LAS VEGAS – The state Democratic Party in Nevada has for years been among the strongest in country, buttressed by the state's powerful former senator, Harry Reid, and credited with helping Democrats chalk up wins in the swing state since 2016.
But that reputation took a hit this week after a slate of Sen. Bernie Sanders-aligned progressives backed by a local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America won the party's top leadership posts. The results prompted resignations of the party's staff and consultants.
Nevada political operatives say the progressive takeover could diminish the power of the state party and jeopardize a push to make the state the first presidential nominating contest in 2024, ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire.
The new state party chair, Judith Whitmer, said she was surprised by the resignations and denied allegations that she had first threatened to fire staff or had suggested that Democratic elected officials should face primary challenges from the left.
“The goal obviously is still to elect Democrats, that will always be our goal, but it’s also our goal to bring more progressives into the fold and bring those progressive voices into the party,” Whitmer told The Associated Press.
It's unlikely that Whitmer's leadership will weaken the broader, vaunted political “Reid Machine” or the 2022 reelection prospects of Nevada’s U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, three Democrats in the U.S. House and the state’s Democratic governor. It seems likely Reid and other establishment politicians may move to work outside the party structure to raise money, recruit candidates and run voter outreach.
The fissure, some Nevada Democrats say, dates back to the contentious 2016 presidential nominating contest between Hillary Clinton and Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist and independent, which touched off a larger ideological divide in the party between moderates and progressives.
In Nevada, Sanders lost the state’s third-in-line presidential caucuses in 2016, leaving some of his supporters frustrated by the party’s rules and leading to shouting at the state party’s convention and death threats to the party chair at the time.
While the state party and national Democratic Party have been working to smooth the ideological split since then, progressives have been organizing, winning key state party positions and pulling off Sanders’ 2020 win in Nevada’s presidential caucuses.
The outcome of Saturday's party officer elections was not a surprise, Democrats said, because the progressives had worked to win spots on the party's governing central committee that votes on party leaders. In apparent anticipation of the wins, the state Democratic Party transferred $450,000 from the state party's campaign accounts to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Whitmer said she was trying to find out more about the transfer and was expecting to meet later Wednesday with the party's outgoing treasurer to find out more about the transfer. She said outgoing staff members are cooperating with her team and providing access to the party's accounts.
Whitmer said it appears there were less than half a dozen staff still on the payroll who had submitted their resignations, but she did not know how many consultants had ended their contracts after her win.
A former party staffer who declined to speak on the record, citing a fear of online backlash that the outgoing party staff received, said the staff resigned because the newly elected party officers and their supporters had been antagonistic toward the party and party staff and the staff did not feel comfortable working closely with them.
The staffer said the $450,000 has been raised by elected officials to jump-start the 2022 Democratic campaign in the state and it was transferred to the national group to ensure that’s how it would be spent.
The money is a small slice of the millions the party raises and spends in election years and funds were left in state party accounts for the new team to keep the party operating.
Many Democrats, including the new chair, contend the split was not about Sanders' politics or the democratic socialist label. Both Whitmer, who was serving as the chair of the Las Vegas-area Democratic Party, and her opponent, Tick Segerblom, are both Sanders-aligned members of the local Democratic Socialists of America.
Segerblom, a Clark County commissioner, former state lawmaker and former state party chair, is among Nevada's most progressive of elected officials and has been one of Sanders' original and most vocal backers in the state dating back to 2016.
“But I was running as kind of the establishment person," Segerblom said. He acknowledged that Cortez Masto asked him to consider running as the state party chair against Whitmer.
“Now that the Bernie people are in charge, we’ll see what they want to do,” Segerblom said. “It’s really just a question of whether the party works with elected officials or the party is a separate entity.”
Koltak, who was a senior adviser to Sanders’ presidential campaign in Nevada and supported Segerblom’s candidacy as chair, said he didn’t think the party schism was about ideology.
“I think at the end of the day it’s about vision, it’s about approach and it’s about whether you can suck it up and work with people who you aren’t necessarily ideologically aligned with,” he said.
Cortez Masto’s campaign did not answer questions about her involvement in the race but said in a statement that she is looking forward to running for reelection and will ensure all Nevada Democrats are in a strong position to win.
Whitmer said she wants to change some party rules to allow local Democratic groups to make endorsements in primary contests but she's committed to getting Cortez Masto and other elected Democrats reelected.
“What I'm looking at doing is building on the successes of the Reid machine. Not dismantling it. Not destroying it," she said. “I know people are kind of afraid of labels, but they shouldn’t be because I’ve worked with all of these people for quite a while now and we all have the same goal which is electing candidates that represent our values and principles.”