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Advance look: The political Bible profiles Nevada

The Nevada Legislature on Feb. 4, 2019. Photo by David Calvert.

Editor’s note: We are pleased to publish this advance excerpt from this year’s Almanac of American Politics, the Bible of the American political landscape that provides state-by-state sections.  This excerpt profiles the state.

Nevada fuses two important, and divergent, demographic groups in today’s political scene – minorities and blue-collar whites. The state is 28 percent Hispanic (the fifth highest of any state), 8 percent black and 8 percent Asian (the sixth highest) – all prime voting groups for Democratic candidates. Nevada’s white population, meanwhile, accounts for only about 50 percent of the population — the sixth smallest of any state — but it includes many with prickly views about the federal government, which owns more than 85 percent of the state’s land. These voters are receptive to Republicans, especially those aligned with Donald Trump. Mix in economic upheaval during the Great Recession and you have the recipe for a politically volatile state. After a Republican sweep in 2014, Nevada Democrats showed notable strength in two subsequent election cycles, suggesting that demographics may have given them a modest edge for the near future.

Nevada has been a land of boom and bust from its very beginnings as a territory. The evidence of the latest boom is apparent as your plane descends at Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport. You see a pyramid rising from the desert; just across the street from a Sphinx-like lion are New York City-style skyscrapers. Nearby are a fair-sized Eiffel Tower, the gondolas of Venice, and a flaming pirate ship. But there have been signs of bust — giant hotels and condominiums with no lights on at night, retail space up for rent, subdivisions where many houses are unoccupied, and a seamy side of town expertly mined by CSI, the flagship of the long-running TV crime procedural. All this is set in one of North America’s most forbidding landscapes, a bowl-shaped desert valley rimmed by barren peaks.

The natural parts would have looked familiar to the prospectors who first came to mine silver and gold in Virginia City, on a mountain 6,700 feet above sea level, or to Mark Twain and Bret Harte, who documented the heyday of the Comstock Lode, which beginning in 1859 produced $500 million worth of silver within two decades. President Abraham Lincoln’s Republicans made Nevada a state in 1864, even though it did not meet the population requirement, in order to win three more electoral votes. But the silver boom went bust, and by 1900, Nevada had only 42,000 residents, down 68 percent from its 1880 peak. For a time, it seemed questionable whether Nevada was viable as a state. In the early 1930s, when there were still only 91,000 Nevadans, the government was about to go bankrupt. So Nevada decided to roll the dice. It reduced its residency requirement for divorce to six weeks and legalized gambling. The state catered to what most Americans considered sin — casinos, pawnshops, divorce mills, quick-wedding chapels, and legal brothels. (Nevadans remain below-average in church attendance.) It turned out to be good business. The 6.75 percent gambling receipts tax generated enough revenue to make it unnecessary for Nevada to impose income, corporate or inheritance taxes. From mining boom to gambling boom, Nevada has been a second-chance state, a place for outcasts to succeed and misfits to rebound. Only a quarter of the state’s residents were born in Nevada, a rate well below even Florida’s, and that percentage has been steady for a half-century. Nevada has been an avenue of success for ethnic groups who faced roadblocks elsewhere. The four owners of the Comstock Lode — MacKay, Fair, Flood and O’Brien — were Irishmen. The first big hotel on the Las Vegas strip, the Flamingo, was built in 1946 by the Jewish gangster Bugsy Siegel, who was later gunned down in his Beverly Hills home. Most of the big casinos were owned by mobsters until industrialist Howard Hughes — a different kind of outcast — bought them up in the late 1960s. The job market has consistently attracted minorities. But Nevada’s median income is 7 percent below the national average, and it was one of the lowest-ranked states for supporting advanced industry in 2015, according to a Brookings Institution study. A big reason: The state is not highly educated. Only 18 percent of residents had a college degree in 2016, ranking Nevada fifth to last in the nation. As for K-12 schools, only New Mexico ranked worse for education in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2018 Kids Count report, the third straight year Nevada was ranked 49th.

Gaming (the state’s preferred term for gambling) has generated enormous growth: The 91,000 people in the state who decided to legalize gambling has grown into a population of just under 3 million today. Las Vegas was a dot on the map when gambling became legal, a one-traffic-light crossroads in Clark County with 8,532 people countywide. Now, Clark County has 2.2 million.  Las Vegas’ 23,000 hotel rooms in 1973 mushroomed into roughly 150,000 today. Reno, known as “the biggest little city in the world,” now has about 465,000 people in its metro area. Nevada was America’s fastest-growing state in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s and from 2000 to 2007. For a long historical moment, gaming was a good economic bet. But in 2007, gaming revenues declined even before the national economy fell into recession. Nevada suddenly went bust, with the decline in gaming revenues cascading into a housing and construction crash. Nevada’s unemployment rate peaked at 13.7 percent in late 2010 and was in double digits for more than four years straight. Nevada recorded the nation’s steepest fall in homeownership rates between 2004 and 2012. Foreclosure rates peaked at nearly 10 percent of households, and more people left the state than moved there from other states from 2008 to 2011 — in all, a sharp reversal of fortune.

As the nation began to recover, so did Nevada. Clark County has grown by 13 percent in population since 2010, operating with a revised business model. With some form of gambling available in all of the lower 48 states and with neighboring California dotted with Indian casinos, Las Vegas promoted itself as a family destination, not just a gambling den. While gaming  accounted for 58 percent of Nevada casino revenues in 1996, it was only 42 percent by 2017, and on the Strip specifically, the share fell to 34 percent. The Strip has become a luxury shopping center with world-class restaurants. (In 2018, the Supreme Court took away Nevada’s monopoly on sports betting, which could further accelerate the shift.) The casinos continue to cater to high rollers, even sending private planes to fly them in, but they face increasing competition for rich Chinese and Japanese players; Macau’s gaming revenues are bigger than Las Vegas’. Las Vegas has become a major player for convention business, and it attracted its first major-league sports team,  the National Hockey League’s Golden Knights, for the 2017-2018 season. (They proceeded to reach the Stanley Cup finals, falling to the Washington Capitals.) And the city’s second pro sports team is on its way. In 2016 the legislature approved a financing plan for a $1.9 billion domed stadium to house the NFL’s Oakland Raiders; they are slated to arrive in 2020.

Nevada continued to rank high nationally in foreclosures, with upticks in activity as late as 2018. Still, Las Vegas housing has gained ground, as the median price of previously owned single- family homes hit $280,000 in 2018 – more than twice as high as its low point, if still lower than the 2006 level of $315,000, according to the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors. This has made Las Vegas a buyer’s market for people tiring of the Pacific Coast’s high cost of housing. The Los Angeles Times’ Steve Lopez wrote about the surge of Californians moving to Las Vegas: “Moving to get a better job or move up the workplace chain is nothing new. But what’s going on here seems different— people leaving not for better jobs or pay, but because housing elsewhere is so much cheaper they can live the middle-class life that eludes them in California.” In an effort to diversify its economic base, Las Vegas is counting on such businesses as Amazon, shoe retailer Zappos, and data firm Switch Inc., as well as a developing medical sector that’s piggybacking on the University of Nevada’s medical school. Solar energy firms, including Tesla, Sunrun and Vivint Solar, were strengthened after Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a law effectively reversing a 2015 Public Utilities Commission vote to end “net metering,” which allows solar panel-owning homeowners to be paid for the power they send back to the grid. Meanwhile, Nevada legalized cannabis in 2017, and in its first year the industry produced $530 million in taxable sales and supported an estimated 8,300 jobs, according to the Nevada Dispensary Association.

Reno, for its part, has sunk in the gaming rankings without Las Vegas’ luxury attractions. But Washoe County, which includes Reno, has a low cost of living and a pleasant combination of sun and ski slopes; population has increased 9 percent in the county since 2010, and economic diversification is proceeding with a big push from the state. Apple received $89 million in tax breaks to build a data center in Reno; then, with $1.3 billion in state incentives, electric automaker Tesla and Panasonic teamed up to build the biggest battery factory in the world nearby, directly employing a projected 7,000 workers. The factory expanded to produce parts for Tesla’s Model 3 sports car, though vehicle production has experienced some delays.

For all its distinctiveness, Nevada has been similar to the nation politically. A silver-producing state, it voted three times for the free-silver populism of William Jennings Bryan, but since his final candidacy in 1908, Nevada has voted only twice for the loser of a presidential election — Gerald Ford in 1976 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. Nevada twice provided Bill Clinton and George W. Bush narrow victories and, with its increasingly Hispanic electorate, twice provided somewhat bigger margins for Barack Obama. Between 2000 and 2018, it elected one Democratic and one Republican senator and produced divided House delegations.

For years, Nevada sent politically shrewd Democrats to Washington and kept them there to protect the interests of a state heavily dependent on the federal government. The most enduring figure in recent Nevada politics was Harry Reid. In 1982, he won election to the House and in 1986 ran for the Senate and won. He became majority leader in 2007. Keeping him in this position was of immense importance to the gaming industry and the Culinary Union, which represents some 57,000 casino employees and has a crackerjack political organization. When the federal government planned to build a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles from Las Vegas, Reid fought it mightily — and successfully. In 2014, Reid lost his Senate majority, suffered a serious accidental injury and decided to retire. A different kind of power rests with Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate, who has been a Republican mega-donor and since 2015 the owner of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

In 2014, the GOP flipped control of the state legislature (the first time they managed to win both chambers since 1985) and won every statewide office. In 2016, Democrats won back both chambers as Hillary Clinton took the state’s electoral votes. Support from nonwhites proved crucial to Clinton’s victory. Trump ran strongly among white voters – well enough to cut Obama’s six-point margin in 2012 down to less than three points against Clinton.

The state would soon be touched by some of the era’s most divisive cultural issues. In 2017, gunman Stephen Paddock perched in a Las Vegas hotel high-rise and trained his bump-stock-  fitted semi-automatic rifle on attendees of a country music concert, killing 58 and injuring more than 800 — the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. Early the following year, a federal judge threw out criminal charges against Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who had led an armed standoff against federal officials, challenging their rights to regulate federally owned land. And in May 2018, opponents of sanctuary cities received a judicial go-ahead to present voters with a ballot measure, though not before 2020.

The 2018 election cycle was a busy one for Nevada, and Democrats all but ran the table. Democrats Jacky Rosen and Steve Sisolak won a Senate seat and the governorship, respectively, performing a point or two better than Clinton had in 2016. Democrats also defended two open House seats and flipped the offices of lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer and controller. The GOP was able to hold only the secretary of state’s office, eking out a 6,000-vote victory. In the legislature, Democrats extended their control and became the first state to have a female-majority legislature. Voters approved a measure to make voter registration automatic, by a 60%-40% margin. Meanwhile, in an only-in-Nevada electoral development, Dennis Hof – the larger-than-life owner of the Love Ranch brothel, the focus of an HBO reality series – died as Election Day approached, on the heels of a 72nd birthday party attended by celebrities and the porn elite. It was too late to remove his name from the ballot and, running in a safe GOP legislative district, the Trump-style Republican won the election posthumously.

Copyright @ 2019 The Almanac of American Politics. This feature was provided by and is included in The Almanac of American Politics 2020 edition set to be released August 2019. To learn more about this publication or purchase a copy, visit www.almanacofamericanpolitics.com.

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