. And Trump actually won the suburban part of Clark County, as represented by Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District, by a percentage point.

It was a far closer race than the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections in Nevada, in which Barack Obama defeated John McCain, the late senator from Arizona, by 12.5 percentage points and Romney, now the senator from Utah, by 6.7 percentage points.

And the margins Democrats won by in 2018 were significant but not overwhelming. Jacky Rosen, a first-term Democratic congresswoman, unseated Heller from the U.S. Senate by a 5-percentage point margin, while Gov. Steve Sisolak’s victory over then-Attorney General Adam Laxalt was narrower, a 4.1 percentage point victory.

To that end, the Biden campaign stresses that they are working hard for every vote. Nevada is, for instance, one of eight battleground states — along with Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — where the campaign is focusing its television ads.

“We do not take voters for granted. We work hard for every vote, and our program reflects that," Cervantes said. “We look for opportunities to engage people, to bring new people to this process, to empower people with the information they need to vote, and, especially in terms of making voting more accessible, that’s the priority."

Getting out the vote

For Democrats, specifically, convincing people to vote for Biden is only half the battle. The other half is educating them on how to vote, whether they drop their ballot in the mail, return their ballot in a drop box or choose to vote in-person either early or on Election Day. 

During the June primary, about 484,000 people voted by mail, including 212,000 Democrats and 195,000 Republicans; Republicans dwarfed Democrats in terms of in-person turnout, with about 2,800 Republicans and 1,000 Democrats voting in person.

No one knows exactly just how comfortable voters will be going to a polling place come November. It’s also hard to know how comfortable they will feel voting by mail, with the U.S. Postal Service warning states that their voters could be disenfranchised by delayed mail-in ballots, though the secretary of state’s office in Nevada says it has “no concerns” about the Postal Service’s ability to support the election in the Silver State.

All the same, Democrats are honing in on voter education and voter protection efforts more than usual this cycle. Nevada Democrats on Friday announced a new voter education website aimed at answering questions about how to register to vote, vote by mail or vote in person. Wiltz also said they’ll be opening their voter protection hotline “earlier than ever” this cycle.

Unlike Republicans, Democrats also have a vast array of Democratic-aligned groups in Nevada to bolster this effort. On Friday, Win Justice Nevada, a super PAC formed as a collaboration between five progressive groups, announced a seven-figure program focused on turning out 250,000 voters, more than 80 percent of them voters of color.

SEIU Local 1107, one of the progressive groups behind Win Justice Nevada, is focusing its efforts on peer-to-peer texting to educate people about the vote-by-mail process. The union also plans to run an independent expenditure campaign specifically targeting 50,000 voters in the Asian American and Pacific Islander Community.

Though SEIU has no plans to do any door-to-door campaigning at this point, union members plan to participate in literature drops, meaning that people will leave campaign flyers at people’s doors but won’t knock on them to have a face-to-face conversation.

“We’re talking to a maybe smaller group of voters but we’re able to focus on that group of voters in a different way instead of again going wide. But there’s a deeper level of engagement where we can have conversations virtually or by text,” said Brian Shepherd, deputy executive director for SEIU Local 1107. “It’s a more focused approach.”

PLAN Action, another organization in the coalition, is also focusing on peer-to-peer texting and phone calls focusing on a group of 77,000 people including formerly incarcerated people, tribal communities and Latino voters. Laura Martin, executive director of PLAN, said that the only in-person events being planned right now are centered around building “excitement” around a public ballot drop off location.

“I think because people are home, they’re responding to text messages, they’re answering the phone and wanting to have conversations,” Martin said. “I don’t know how many people would be willing to open their door if they don’t know who’s on the other side.”

At the same time, other organizations are focusing on outreach to specific demographic groups, particularly to non-English speakers, to ensure that they are both registered and informed about how to vote by mail. Mi Familia Vota, for instance, has launched a voter registration phone line and will be kicking off a four-week, in-person voter registration drive outside of supermarkets and libraries next week, in addition to its digital campaign.

“There is definitely a gap with the older Latinos or Latinos that don’t have access to the internet. They’re not as tech savvy,” said Cecia Alvarado, Mi Familia Vota’s state director. “We have to take a step back and really walk people through this process and we’re finding those ways to educate them.”

Duy Nguyen, executive director of One APIA Nevada, is working to provide the same kind of information to Nevada’s growing AAPI community, which makes up about 9.5 percent of the state’s population. He said one of the organization’s big pushes will be to hand-distribute literature to doors but without the face-to-face contact.

“I think with the pandemic being the background of everything, there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and when you look at misinformation, you have to look at it from a language barrier and an educational barrier lens,” Nguyen said. “There is just so much of a gap in understanding of what is fact and what is not.”

But for many of these organizations, the kind of door-to-door engagement they wouldn’t have thought twice about in previous cycles is now a far-off proposition. Leo Murrieta, Nevada director of Make the Road Action, an immigrant and workers’ rights organization, specifically cited the cost of equipping volunteers with masks and face shields in their decision to stay virtual.

Murrieta also noted that Make the Road’s volunteer base is largely people of color and essential workers, two groups disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

“Small organizations like ours, we have to find ways to make a penny stretch really far,” Murrieta said. “We’re grassrooting it up, doing the best that we can.”

For now, the Culinary Union continues to be the only Democratic-aligned group operating in the field. Khan, the union’s spokeswoman, said that canvassers are equipped with face masks and that conversations at the door only happen from six feet away and only if the voter is also wearing a mask; canvassers are also required to use gloves if they collect anything.

“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Culinary Union has worked with top health experts to protect workers,” Khan said. “Based on our experience, we have developed a set of rules to ensure the field team can talk to voters safely.”

The next two months

With a little more than two months to go until Election Day, Republicans are feeling optimistic about their chances in a state where Democrats have proved a formidable foe over the last couple of elections.

“I would just say that I am very thankful that we’ve been on the ground so long, being able to train people, and we are far ahead of the game and where we wanted to be and our ability to contact voters,” Hughes said. “I am going to bet the other side wishes they were far ahead of where they currently are.”

Democrats, meanwhile, are optimistic about the number of different ways that voters have to participate in the election this year. However, they remain worried that doubt about the election process — including the Postal Service’s ability to deliver mail-in ballots on time — could depress turnout and that a narrow race could throw the results of the election into question.

"I think that it will be close,” Jones said. “I think that we need to make sure that people are educated on how to vote and that all the signatures are verified and that all the ballots are signed, and I think we need to win by more than a couple points or we also run the risk of Trump making vote by mail the hanging chad of 2020."

For Nevadans used to the spectacle of political candidates parading into town, the run-up to November this year will also likely be different: Both campaigns demurred when asked whether their candidates would return to Nevada before November or host Nevada-specific events.

But, in an era where campaigns have been forced to get creative, it’s just one more hurdle to overcome: Reminding Nevadans that they do, still, matter.

Update 8/30/20 at 8:05 a.m. to clarify that Jeremy Hughes, Pacific regional director for the Trump Victory campaign, said that while some people say the Democratic machine isn't working, he believes it still is, Republicans are just registering more voters.

What to watch in the 2020 primary election: Assembly and state Senate races

The inside of the Nevada Legislature during State of the State

When the dust settles on the June 9 primary election, Nevadans will have a good sense of who’s going to win about half of the seats up for grabs in the statehouse.

Party control of the Legislature is always a major objective for lawmakers in both parties, and the 2021 session will give lawmakers and Gov. Steve Sisolak the once-in-a-decade chance to redraw district boundaries during the redistricting process. 

It’s a process that could help lock in party advantages for congressional representatives, legislators and other elected officials for the next ten years (although a group is attempting to qualify a constitutional amendment creating an independent redistricting commission). Democrats control more than two-thirds of Assembly seats and are one seat shy of a supermajority in the state Senate. 

But candidates facing a massive variable — a global pandemic that has canceled the traditional trappings of a campaign, diverted attention from elections and spurred a shift to a virtually all-mail voting system with unpredictable turnout patterns.

“Under normal circumstances, a good pair of running shoes and the money to print up campaign literature could potentially be enough for a candidate to win a race simply by outworking their opponent,” said Eric Roberts of the Assembly Republican Caucus. “The old saying goes, ‘If you knock, you win.’ In 2020, that is all out the window.”

Largely unable to talk to voters at the door during the crucial weeks leading up to voting season, candidates can communicate through mail pieces — if they can drum up the money to pay for it. Businesses such as casinos that typically make sizable donations in state-level politics have seen their revenue flatline, and the effect ripples to candidates.

There are phone calls, political text messages and email missives. But what some observers think could make a difference is how well candidates leverage social media and digital advertising. 

A new challenge is the sudden shift to voting by mail. Up to this point, voting in person has been the method of choice for Nevadans, with the majority of those voters opting for a two-week early vote window.

This time, voters are receiving ballots in the mail more than a month before Election Day, elongating the voting period. With weeks left to go, tens of thousands of Clark County voters have already turned in their ballots, for example.

With ballots arriving in all active voters’ mailboxes — and in Clark County, even those deemed inactive — more people may be inclined to participate in what is usually a sleepy contest. Nevada and national Democrats filed but later dropped a lawsuit against state election officials after they agreed to send ballots to “inactive” voters, who are legally able to cast a ballot but have not responded to change of address forms sent out by county election officials.

“Truly the unknown is this vote by mail universe and who’s really going to take advantage of it, who does it leave out, how do you communicate to a universe that is 10 times bigger than what you thought you were going to have to communicate with,” said Megan Jones, a political consultant with close ties to Assembly Democrats. 

Of the 42 seats in the state Assembly, almost a quarter will be decided in the primary election. Four races will actually be decided in the primary — including three incumbent Republicans fending off challengers — because no other candidates filed to run in those districts. Another five races will effectively be decided in the primary, given vast disparity in voter registration totals making it all but impossible for the opposing party to gain a foothold. 

An additional seven Assembly members did not draw a re-election challenge and will win their seats automatically. These include Democrats Daniele Monroe Moreno, Selena Torres and Sarah Peters, and Republicans Tom Roberts, Melissa Hardy, Jill Tolles and John Ellison.

Of the 10 races in the state Senate, only one — the Democratic primary in Senate District 7 — will be determined in the primary election as no candidates from other parties filed to run for the seat. Two Senate members — Democrats Chris Brooks and Patricia Spearman — did not draw challengers and will automatically win their seats as well, while another three candidates have effectively won because of the voter registration advantages their party has in their district.

To help make sense of where the most intriguing races of this election will be, The Nevada Independent has compiled this list of races we’re keeping a close eye on, both for the storylines in the individual contests and how the outcomes could shift the balance of power heading into the critical 2021 legislative session. Additional information on these races and more can be found on The Nevada Independent’s Election 2020 page.

Senate District 7

This race is at the top of our watch list not only because it will be decided in the primary — all Democrats and no Republicans filed to run for the open seat — but because it pits two Assembly members against a former head of the state Democratic Party who has the support of the sitting Senate Democrats.

Assemblywoman Ellen Spiegel has a wide lead in the money race for the seat, which is held by termed-out Democratic Sen. David Parks. Stakes are high for the two Assembly members in the race, who are giving up their current seats to bid for the Senate seat.

Spiegel raised nearly $32,000 in the first quarter, twice that of former three-term Nevada State Democratic Party Chairwoman Roberta Lange, a Senate caucus-endorsed candidate perhaps best known for presiding over Democrats’ divisive 2016 presidential nominating process. Spiegel spent even more — $36,000 in the last quarter — and has a massive war chest of $208,000 on hand.

Spiegel, who describes herself as an “e-commerce pioneer” and now owns a consulting firm with her husband, chaired the Assembly Commerce and Labor Committee last session. She has endorsements from the Vegas and Henderson chambers of commerce. 

Lange, a retired teacher and union negotiator and now executive at a company that runs neighborhood gaming bars, has backing from the Senate Democratic Caucus, the Nevada State AFL-CIO, the Nevada State Education Association and the Culinary Union.

Trailing in the money game is Democratic Assemblyman Richard Carrillo, who only raised about $4,500 in the latest quarter. He’s spent nearly $16,000 in that timeframe and has about $26,000 in the bank.

Carrillo, a contractor who owns an air conditioning business, did not chair an Assembly committee last session and shares the AFL-CIO endorsement with Lange.

The district includes portions of the eastern Las Vegas Valley and Henderson. It has almost twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans.

Assembly District 2

Republicans are looking to keep control of this Summerlin Assembly seat this election after Assemblyman John Hambrick, who has represented the district since 2008, was termed out of office. Hambrick, 74, missed most of the 2019 legislative session because of health-related issues with both himself and his wife, who passed away in July.

The Assembly Republican Caucus has endorsed Heidi Kasama, managing broker of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices-Nevada Properties, as Hambrick’s successor, as has Hambrick himself. Kasama has lived in Las Vegas since 2002 after starting her career as a certified public accountant and real estate agent in Washington. So far, Kasama has raised about $124,000 and spent about $19,000.

But Kasama faces four other Republicans in the primary: Erik Sexton, Jim Small, Taylor McArthur and Christian Morehead. Of those, Sexton, who works in commercial real estate, has raised the most, about $69,000 over the course of the cycle. Sexton has been endorsed by Las Vegas City Councilwoman Michele Fiore and former North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon.

Jim Small, a retired member of the U.S. Senior Executive Service, has raised about $56,000 over the course of the cycle. Small has been endorsed by former congressional candidate and businessman Danny Tarkanian and conservative commentator Wayne Allyn Root, among others.

The other two Republican candidates in the race — McArthur and Morehead — have raised no money.

The Alliance for Property Protection Rights PAC, which is funded by the National Association of REALTORS Fund, has also inserted itself into this primary, sending negative mailers highlighting Sexton’s DUI arrest last year and accusing Small of having a “hidden past” as a “liberal Democrat,” while in other mail pieces boosting Kasama’s “strength,” “courage,” and “optimism.”

Meanwhile, both Sexton and Small have been punching back at Kasama for her ties to the REALTORS in other mail pieces. 

In one, Small argues that Kasama financially supports Democrats because the Nevada Association of REALTORS donated tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates in 2018, the year she was president of the association. In another, Sexton criticizes the National Association of REALTORS’ budget, which was created when Kasama served on the association’s finance committee. 

Whoever wins the Republican primary will have a good shot at winning this lean Republican seat, where 37 percent of voters are Republican and 34.7 percent are Democratic. The Assembly Democratic Caucus has not endorsed in the primary, though journeywoman electrician Jennie Sherwood was backed by the caucus in the general election last year and is running again this cycle. Three other Democrats are also running for the seat: law school student and former cancer biology professor Radhika Kunnel, Eva Littman and Joe Valdes.

Of the four candidates, Kunnel has raised the most, about $27,000 between this year and last year, while Littman has loaned herself $25,000, Sherwood has loaned herself $5,000 and Valdes has raised $100.

A tenth candidate in the race, Garrett LeDuff, is running with no political party and has raised no money so far in his race.

Assembly District 4

The Nevada Assembly Republican caucus is looking to win back this swing seat lost to Democrats last election cycle by backing a political newcomer, Donnie Gibson, who will first have to defeat a primary challenge from former office-holder Richard McArthur.

Officially backed by the Assembly Republican caucus, Gibson is the owner of both a construction and equipment rental company, and sits on the board of several industry groups, including the Nevada Contractors Association and Hope for Prisoners. During the first quarterly fundraising period, he reported raising just over $51,000 and has nearly $86,000 in cash on hand.

But Gibson faces a tough challenger in former Assemblyman McArthur, who has served three non-consecutive terms in the Assembly; two terms between 2008 to 2012, and then one term between 2016 and 2018. He raised just $520 during the first fundraising period, but has more than $28,000 in available campaign funds. McArthur previously served with the U.S. Air Force and was a special agent for the FBI for 25 years.

Democratic incumbent Connie Munk did not draw a primary challenger, and reported raising more than $52,000 during the first fundraising period. Munk flipped the seat to Democrats in 2018, defeating McArthur by a 120-vote margin out of nearly 30,000 votes cast. 

Assembly District 7

Democrat Cameron “CH” Miller, who most recently served as Nevada political director for Beto O’Rourke and Amy Klobuchar’s presidential campaigns and has had a 20 year career in the entertainment industry, is running with the backing of the Assembly Democratic Caucus for this North Las Vegas Assembly district. The seat is held by Assemblywoman Dina Neal, who is running for state Senate.

While Miller has been endorsed by most of the Democratic-aligned organizations — including SEIU Local 1107, the Nevada State Education Association, Planned Parenthood Votes Nevada, the Culinary Union, NARAL Pro-Choice Nevada and the Nevada Conservation League — his one primary opponent, John Stephens III, has been endorsed by the Nevada State AFL-CIO.

Stephens is a former civilian employee of the Las Vegas Metro Police Department, former steward for the Teamsters Local 14 and a self-described political scientist, writer, exhibitor and Las Vegas library employee.

Miller has raised about $21,000 so far in his campaign, while Stephens has not reported raising any money.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary is likely to go on to win the general election against the one Republican candidate in the race, former Virginia Beach police officer Tony Palmer, as the district leans heavily Democratic with 54.3 percent registered Democrats, 22.7 percent nonpartisans and only 18 percent Republicans. Palmer has raised about $2,000, mostly from himself, in his bid.

Assembly District 16

Four Democratic candidates are running in this open seat after Assemblywoman Heidi Swank, who has represented the district since 2012, opted not to run for re-election. 

The Assembly Democratic Caucus has not endorsed any candidate in the race. Cecelia González and Russell Davis have so far split the major endorsements from Democratic-aligned groups. Both candidates were endorsed by the Nevada State AFL-CIO, while González was also endorsed by the Nevada State Education Association, the Culinary Union and the Nevada Conservation League, and Davis was endorsed by SEIU Local 1107. 

González, a community activist who plans to begin a doctoral program in multicultural education at UNLV in the fall, has raised a little more than $5,000 in her campaign, while Davis, a two-decade Clark County employee and SEIU member, hasn’t reported raising any money.

A third candidate in the race, online finance professor Geoffrey VanderPal, has loaned himself a little less than $4,000 in the race, while Joe Sacco, a union trade show and conventions worker with IATSE Local 720 and a REALTOR, has raised about $500.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary is likely to win the general election against the one Republican in the race, Reyna “Alex” Sajdak, as Democrats have an overwhelming voter registration advantage in the district, representing 47.1 percent of all voters. Nonpartisans make up another 27.3 percent, while Republicans represent only about 18.2 percent.

Sajdak has loaned herself only $260 in the race and received no other contributions.

Assembly District 18

Assemblyman Richard Carrillo has opted not to run for re-election to this East Las Vegas Assembly seat, which he has represented since 2010. He is running for state Senate.

Venicia Considine, an attorney with Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, is running with the backing of the Assembly Democratic Caucus for the seat and has been endorsed by SEIU Local 1107, Nevada State Education Association, Planned Parenthood Votes Nevada, the Culinary Union and the Nevada Conservation League.

However, she faces three other Democrats in the primary, including Char Frost, a former campaign manager and legislative staffer for Carrillo; Lisa Ortega, a master arborist and owner of Great Basin Sage Consulting; and Clarence Dortch, a teacher in the Clark County School District.

Considine has raised nearly $24,000 in her bid so far, while Ortega has raised a little less than $17,000 and Frost has raised about $8,000. Dortch has not yet reported raising any money.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary will go on to face Republican Heather Florian in the general election, though they are likely to win as Democrats hold a 24-point voter registration advantage over Republicans in the district. Florian has not yet reported raising any money in the race.

Assembly District 19

Assemblyman Chris Edwards is running for a fourth term in this rural Clark County Assembly district, but he faces a challenge from Mesquite City Councilwoman Annie Black, who is running to the right of the already conservative Edwards. Black most recently ran for Nevada Republican Party chair, losing to incumbent Michael McDonald.

So far, Edwards has raised about $17,000 in his re-election bid, to Black’s $2,600, which includes a $1,000 contribution from Las Vegas City Councilwoman Victoria Seaman and a $500 contribution from former Controller Ron Knecht.

Whoever wins this primary will go on to win the general election in November, as there are no Democrats or third-party candidates in the race.

Assembly District 21

Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo, who has represented this seat since 2016, is not seeking re-election this year and is running for the Nevada Supreme Court. The Assembly Democratic Caucus has endorsed attorney Elaine Marzola to replace him.

Marzola has received most of the Democratic-aligned endorsements in the primary, including from the Nevada State AFL-CIO, Planned Parenthood Votes Nevada, the Culinary Union and the Nevada Conservation League, while her one Democratic opponent in the primary, David Bagley, has the backing of the Nevada State Education Association. 

Bagley is the director of operations for the stem cell diagnostics company Pluripotent Diagnostics and was also Marianne Williamson’s Nevada state director for her presidential campaign last year.

Marzola has raised about $44,000 in her race so far, while Bagley has raised $20,000 in in-kind contributions from himself.

The winner of the Democratic primary will go on to face Republican Cherlyn Arrington in the general election. Arrington ran for the seat in 2018, losing to Fumo by 12.6 percentage points. Democrats have an 8 percentage point voter registration advantage in the district over Republicans. Arrington has raised a little less than $15,000 so far, including a $4,000 contribution from herself.

Assembly District 31

Former Republican Assemblywoman Jill Dickman hopes to reclaim a seat she held for one term and lost by fewer than 50 votes in 2016. But the manufacturing business owner is in a three-way primary, most notably with Washoe County Republican Party treasurer Sandra Linares. 

The Washoe County seat is held by Skip Daly, a four-term Assembly member who works as the business manager for Laborers Local 169 and has several notable endorsements from organized labor groups, including the Nevada State AFL-CIO and the Culinary Union.

Republicans have a registration advantage of more than four percentage points, but nonpartisans also make up about 21 percent of the swingy district.

Dickman raised just $116 in the first quarter of the year but has more than $99,000 cash on hand for the race. Linares, an educator and Air Force veteran, reported raising more than $24,000 in the first quarter but has about $20,000 in her war chest.

The other candidate in the race is Republican David Espinosa, who has worked in the information technology sector and served on boards including the Washoe County Citizen Advisory Board. He reported raising $7,000 in the first quarter of the year and has about $500 on hand.

The winner of the three-way contest will face off against Daly, who does not have primary challengers. He raised $31,000 in the first quarter and has $98,000 cash on hand.

Assembly District 36

Appointed to fill the seat of brothel owner Dennis Hof — who won this Pahrump-area seat in 2018 despite dying weeks before the election — Republican Assemblyman Gregory Hafen II is facing a primary challenge from Dr. Joseph Bradley, who ran for the district in 2018.

Hafen, a fifth generation Nevadan and general manager of a Pahrump water utility company, and has been endorsed by multiple sitting Republican lawmakers, the National Rifle Association and was named “Rural Chair” of President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign in Nevada.

Hafen has raised nearly $89,000 since the start of the election cycle, including $26,600 in the last reporting period, and has more than $55,000 in cash on hand.

His primary opponent is Bradley, a licensed chiropractor and substance abuse specialist with offices in Las Vegas and Pahrump. He ran for the seat in 2018, coming in third in the Republican primary behind Hof and former Assemblyman James Oscarson.

Bradley has raised more than $68,000 in his bid for the Assembly seat since 2019, and had more than $43,000 in cash on hand at the end of the reporting period.

Bradley’s campaign has tried to tie Hafen to Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, who as a member of the Clark County Commission voted on a replacement candidate after Hof’s death. Sisolak did vote to appoint Hafen to the seat, but the decision was essentially made by the Nye County Commission because of Nevada’s laws on appointing a new lawmaker after an incumbent leaves office or passes away. Hafen was appointed to the seat with support from 16 of 17 county commissioners in the three counties that the Assembly district covers.

Because no Democrats or other party candidates filed to run in the district, the winner of the primary will essentially win a spot in the 2021 Legislature.

Assembly District 37

A crowded field of well-funded Republican candidates are duking it out in a competitive primary to take on incumbent Democrat Shea Backus, one of several suburban Las Vegas districts Republicans hope to win back after the 2018 midterms. Voter registration numbers in the district are nearly equal: 38.1 percent registered Democrats 35.7 percent registered Republicans and 20.5 percent nonpartisan.

Four Republican candidates filed to run in the district, including two former congressional candidates who have each raised more than six-figures in contributions: Andy Matthews and Michelle Mortensen.

Matthews is the former president of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank and was former Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s policy director for his failed 2018 gubernatorial run. He has been endorsed by a bevy of Nevada and national Republicans, including Laxalt, several Trump campaign officials including Corey Lewandowski, Las Vegas City Councilwoman Michele Fiore and several current and former state lawmakers.

Matthews has also been one of the top legislative fundraisers during the 2020 election cycle, outraising all other Republican Assembly candidates including current office-holders. For the first reporting period of 2020, he reported raising nearly $35,000, but has raised nearly $189,000 since the start of 2019 and has early $115,000 in cash on hand.

Mortensen, a former television reporter who ran for Congress in 2018, has also been a prolific fundraiser. She reported raising about $12,500 during the first fundraising period of 2020, with more than $115,000 raised since the start of 2019 and had more than $92,000 in cash on hand at the end of the last reporting period.

But they won’t be alone on the primary ballot. Jacob Deaville, a former UNLV college Republican chair and political activist, has raised more than $19,600 since the start of 2019 and had roughly $9,400 in cash on hand at the end of the reporting period. Another Republican candidate, Lisa Noeth, has not filed any campaign finance reports.

The primary election winner will get to challenge incumbent Shea Backus, who wrested the seat from Republican Jim Marchant in the 2018 election by a 135-vote margin. She reported raising more than $52,000 over the first fundraising period, and has more than $108,000 in cash on hand. Backus, an attorney, did not draw a primary challenger.

Assembly District 40

Former Assemblyman P.K. O’Neill is making a comeback bid after serving one term in the Assembly in 2015 and losing re-election in a campaign focused on his controversial vote for Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval’s tax package.

Two-term incumbent Al Kramer decided at the last minute not to seek re-election in the district, which includes Carson City and portions of Washoe Valley. According to The Nevada Appeal, he said he and his wife need to take care of her 94-year-old mother in Ohio and attend to their own health issues, and will not be in Carson City often enough to serve in the Legislature.

O’Neill is a former law enforcement officer who previously served in the Nevada Department of Public Safety. But his path back to the statehouse is complicated by a primary challenge from the right from Day Williams, a lawyer who is running on a platform of repealing the Commerce Tax that O’Neill supported.

O’Neill has the fundraising advantage, raising more than $13,000 in the first quarter and reporting about $10,000 cash on hand. Williams reported raising about $2,300 and has about $1,200 in the bank.

Whoever wins the Republican primary is likely to win in the general — Republicans have a nearly 15 percentage point advantage in the district. The three Democrats in the race are former Carson City Library director Sena Loyd, software engineer Derek Ray Morgan and LGBTQ rights advocate Sherrie Scaffidi, none of whom have more than $500 cash on hand.

Other races that have a primary

  • Senate District 11: Republican Edgar Miron Galindo, who has been endorsed by the Senate Republican Caucus, faces off against Joshua Wendell. However, the winner faces an uphill battle against Democratic state Sen. Dallas Harris in the general election in this overwhelmingly Democratic district in Spring Valley, where Democrats have a 19.5 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans.
  • Senate District 18: Democrat Liz Becker, who has been endorsed by the Senate Democratic Caucus, faces Ron Bilodeau in the primary. The winner will go on to face Republican state Sen. Scott Hammond in this lean Republican northwest Las Vegas Assembly district, where Republicans have a 3 percentage point voter registration advantage over Democrats.
  • Assembly District 5: Republicans Mac Miller, Retha Randolph and Mitchell Tracy face off in the primary. But they’ll have a tough time in the general election against Democratic Assemblywoman Brittney Miller in this district, where Democrats have a 9 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans.
  • Assembly District 6: Democrat Shondra Summers-Armstrong is running with the backing of the Assembly Democratic Caucus to represent this Assembly District that encompasses the historic Westside of Las Vegas. She faces one opponent, William E. Robinson II, in the primary. There are also two Republicans, Katie Duncan and Geraldine Lewis, who will face off in their own primary. The winner of the Democratic primary is all but guaranteed to defeat the winner of the Republican primary in the general election, as Democrats have a 52.5 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans in the district.
  • Assembly District 10: After being appointed to the seat in 2018, Democratic Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen is running for her first election in this overwhelmingly Democratic district, where there are more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans. Nguyen has one primary challenger, Jesse “Jake” Holder. The two other candidates in the race, Independent American Jonathan Friedrich and Republican Chris Hisgen, do not face primary challenges. Democrats are likely to retain control of this seat in November because of their overwhelming voter registration advantage.
  • Assembly District 14: Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton is running for her sixth and final term in this East Las Vegas Assembly district, where Democrats make up more than half of all registered voters. She faces a primary challenge from James Fennell II. The third candidate in the race, Libertarian Robert Wayerski, does not face a primary. With only 163 registered libertarians in the district, Democrats are all but guaranteed to hold onto this seat in November.
  • Assembly District 15: Democratic Assemblyman Howard Watts is running for re-election in this East Las Vegas Assembly district. He faces a primary challenge from Democrat Burke Andersson. A third candidate in the race, Republican Stan Vaughan, does not have a primary. Democrats are overwhelmingly likely to win this seat in the general election as they hold a 30.8 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans.
  • Assembly District 17: Democrat Clara “Claire” Thomas is running with the backing of the Assembly Democratic Caucus in this overwhelmingly Democratic North Las Vegas Assembly district and does not face a primary. Two Republican candidates, Sylvia Liberty Creviston and Jack Polcyn, will face off in June. However, Thomas is likely to win the general election come November because of Democrats’ voter registration advantage.
  • Assembly District 20: Democrat David Orentilcher is running with the backing of the Assembly Democratic caucus but faces three other Democrats in the primary: Zachary Logan, Michael McAuliffe and Emily Smith. Whoever wins the primary is guaranteed to win the general election as there are no Republican or third-party candidates running in the race.
  • Assembly District 26: Republican Assemblywoman Lisa Krasner faces one Republican challenger, Dale Conner, in her re-election bid for this overwhelmingly Republican Assembly district where Republicans hold a 10.7 percentage point registration advantage over Democrats. Though one Democrat, Vance Alm, is running for this seat, Republicans are likely to hold onto this seat come November.
  • Assembly District 29: Democratic Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen is running for re-election to this Henderson Assembly district, where Democrats hold a narrow 5.6 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans. While she doesn’t have a primary challenge, she will face one of two Republicans, Steven Delisle or Troy Archer, in the general election.
  • Assembly District 30: Democrat Natha Anderson is running with the backing of the Assembly Democratic Caucus to represent this Sparks Assembly seat where Democrats hold a 10.2 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans. She will face fellow Democrat Lea Moser in the primary. The winner is likely to win the general election over Republican Randy Hoff and Independent American Charlene Young because of Democrats’ significant voter registration advantage in the district.
  • Assembly District 35: Democratic Assemblywoman Michelle Gorelow is running for re-election in this southwest Las Vegas Assembly district, where Democrats hold a 8.5 percentage point voter registration advantage over Republicans. She does not face a primary challenge. However, two Republicans, Jay Calhoun and Claudia Kingtigh, will face off in a June primary. Gorelow will face the winner of that primary, as well as nonpartisan Philip “Doc Phil” Paleracio in November, though she is likely to win because of the Democratic voter registration advantage in the district.
  • Assembly District 38: Republican Assemblywoman Robin Titus faces a primary challenge from Jeff Ulrich in this overwhelmingly Republican rural Assembly district, where there are more than twice as many registered Republicans as Democrats.

Smart, early organizing in communities of color helped propel Sanders to victory in Nevada

As the politically powerful Culinary Union warned that Bernie Sanders would “end'' their union health care if elected president, the Vermont senator’s campaign was quietly canvassing their rank-and-file membership.

In the three weeks leading up to Saturday’s Democratic presidential nominating contest in Nevada, a team of a couple dozen organizers fanned out across the Las Vegas Strip to properties where casino workers unable to leave work to caucus would be able to participate at at-large precincts while on shift, including the Bellagio, Harrah’s, Mandalay Bay, Paris, Park MGM, the Rio and Wynn. 

The Sanders campaign had been courting the predominantly immigrant, working-class Culinary members at their homes — knocking on their doors, sending mailers, calling them and running ads on their TVs — for months. But in the home stretch, the campaign took its final pitch right to the employee entrances of the hotels where workers would be able to caucus. It was a strategy adapted from the campaign’s successful efforts organizing immigrant meatpackers in Iowa.

“A lot of people are busy, they're coming into work or they're leaving and trying to get home,” said Sarah Michelsen, Sanders’ state director. “But they would stop and have conversations with us because they were like, ‘What are you doing here? Why are you standing in the parking garage?’”

They talked about health care, sure. The union opposes Sanders’ Medicare-for-all plan on the basis that it would replace their members’ much-loved health insurance with a government-run system they fear wouldn’t provide as good of benefits as their gold-standard plan. But campaign organizers also talked about the Vermont senator’s plans to provide free college for all, address climate change and bolster unions.

The campaign had no idea whether their organizing efforts would work, especially with the union actively circulating anti-Sanders flyers. Heading into Saturday’s caucus, the campaign’s only hope was that Sanders would receive at least 15 percent support in each of the seven at-large Strip precincts, which would qualify him for delegates to the county convention out of those sites.

Sanders ended up winning five of the seven Strip precincts, not only suggesting that rank-and-file Culinary members rejected their union’s messaging on Sanders but that an overwhelmingly female, multi-racial group of voters was able to get behind his ambitious, progressive agenda. It also proved how effective the campaign’s leave-no-stone-unturned approach to organizing in historically underrepresented, low-turnout communities could be.

“This was the chance to really create that narrative and really prove that theory of the case,” Michelsen said. “We knew that this was going to be a really very important piece of the momentum that we needed to build to win.”

And win in Nevada he did. Sanders emerged from Saturday’s caucus not only with 46.8 percent support but a 26 percentage point lead over his next closest competitor, former Vice President Joe Biden. Political observers in Nevada anticipated a Sanders win, but they didn’t anticipate exactly how much he would win by.

“He ended up running away with it,” said Laura Martin, the executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

Political activist Cornel West, left, introduces presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders during the opening of the Bernie 2020 East Las Vegas Office grand opening on Saturday, July 6, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The Sanders organization

For the Sanders campaign, there was no complex calculus about where to devote resources ahead of Nevada’s caucus. Where other campaigns had to be strategic about where they spent their time and money, Sanders, who raised $25.2 million in the last fundraising quarter, could afford to be and spend everywhere. The campaign began staffing up in Nevada in March and had more than 250 staffers on the ground by Caucus Day, outnumbering the next-biggest presidential campaign team by nearly two to one.

“One thing that's up that's a major trap about a caucus is people end up twisting themselves up, trying to figure out the puzzle and the strategy of all of it,” said Peter Koltak, a senior adviser to the campaign. “At some point it's like if you hit hard everywhere, then you're going to win.”

But there was at least some logic to it. For instance, the campaign deployed what Michelsen described as a full “Election Day-style turnout mechanism” for each of the four days of early voting last week ahead of the caucus. That included hosting get-out-the-vote events in both Northern and Southern Nevada, including a “Unidos con Bernie” soccer tournament in East Las Vegas, and then giving supporters rides to the polls.

“We made a Bernie trophy for them and then we drove them to the polls,” Michelsen said. “It was a community event that felt natural to them in the way that they normally gather, and then they got to have the exciting civic experience of voting together as a community during the early vote.”

In total, the campaign estimates that it gave dozens of rides to voters, including from five mosques, the popular Filipino supermarket Seafood City, and the popular Latino supermarket Cardenas Market.

The success of that final get-out-the-caucus effort was, in part, predicated on the time and money spent on a massive field organizing effort — what Michelsen referred to as the “sweat equity” of the campaign — that knocked a half million doors between when it started in June and Caucus Day. 

“People recognize that and they see that when they've seen you at their door multiple times, when they're used to getting your literature on their door, when you've called them over and over, when you're starting to get to know them,” Michelsen said.

They also engaged in an extensive relational organizing effort, a hub-and-spoke strategy where Sanders supporters reached out to their personal networks and used their social capital to persuade friends and family members to caucus for the Vermont senator. That effort, campaign aides believe, proved particularly critical to Sanders’ successes among voters of color. Entrance polls show that Sanders won 51 percent of voters who identify as Hispanic or Latino and 27 percent of voters who identify as black.

“What is often forgotten is that particularly in Latino communities and communities of color, the networks are very strong, the family bonds,” said Susana Cervantes, Sanders’ field director in Nevada. “It just comes down to finding supporters and then asking them to talk to their friends, family and neighbors. I know it sounds simple, but that's what it comes down to.”

Even operatives working on rival campaigns were impressed by the Sanders operation.

"I can say without a doubt they were the only campaign that really took the hashtag #WeMatter seriously,” said Megan Jones, a longtime political consultant in Nevada who worked on California Sen. Kamala Harris’s campaign. “They were invested deeply in all parts of the communities that they were organizing in.”

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders greets a supporter at a Mijente's El Chisme 2020 event at UNLV in Las Vegas
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders greets a supporter at a Mijente's El Chisme 2020 event at UNLV in Las Vegas on Saturday Sept. 14, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Courting communities of color

While Biden bested Sanders among black voters, no other candidate came close to approaching the level of support that Sanders — nicknamed Tío Bernie, or Uncle Bernie — received from Latino voters. Precinct-level data also show that he was by far the most popular candidate in the predominantly Latino neighborhoods in East Las Vegas, which is also where Sanders opened his first campaign office in July.

The campaign attributes those successes, in part, to young Latino supporters winning over their parents and grandparents.

“The first generation depends on their kids who are growing up here to help them. You grow up having influence and your parents listen to you because they depend on you,” Cervantes said. “It's very powerful to have all this youth behind us, especially in the Latino community.”

Cecia Alvarado, state director for the Latino voting rights organization Mi Familia Vota, said that Sanders was able to appeal to the Latino community in a deep and authentic way that other candidates were not. She also noted the way that he strategically used surrogates to boost his campaign — and not just Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who hosted a Spanish-language town hall for Sanders in Las Vegas in December, but also José La Luz, a Puerto Rican labor activist who attended several events on Sanders’ behalf in Las Vegas this week.

“The lack of investment in our community has shown in the past, always,” Alvarado said. “I think with Senator Sanders campaign we learned when you invest in the Latino community, when you are talking with Latinos about immigration, about health care, they show up.”

But the Sanders campaign didn’t reserve that level of investment just for the Latino community, though. Nine months ago, Miles Cooper, a political associate on Sanders campaign, and physician Zaffar Iqbal launched “Muslims for Bernie.” The group, which met on Sundays, focused on how to pitch Sanders’ message with a level of cultural fluency to Muslims, who make up less than 1 percent of the state’s population, that non-Muslims wouldn’t have.

“They did a lot of mosque visits, going to mosques at prayer time and reminding people about when they can vote, how they can vote,” Michelsen said. “It's different than if we just tabled at the mosque the week before the election.”

The campaign also spent time getting to know local issues and using Sanders’ platform to draw attention to them, particularly within Indigenous communities, who make up nearly 2 percent of the state’s population. The Sanders campaign released a video in May highlighting Native concerns over the possible construction of a long-term high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, and after meeting with tribal leaders after a campaign stop in Elko in December, Sanders came out against oil and gas drilling in the Ruby Mountains.

“It nets votes because people understand that it's real. If campaigns are super slick and are all about paid media and are all about the most poll-tested messaging, people can smell bullshit from a mile away,” Michelsen said. “We didn't meet every native American voter, but those are strong family networks too, and they could see the work that we were doing from the beginning.”

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders holds a rally in City Plaza in downtown Reno, Nev., on Wednesday, May 29, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Media and momentum

It wasn’t just smart organizing, either. The campaign also undertook a substantial paid media campaign that included sending mail to Latino households beginning in the late summer and continuing through February, as well as a digital campaign targeting all of the campaign’s audiences beginning in late November. According to The New York Times, Sanders spent about $407,000 just on Spanish-language ads in Nevada.

“We just sort of never said anything about it because we wanted to kind of fly under the radar with how aggressively we were coming on,” Koltak said. “By the time that we actually got to the TV wars, we'd actually already been communicating with people, both from an organizing perspective and a paid media perspective for a really long time.”

Of course, the momentum out of Iowa and New Hampshire helped Sanders here too. The Vermont senator won the popular votes in both states, with former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg close on his heels. But Nevada represented his first substantial margin of victory, separating him from what has been a crowded pack of Democratic presidential hopefuls over the course of the race.

“I used to joke with people like, we’re third and we’ll be ready for the handoff. What you hand us off is up to you,” Koltak said. “Luckily they handed us off a campaign with a little momentum coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire, and then because of the work we had already put in here and the demographics of the state and a variety of other factors, we were ready to take that and blow it up.”

And unlike many of his competitors, Sanders wasn’t starting from scratch in this Democratic presidential race. In fact, he only lost Nevada to Hillary Clinton by 5 percentage points in 2016, a far closer race than anyone had anticipated and positioning him well for this year’s contest.

“He has had time for his message to percolate since 2016,” said Annette Magnus, executive director of Battle Born Progress. “In 2016, people didn’t know who he was. Since 2016, he has been on the scene, he’s a known commodity, people understand what he’s talking about.”

But those who watch politics closely in the Silver State note that his message has a particular resonance and urgency now in a way that it didn’t four years ago, before Donald Trump became president. Clark County Democratic Party Chair Donna West pointed in particular to the issue of health care and the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act compared to Sanders’ Medicare-for-all policy.

“We’ve seen such a deterioration of the ACA and the attacks on it. There’s so much fear there about people having to pay more or losing coverage or knowing they or a loved one has a pre-existing condition and not having health insurance,” West said. “That message just comes on so strong, and I think it really resonated here.”

The question now is how that message will resonate through the rest of the nominating contests and, should he ultimately prove successful, among a general election electorate. Sanders’ thesis is that his campaign is expanding the electorate and bringing voters into the fold who might not have otherwise ordinarily participated in the electoral process. And it’s possible he’s right. More than 10,000 people newly registered as Democrats during early voting and more than 50 percent of early voters had never caucused before.

Jones said there are “plenty of downsides, frankly, to Bernie being the general election nominee.” But she does believe he is making an impact on Nevada's Democratic electorate.

“I would imagine that a large percentage are new caucusgoers for Bernie and new registrants to Bernie, which speaks to the power of organizing,” Jones said.

In analyzing the Vermont senator’s victory in Nevada, Sanders campaign aides talked a lot about that organizing heft. But there was one point they kept circling back to: his message.

“I think that we can talk about tactics and a strategy and all kinds of various campaign topics, but at the end of the day, people need something to vote for,” Cervantes said. “I could talk to my neighbors. I can talk to my family. I can do all of that. But people need to feel that there's something to vote for, and I think we have that. Bernie does that.”

Supporters listen as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally at Springs Preserve on Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The geography of the Democratic caucus and why some campaigns are rallying supporters in rural Nevada

Carleen Marinez turns in her completed preference card during the first day of early voting for the Nevada Caucus at the East Las Vegas Library

A speech in Reno might reach thousands of voters all at once. A television ad buy in Las Vegas’s media market might reach even more. But sometimes it still pays to hit the ground.

Nevada is a unique state. 

By total state population, Nevada is ranked as one of the least rural states. About 90 percent of the state’s total population lives in two counties, Clark and Washoe, that comprise a fraction of the state’s land mass. And the vast majority of Nevada residents live in Las Vegas.

At the same time, the state’s smaller counties are some of the least populated rural areas in the country, according to U.S. Census data. The dynamic of having two large cities and several very rural towns scattered across the Great Basin, is a stark contrast to the first two Democratic primary states — Iowa and New Hampshire — where rural populations are more widespread.

In Iowa and New Hampshire, candidates and their staff are often on the ground, driving from town to town. But in Nevada, Las Vegas and Reno are separated by a seven-hour drive. Most campaigns get on a plane to travel between the state’s two largest metropolitan areas. With few Democratic voters between those two cities, the lengthy drive-time doesn’t always pencil out.

“Where the population centers are is where the cash cow of delegates are,” said Megan Jones, a campaign consultant who advised California Sen. Kamala Harris’ campaign earlier in the cycle. “There are definitely delegates in the rurals, but it's not the same as Iowa and New Hampshire.”

Ground games still matter

The rural counties might not get a lot of visits from candidates. 

But they can make a difference in competitive races.

In 2008, then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, lost in total number of caucusgoers only to declare a victory in delegates because his campaign understood the dynamic of rural caucus delegates. 

The rules that apportion delegates earned from caucus voting are based on the state’s congressional districts. At the time, a certain allocation of delegates had to come from rural areas. Understanding that, the Obama campaign targeted turnout in specific rural areas.

Since 2008, the state has added a congressional seat and selection rules have changed

But there is still an incentive for candidates to go to rural Nevada.

“A lot of the campaigns are spending a lot more time than they have in the past in engaging the rural counties,” said Kimi Cole, who chairs the Douglas County Democratic Party and the Rural Nevada Democratic Caucus. "In a close race, you can't throw those votes away."

Several campaigns, especially those that have been knocking on doors in Nevada for months, believe that rural caucusgoers could drive up a candidate’s delegate count in a close contest. 

Here’s what they see

Overall, there are fewer potential delegates in rural counties. But Nevada law, by ensuring that rural voters are included, apportions delegates differently and gives more weight to rural voters.

How this plays into a caucus strategy is complex, but it works like this.

The statute requires any major political party to apportion delegates to each election precinct in proportion with the total number of registered voters for that political party within that county. 

There are eight tiers for apportioning delegates to precincts. What it means is that in counties like Clark County and Washoe County where there are more than 4,000 registered Democrats, each precinct receives one delegate for every 50 registered voters. But in the most rural areas — in counties with only 400 Democrats — each precinct gets one delegate for every five voters.

In this, there is an advantage for campaigns. 

Take a hypothetical five-delegate precinct in Clark County, with about 500,000 Democrats, and compare it to a five-delegate precinct in Esmeralda County, with about 100 Democratic voters.

Because of how the caucus is structured, to win those five delegates in Clark County would require many more supporters to turn out, competing heavily with other campaigns that have actively invested in turning out voters in Las Vegas. But to win all five delegates in Esmeralda County might only require five voters to show up. The issue is reaching those county’s voters. 

And that’s where the ground game comes in.

Multiple presidential candidates have invested heavily in outreach in Nevada. Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s campaign has field offices in Elko, Pahrump and Fallon. Buttigieg visited Elko during early voting, where he also did an interview with the Elko Daily Free Press. The former South Bend mayor also campaigned in Salt Lake City this week. Although Utah’s primary is not until March 3, Super Tuesday, the Salt Lake City media market reaches northeastern Nevada. 

Buttigieg is not alone. Other candidates have actively courted voters in northeastern Nevada. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren both have offices in Elko. In addition to Buttigieg, Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden have visited Elko. 

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar is scheduled to speak in Elko on Friday, a day before the caucus.

In 2016, Sanders won Elko County, along with most of the northern half of the state, with many of the southern counties supporting Secretary of State in Hillary Clinton. In 2008, most northern counties swung for Obama while counties in the southern half of the state backed Clinton.  

Looking toward the convention

Campaigning in the rurals could also play a role after Saturday.

Nevada’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention are still allocated by congressional districts in a successive process starting with county — and then state — conventions. In order to accrue delegates from a congressional district, candidates need to perform across counties. 

In the two Las Vegas congressional districts (1 and 3), this is not an issue because they are fully within Clark County. But in order to remain viable for delegates from Congressional District 2, spanning from Reno and rural northeastern Nevada, candidates must campaign in rural areas. The same is true of Congressional District 4, extending from Las Vegas through central Nevada. 

In short, a candidate could outperform in Reno but not be viable if they have no Elko delegates.

But a big variable looms over the caucus, including how rural counties will factor into the results. It’s early voting. Cole, the chair of the rural caucus, did not want to make any predictions about how early voting might affect the results, though Cole said voters were glad to have the option. 

“There was a lot of enthusiasm,” Cole said.

Warren’s campaign is a ‘monster.’ Harris’s is ‘top-tier.’ How presidential campaigns are stacking up in Nevada

Signs being held up reading Nevada for Warren and Dream Big Fight Hard during a campaign rally

Glimmering towers jeweled with neon. Pool parties brimming with bikinis and alcohol. Casino floors pulsating with the dings of slot machines. 

There are a lot of things that are sexy about Las Vegas.

Carrying out the day-to-day of a presidential campaign in the middle of the summer half a year before the caucuses — sending organizers and volunteers out to traverse sprawling beige stucco suburban neighborhoods, traipsing to community event after community event, and begging candidates to please, please for the love of God, come west to Nevada  — not quite so sexy.

The formula for winning Las Vegas — and the other quarter of the state’s residents in northern and rural Nevada — is straightforward: Get here early, build connections with the community, maybe persuade a politically powerful union to endorse and send out foot soldiers and, above all else, hold those house parties, knock those doors and make those phone calls.

“Field wins the day,” said Megan Jones, a longtime Democratic strategist who worked for former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and is now a senior adviser on California Sen. Kamala Harris’s campaign. “That is something I learned working for Senator Reid. You either run scared or run unopposed.”

Talk to Democratic operatives, labor leaders and progressive organizers here on the ground, and there is fairly widespread agreement about the two campaigns whose operations are the ones to beat: Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Harris. 

Warren’s team landed the earliest in the Silver State, in January, and has the biggest team at roughly 45 full-time staffers, according to the campaign.

“Even the other campaigns are saying they’re the monster,” said Clark County Democratic Party Chair Donna West. “They’re here. They have staked a claim.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' team is just behind Warren’s in size, with 40 staffers on the ground, according to his campaign.

Harris’s team is actually the smallest of the top tier campaigns at 28 staffers — South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s team didn’t land here until June but has now exceeded that total at 30 staffers — but is widely credited as making some of the smartest hires. Her team includes Jones, state director Ernie Apreza, deputy political director Lauren Brooks, and national senior adviser Emmy Ruiz, who’s worked the last three presidential cycles in Nevada including, most recently, serving as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s state director in 2016. 

“I think everyone has to admit they have one of the most impressive top tier campaign staffs around,” West added. “So they may not have the numbers, but they certainly have the knowledge and they’re definitely out there working.”

(The Nevada Independent independently verified staffing totals for the Harris and Buttigieg campaigns; most other campaigns provided approximate numbers and did not disclose a full list of staff names for verification purposes.)

Then, there are two smaller campaigns that often get singled out for punching above their weight. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has nearly 20 staffers on the ground, according to his campaign team, while former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro has only three. But both are frequently named among the most engaged and visible campaigns here in the Silver State despite the candidates themselves only polling in the low single digits.

There is, however, one name that was frequently left off of lists of the best campaigns among the nearly two dozen Democratic strategists, progressive organizers and labor leaders The Nevada Independent interviewed for this article: Joe Biden. 

The former vice president’s team landed in late April and has since hired 34 staffers, according to his campaign. But several people said that his campaign has felt like a scarce presence compared to other operations in the state. Some, when prompted about his campaign, said that they had seen his team around and that he has a good staff, but didn’t on their own suggest Biden’s team as one of the top operations in Nevada, despite his current frontrunner status.

Biden defenders, including his campaign, note that he doesn’t need to do as much as some of the other candidates to get his name out there. People know who he is. They’re still getting to know some of the other candidates.

But Battle Born Progress Executive Director Annette Magnus, who credited Biden’s team as “pretty strong” despite his late start, said she’d still like to see more investment from him as she has with Warren and Harris, both in terms of the campaign operations on the ground and time spent by the candidates in the state. (Harris has been here seven times, Warren five, and Biden three.)

“I think you’re going to see that early investment and that early time spent in a state like Nevada is going to go a long way,” Magnus said. “We have to organize here. It’s not like other states where you can — pardon my language — half-ass it. You can’t half-ass it in Nevada. Organizing still reigns supreme, old fashioned organizing, calls, doors. You can’t just do some digital ad buys and call it good here.”

Sen. Kamala Harris speaks during a campaign event inside Nate Mack Elementary School in Henderson on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

The top five

If there’s one team that’s been singled out for its “old fashioned organizing” so far this cycle, it’s Warren’s.

Suzy Smith, Warren’s state director, said that when the campaign started engaging with voters in March and April, they weren’t ready to commit to a candidate yet. But they got to know the team, and the team, in turn, started building relationships with those individuals. The organizers make contact with a voter at an event, at the door or on the phone, find out what they’re interested in, and then follow up with them about Warren’s plan on those issues, often via text.

Smith said it takes a lot of preparation for those organizers to familiarize themselves with all of Warren’s plans.

“Learning her plans and how they impact Nevadans is a priority for us,” Smith said. “Our organizers come armed with a lot of information and can talk to a person about an issue that they care about.”

And now, she says, some of those folks are beginning to commit to Warren as their top candidate.

The campaign started knocking doors on June 29 and has six offices in the state, including the campaign headquarters. The campaign also says it has more than 20 paid interns and unpaid fellows, in addition to its roughly 45 full-time staffers.

Harris’s campaign, by contrast, didn’t kick off its operations in the state until April 1 but now has 28 paid staffers and one office. According to the campaign, it has reached out to tens of thousands of Nevadans through door knocking, phone calls, text messages and canvassing or tabling in high-traffic areas, such as on college campuses.

In addition to hiring experienced staffers, the campaign has also focused on making sure its Nevada staff is diverse. According to the campaign, the senior leadership team here in the state is 75 percent people of color, roughly two-thirds women, more than a third Asian American and Pacific Islander and one quarter Latino, a diversity campaign officials say is reflected in its organizing staff as well.

“I think there’s definitely a winning formula to campaigning, but I think it’s in how you do it and making sure that you are representing the communities that you’re hoping to connect to your candidate, that you’re not parachuting in, that you’re walking the walk in terms of having diversity at the top and everywhere in between,” Jones said. “I don’t think that we’re necessarily approaching winning Nevada or winning this campaign in any kind of new approach other than facilitating opportunities for leaders to lead and to be developed.”

That’s a priority for the Biden team as well, which says it has staffers dedicated to organizing not only in the Latino, AAPI and African American communities but also on college campuses, in senior communities and in the state’s rural counties. Of the 34 people on its staff, Team Biden says 57 percent are women, 27 percent are Latino, 18 percent are AAPI and 12 percent are African American, and the campaign has plans to hire about 25 more in the month of September. It also has five offices across the state with plans for three more in Mesquite, Pahrump and Carson City in the coming months.

Voter contact is a focus for the team — which says it has collected nearly 1,000 commit-to-caucus cards from across the state this month — but its priority is laying the groundwork for a precinct-by-precinct voter turnout operation.

“It’s a long runway to February,” Vedant Patel, Biden’s Nevada spokesman, said. “This is a caucus state, not a primary state.”

Pushing back on the perception that the campaign hasn’t been as active in the community, Biden officials said that the campaign is participating in all the same kinds of events that other campaigns are, though it started a little bit later than the other campaigns did. But they also note that they’re running a different kind of operation.

“People try to paint sort of every campaign as in the same light and draw those comparisons in the same light when it really is apples and oranges,” Patel said. “For us, this is a state that Vice President Biden is incredibly familiar with, and it’s a state where Nevadans are incredibly familiar with Vice President Biden.”

And though he hasn’t been to the state as much as other candidates, his team says they’re not overlooking Nevada.

“We’re really not taking anything for granted,” said Hilary Barrett, Biden’s Nevada state director. “We’re making sure that we’re doing everything we can, and we’re building a staff to touch every community and reach voters where we can.”

Sanders’ team, meanwhile, has a substantial 40-person operation in the state, according to the campaign, with six offices open, including the campaign’s headquarters. His Nevada team was unavailable for an interview for this story but has previously talked about how much earlier it set up operations in the state this year compared to the last presidential election cycle.

“I would say that it’s a very methodical and well-organized program both nationally in the state,” said Sarah Michelsen, Sanders’ state director, in an interview last month. “We’re thinking about things a lot differently than we were in a two person race.”

The campaign has been focused on hosting so-called barnstorming events, where Sanders supporters can learn about the campaign’s strategy and get involved, and training volunteers to self-organize and run phone banks out of their own homes.

Buttigieg was the last of the top-tier candidates to arrive on the ground in Nevada in June but has since hired five senior staff, seven deputy staff and 18 field organizers and opened one headquarters. The campaign says it is now focused on engaging the more than 4,300 people who have signed up to volunteer in Nevada.

Paul Selberg, Buttigieg’s state director, said that Nevada is “very important” to the campaign despite the late start.

“They’re running aggressive campaigns in all four of the early states including Nevada,” Selberg said. “There’s no exception that Nevada’s not an early important state.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event inside the Desert Willow Golf Course clubhouse in Henderson on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

The undercard

Of the rest of the candidates, Booker has the biggest staff in the Silver State, with nearly 20 staffers on the ground since the campaign launched in early April. The campaign says it has reached out to 60,000 voters through phone calls, text message and door knocking and more than 3,000 people have engaged with the campaign at events.

Booker has made a serious play for Nevada, and his team says it isn’t just because his mom lives in Las Vegas.

“I would love to tell you it’s because Cory’s mom said, ‘Come visit me early and often,’ but it was a lot more than that. We recognize there are a lot of reasons why Nevada is going to play a pivotal role in next year’s primary process, and we recognize that you don’t build these things overnight,” said Booker senior adviser Matt Klapper. “Being there in caucus states and being there early is actually vital if you want to be successful.”

By comparison, the campaign says it has about 50 staffers in Iowa, 30 in New Hampshire and 20 in South Carolina. Klapper said it’s part of a comprehensive strategy.

“When people ask the question where Nevada fits into the plan as we look at the early states, asking if one state is more important than the other, it’s like asking if one wing is more important than the other,” Klapper said.

Castro’s team — which right now only consists of a state director, political director and organizing director — is prioritizing staffing up over the next couple of months. The campaign has one office open in Reno right now and is looking to open a space in East Las Vegas, a predominantly Latino neighborhood, in the next month.

Both Booker and Castro have focused on making a splash with nontraditional events when they’re in town. Booker visited Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center when he was here last month, while Castro toured the storm drains that run under Las Vegas and are home to a significant population in April. Both have also been to rural Nevada.

The two outsider candidates also have a presence in the state. Self-help author Marianne Williamson has a four-person team in the state and has identified 340 volunteers since it launched here in March, according to her campaign. 

David Bagley, Williamson’s state director, said support for Williamson has evolved organically in the state but that the campaign is now focused on bringing additional people into the fold through phone banking, text messages and door knocking. In total, the campaign says it has knocked 3,500 doors already and sent 70,000 text messages.

Bagley said that Williamson’s campaign is playing for the number two spot with caucusgoers in the event that their number one preference isn’t viable.

“I hear, ‘I like Biden, and I really like Marianne. I really like Bernie Sanders, and I really like Marianne.’ I ask to have Marianne as your number two, and that’s the strategy because we’re a caucusing state,” Bagley said.

By contrast, the Andrew Yang campaign launched in the state in mid-August by bringing on Mark Peckham as its state director and is working on securing office space, hiring additional staff and connecting the official campaign with informal groups of local supporters known as Yang gangs.

“While our base of support is still growing, the folks we do have on our side is very enthusiastic. There have been self-organized volunteer groups on the ground for months and months,” Peckham said. “They’ve been very active doing their own phone banking, doing pamphleting, and things like that that isn’t at the direction of the campaign.”

The campaign hasn’t had the resources until recently to play in Nevada, Peckham said, but now that they do “Nevada is where we’re putting them.”

Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke announced in July the hiring of four Nevada staffers last month, but a spokesman and O’Rourke’s state director did not make anyone on the campaign available for an interview or provide metrics on their Nevada operations. 

Billionaire Tom Steyer and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet each have a state director here, but their campaigns did not provide further details about their Nevada operations or plans for them.

None of the remaining campaigns responded to requests for comment about whether they have staff in Nevada or plans to soon do so other than former Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak’s campaign, which said that it has been establishing contacts in Nevada and is aiming to kick off operations here in mid-September.

Political activist Cornel West, left, introduces presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders during the opening of the Bernie 2020 East Las Vegas Office grand opening on Saturday, July 6, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Investing in Nevada

Though the campaigns have invested to varying degrees in Nevada, there is a perception among those on the ground here that the candidates themselves have not spent enough time here. With eight visits, Castro has been the state’s most frequent visitor, followed by Harris at seven; Booker, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Williamson at six; and Sanders and Warren at five.

A case in point: Booker is the only candidate who has planned to be in Nevada for the Labor Day weekend, while Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar Bennet, Sestak, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard have a total of 25 events scheduled between them in Iowa, according to the Des Moines Register's candidate tracker.

“I don’t think that anybody has been here enough, if I’m being completely honest. Even the ones that have come through, I don’t feel like they’ve come through enough,” Magnus, the executive director of Battle Born Progress, said. “The thing is that, yes, Iowa is important in getting the nomination, but after that, Iowa is not important anymore in the grand scheme of winning the election, whereas Nevada continues to be important even after the primary is over.”

Brian Shepherd, chief of staff for SEIU Nevada Local 1107, has the same feeling. He said that of the top tier candidates, Biden, Buttigieg and Harris still have not taken the time to sit down with their union members. (Harris did, however, walk a strike line at McDonald’s with SEIU members.)

“If I was not in the top tier of candidates, I would invest in Nevada as a way to break out,” Shepherd said. “Candidates aren’t really pushing in Nevada.”

Laura Martin, the executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, noted that there are a host of different issues that candidates have to address when they come to the Silver State.

“It’s important to talk about water, climate, immigration, wages, unionization,” Martin said. “A lot of that is what Nevadans are dealing with everyday.”

West, the chair of the Clark County Democratic Party, said that she still thinks there is time for campaigns to play catch-up, even if they haven't put as much effort into the state yet.

“It’s disheartening to me to hear cable news — they always talk about Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — like, hello, we’re third, and we’re diverse. Out of those four states, we are the most diverse. I know we’re way the heck out here and we’re a small state, but we have a history here,” West said. “I’m just not sure national media remembers the role that we play and how significant we can be, but the candidates certainly do.”

Supporters gather at a Boulder City home to listen to presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker on Thursday, July 4, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Sisolak's calendar of first month shows meetings with union leaders, top officials

Gov. Steve Sisolak’s first month in office was dominated by meetings with top state and federal officials and with the individuals and groups that helped elect him last year.

According to a copy of Sisolak’s official calendar, the new governor held a slew of meetings and calls throughout January and the first week of February with education and business leaders, union heads, one Trump administration official and with California billionaire and Democratic megadonor Tom Steyer.

The Nevada Independent filed a records request for Sisolak’s calendar for the month of January and the first week of February on Feb. 7. Although scheduled meetings aren’t confirmation that a meeting actually happened or what topics were discussed, a look at the governor’s calendar provides valuable insight into which individuals Sisolak met with and heard from as he began planning for his first legislative session as governor.

"During the governor’s first weeks in office, he met face-to-face with all 63 legislators, signed a landmark bill to close the gun background check loophole, established a task force on sexual harassment, and more," Sisolak spokeswoman Helen Kalla said in an email. "Additionally, the governor has traveled around the state to meet Nevadans where they are – from Elko to Las Vegas to tribal communities across Northern Nevada. "

Here’s who Sisolak met with during his first month in office:

Interest Groups

Sisolak’s calendar shows a meeting on Jan. 22 with one political adviser — Megan Jones, a former political director for Sen. Harry Reid and a longtime Democratic political consultant involved in multiple ballot questions and dozens of races for statewide and legislative candidates. Her firm, Hilltop Public Solutions, also helped run the campaign for Question 1 in 2016, requiring background checks on most private gun sales and transfers. The measure was never implemented despite being approved by voters because of the FBI’s refusal to conduct the background checks.

Earlier this month, Sisolak signed SB143 into law — a fix of the 2016 voter-approved initiative that requires the state and not the federal government to conduct the background checks. Jones didn’t return an email seeking comment as to the purpose of the meeting.

On the education side, Sisolak also reported meeting with Clark County Education Association union leader John Vellardita and Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara on Jan. 30. Sisolak’s proposed $8.8 billion budget includes a 3 percent raise for teachers and upwards of $156 million more in state funds for education, the bulk of which will go to the school district.

Vellardita, whose union strongly supported Sisolak in both the primary and general elections, declined to say what was discussed at the meeting beyond reiterating that CCEA and the district will work together on issues that matter to both, including a weighted school funding formula.

A meeting like this reflects that intent,” he said.

The new governor also scheduled a call with Tom Steyer, the California billionaire whose NextGen America organization spent millions of dollars to run ads and registered voters to assist Nevada Democrats in the 2018 election. Steyer — who also helped fund ballot measures raising renewable energy production standards and requiring automatic voter registration at the DMV — was unable to communicate with Sisolak or other candidates because of rules on campaign coordination and spoke with the new governor about his organization’s accomplishments and goals.

“They discussed NextGen America’s work in 2018 which led to historic turnout among young voters and the passage of Question 6— and NextGen’s commitment to continuing that work in 2019 and beyond,” NextGen America spokeswoman Aleigha Cavalier said in an email.

The calendar also shows a scheduled meeting with AFSCME President Lee Saunders on Feb. 4 in the governor’s Carson City office. During the 2018 campaign, the union spent more than $3.7 million through a PAC aimed at boosting Sisolak and hitting his Republican opponent, Adam Laxalt. Sisolak has embraced and highlighted one of the union’s top goals — collective bargaining for state employees — in his State of the State speech.

A spokesperson for the union said Saunders and Sisolak discussed “their shared belief that public service workers, like all Nevadans, deserve the freedom to negotiate a fair return on their work.”

The governor also reported meeting with representatives of electric car manufacturer Tesla on Feb. 5.

Sisolak also reported meeting with UNITE HERE president D. Taylor on Feb. 8. The union’s local branch, the Culinary Union Local 226, played a huge role in Democratic turnout operations in the 2018 election, sending 1.8 million mail pieces, knocking on thousands of doors and making thousands of calls to support Democratic candidates.

Bethany Khan, a spokeswoman for the Culinary Union, declined to answer an emailed question as to the purpose of the meeting.

Not all of the meetings were directly related to pressing issues. The governor scheduled a meeting in Las Vegas with Jan Jones Blackhurst, the former Las Vegas mayor and Caesars Entertainment executive on Jan. 18, but Blackhurst said the scheduled meeting was more a chance to catch up rather than talk about any particular issue.

“It was more of a social visit than anything else,” she said.

State and federal government

Sisolak’s first month in office was peppered with scheduled meetings with top state and federal officials.

In one of his first meetings scheduled on his calendar, the governor met with Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto at the state party’s offices in Las Vegas. His first call with a member of President Donald Trump’s administration came on Feb. 5, with acting Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt (nominated just a day prior to the call), as part of an introductory call and brief overview of state land and wildlife issues.

He also reported meeting with the state’s lone Republican statewide official, Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, on Feb. 4 — the first day of the legislative session.

The governor’s calendar also shows a slew of meetings with top state education officials, including several members of the State Board of Education.

He scheduled calls with three members of the board — Mark Newburn on Feb. 4, Robert Blakley and Tamara Hudson on Feb. 5, and a meeting with David Carter on Feb. 7. Department spokesman Greg Bortolin said the governor “reached out to members of the Board of Education that he did not know and introduced himself.”

The calendar also shows scheduled calls with three senior Nevada Department of Transportation staff — Tracy Larkin, Bill Hoffman and Cole Mortensen — on Jan. 24. Sisolak recommended that Kristina Swallow, a former City of Las Vegas engineer, head the transportation department in late January.

Department of Transportation spokesman Tony Illia said in an email that the meetings were “information-gathering meetings for the governor to learn more about how the department runs and hear feedback from its employees.”

Sisolak also met with every state lawmaker for short meetings during the first week of the legislative session — including 30 scheduled ten-minute meetings with legislators on Feb. 26 in their respective offices. The day prior, Feb. 5, he scheduled short meetings with Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson and Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson in their respective offices.

The calendar also sheds some light into the governor’s process for appointments. He scheduled a meeting with former Eighth Judicial District Court discovery commissioner Bonnie Bulla on Feb. 7, six days before his office announced that she would be appointed to a vacant seat on the Nevada Court of Appeals. He also scheduled a meeting with fellow court applicants Tracie Lindeman on Feb. 5 and District Court Judge Jerry Weise on Feb. 6, as well as a meeting with Nevada Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Gibbons on Jan. 29.

Sisolak Calendar by Riley Snyder on Scribd