An increase in political polarization that made it hard to peel off swing voters combined with Democratic successes in turning out their voters, led to Nevada GOP candidates getting walloped, said Rep. Mark Amodei, the only remaining Republican in the state’s congressional delegation.
Amodei, who earlier this month defeated Democrat Clint Koble by winning 58 percent of the vote to keep his 2nd Congressional District seat, also pointed to the fact that Democrats had outraised Republicans, and he said that a booming economy was too mundane to receive much coverage and break through with voters.
Although he decried the polarized atmosphere, he defended President Donald Trump and praised the president’s record on energizing the economy, which he argued beats any other issue one could have with the president, adding that he would campaign with him in 2020 if asked.
Democrats won victories in competitive Senate and governor’s races, all but one statewide race, two competitive House races and a large number of competitive legislative contests.
“Nevada, as a statewide proposition, is a blue state,” Amodei said in a recent interview, referring to the advantage Democrats have in registered voters over Republicans in the state. “Historically, it has always been a little more, or a little less, than a 100,000 registered voter advantage.”
As of October, Democrats had 598,174 active voters, defined as any registered voter who is legally entitled to vote, compared with 523,251 Republican active voters (that’s about 75,000 voters), according to the secretary of state’s office. In October 2016, Democrats had 577,679 active voters, while Republicans had 488,861 active voters, a difference of about 89,000 voters. Statistics for October 2014 showed that Democrats had 482,198 active voters, while Republicans had 420,162, a difference of 62,000 voters. In October 2012, Democrats had 526,985 active voters and Republicans had 436,799, about 90,000 more for Democrats.
“Where I come from, that’s called a blue state,” Amodei said, adding that in the election, Democrats capitalized on “their registration advantage” by turning out their voters.
“I am a big believer in, at the end of the day, the blocking and tackling and ground game stuff,” he said. “And quite frankly, since people have started paying attention to it, most of the time the Democrats win that battle in urban Nevada.”
“What the Democrats do is not a secret that we need to find out,” he continued. “They concentrate on registering and then at some point in time they transpose from that to turning [their] people out…. Until you can compete with that you can expect that that area will continue to be a challenge.”
When asked if the state GOP would benefit from his ideas, he said he didn’t presume to offer advice to or speak for anyone other than himself. Amodei previously served as chair of the Nevada Republican Party between leaving the state senate in 2010 and 2011 when he launched his successful bid to replace Dean Heller in the House after Heller was appointed to former Sen. John Ensign’s seat.
One example of what Amodei was talking about is the politically powerful Culinary Union, which represents 57,000 guest-room attendants, servers, bellmen and others at resorts in Las Vegas and in Reno. As usual, it played a key role in the Democratic turnout operation this year, with 350 workers taking a leave of absence to urge voters to turn out to the polls. In total, the union knocked on 370,000 doors, had 80,000 one-on-one conversations with voters, made 45,000 personal calls, sent 1.8 million pieces of mail, sent regular emails and texts to members and ran video ads with 3.5 million views.
Turnout in 2018 actually looked slightly more like a presidential year than it did a midterm, with just over 62 percent of registered voters showing up to the polls on Election Day or during early voting or casting their ballots by mail.
The percentage of voters who turned out to the polls in Nevada was still lower than the 76.7 percent of voters who showed up in 2016 to cast their ballots in favor of then-GOP candidate Trump or Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. But it was considerably more than the meager 45.6 percent voter turnout in the last midterm.
On top of the registration advantage and the high turnout favoring Democrats, there is also a growing partisan divide among voters. Amodei said it has been harder to break through with voters from the opposing party as politics has gotten more tribal.
“The frustrating part for me, and it applies to both sides, more and more polarization is like, ‘You’re a Republican. I don’t want to hear from you, I don’t want to see you, you’re the enemy,’” he said.
A national exit poll of voters leaving the polls found that 77 percent of respondents said America is becoming more politically divided, while only 8 percent said it’s becoming more unified.
He said that’s a change from the time when independent elected officials such as former Gov. Mike O’Callaghan and former governor and U.S. Sen. Dick Bryan, both Democrats, held office generations ago. Amodei also noted even former Sen. Harry Reid, also a Democrat, early on, used the campaign slogan “Independent Like Nevada.” Reid retired in 2016.
“Guess what, there ain’t nobody saying they’re independent like Nevada anymore,” Amodei said. “They’re saying here’s my gang colors and there are yours and we’re going to fight to the death.”
But while polarization is growing, Amodei believes that there are enough voters in Nevada that will give him a chance “whether they have a predisposition or not.” That was born out by his election-night victory, especially in Washoe County, which has swung between the parties over the years despite an edge in registered Republican active voters. Amodei won 51 percent of the vote in the county, but Washoe voters chose Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen over Republican Sen. Dean Heller.
Amodei is planning to commission an analysis of the vote in Washoe, the state’s second-most populous county, to see what can be gleaned when comparing registration at the precinct level to turnout in the precinct. Since there was no third-party candidate, it would provide a relatively clean look at how independents voted, he said.
“Let’s see what really happened,” he said. “Depending on what you see in that, then it’s like ‘ok, so what conclusions can you draw from that if you want to be effective.’”
He suspects he won independents and some Democrats, but wants to get the specifics. Amodei also wants to know how and why his opponent, whom he called a good candidate, won 41 percent of the vote, the most any of his opponents have attained going back to his first race for the seat in 2011.
Amodei has not yet hired a firm to do the analysis, but it won’t be a firm from Nevada, something he believes will keep it unbiased. “I think a little distance would be good,” he said.
Outside money flooding into a myriad of campaigns also hurt Republicans, in Nevada and around the nation, Amodei believes, which led to a lot of misleading political TV ads that catch voters’ attention.
“We’re getting close to being outraised 2-to-1, as a generic thing,” he said, adding “in my district, if somebody showed up with $2-and-half million bucks, and spent it, they’d probably win. That’s the vulnerability R’s face.”
“You’d like to think truth and justice win” but they typically don’t, Amodei said of the ads.
He cited the progressive group Not One Penny, which ran ads against Amodei for voting for the Republican tax reform bill enacted in December.
He said their campaign was misleading. In one ad, the group argued that the law—which made tax breaks for businesses permanent, while breaks for individuals were set to expire after 2025—would increase taxes on about half of taxpayers by 2025.
“Well, yeah, if it goes for 10 years and then it basically all expires their argument would be not a total flipping fabrication,” Amodei said, noting that Congress would not likely allow those breaks to expire.
“So it’s not a flat out, 100 percent lie,” he added. “It’s phenomenal violence to the context.”
He believes that while he and other GOP candidates tried to campaign on the surging economy, it did not receive a lot of media coverage, in his opinion, in part because the media was too focused on Trump and his personality.
Voters “know they have more money, but if they’re thinking that they like the reporters quip in response to the president’s jab, then it becomes a personality contest,” Amodei said, adding that he doesn’t think it turned the tide, but it drowned out the message on the economy, which should have been a strength for the GOP.
When pressed if Trump was to blame for that, Amodei said that the president can be divisive, but he maintains that the media also plays a part in the divisiveness.
“Does he say some divisive stuff? Absolutely he does,” he said. But “I think there is a distrust of the media that didn’t used to be there in the old days. Listen, if you want a reason to hate Donald Trump you are getting plenty of them from a lot of the reporting.”
Amodei supports the president and believes that Trump has gotten results, a significant accomplishment that should be lauded. He said he would campaign for Trump in Nevada in 2020, if asked, “based on everything I know now.”
“Where I come from four points on GDP is a good thing,” Amodei said, which is good for Nevada’s tourism economy. “The fact that people have more money in their pocket means more of them are flying in.”
He also lauded deals on trade with Canada and Mexico and talks with Japan.
Amodei was absent when the president came to the state to campaign with GOP candidates, including gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt and Sen. Dean Heller. He said he wanted to go, but he had issues with the president’s advance team, which he said required him to jump through several hoops to attend the events.
When Trump visited Elko, Amodei said Trump’s advance team would only allow him to get to the event by going through the metal detectors with all other attendees.
“I said, ‘You know what? I wish you the best for a successful event and I’m sure it will be great. Give the president all my best, but you’ve just crossed the line far too hard,” Amodei recounted. “‘It would be easier for me to go to the event with one of my VIP tickets than it would to come under your circumstances.’”
He said he knows that makes him sound “crotchety” but he insisted, as a supporter of the president, “I’m one of the good guys.”
Asked about why he succeeded where others in the state failed, Amodei said that he tries to listen and be responsive to the issues that are important to constituents.
“We take the view that you’ve got to earn their vote every day,” he said. “That means you do your job, you do your oversight, you follow up, you work the issues.”
Amodei’s district favors Republicans. It is rated R+7 according to The Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index, which measures how each district performs at the presidential level compared to the nation as a whole.
“It’s not sexy and it’s not violent,” he said, adding “If there’s a strength, I guess it’s that we’re pretty open about what we do. We try to be issue and fact-focused.”
He gave the example of health care, which emerged as a big issue in the midterms, as something that he has dug into because there is a concern in his district.
“I didn’t come back here to work on health care, but guess what, that’s a huge issue,” Amodei said, adding he wants to work with Democrats, who took over control of the House after the election, to fix the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which Democrats enacted in 2010 and Republicans have pledged to repeal.
“I wish people would quit saying repeal and replace because, quite frankly, you know what, we need to fix some things, but we’re not going to repeal the whole darn thing,” he said.
He voted for the House Republican bill, the American Health Care Act, after initially opposing it.
Passed by the chamber last year, the measure was never considered by the Senate. Amodei changed his mind on the measure after being assured by officials in Washington and Nevada that those eligible for Medicaid would not lose coverage. Under the ACA, more people were made eligible for Medicaid and federal funds were provided to allow states to expand coverage. Nevada was one of 37 states, including the District of Columbia, that expanded Medicaid and lowered the number of its citizens who are uninsured, according to Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Much like the economy, Amodei said, you can never say “mission accomplished” on the issue of health care, he said.
“I never walked around saying the American Health Care Act was the answer and swallow the whole thing, but you’ve got to start somewhere and all this posturing of ‘I don’t like this for this or that’ I think is absolutely useless regardless of what you are because the issue is affordability and access to health care,” Amodei said.
“Even in Nevada with the [Medicaid] expansion [we] were at 22 or 23 percent uninsured,” he continued. “We’re down to 11, but guess what, 11 is still a big number.”
He said he’s talked to stakeholders around the state on the issue “to make sure we know where all those moving parts are so when we start talking about what do we need to fix it, or how can we do this better.”
Amodei’s unflashy style of politics is personified by the campaigns he runs. He hasn’t bought a TV ad since the special election in 2011, when he ran in a special election for his seat. “Quite frankly [we] can’t afford them, and we are blessed with a reasonable media market.”
He does buy weekly radio ads known as “Minute with Mark.”
“I am out there telling you about the issues, not campaigning because we buy them at non-political rates except during those black-out rates.” Amodei said. “What we usually do is say ‘here’s some information hopefully you think is important.’ But we never say, because it’s Nevada, you should think this. We spend probably $130,000 a year on that ‘Minute with Mark’ stuff.”
Still feels young
Amodei doesn’t seem like a lawmaker who has run his last campaign, but when asked he did not say definitively one way or the other whether he plans to run again. He said he doesn’t have to decide until March of 2020.
“We’ll get to the point where the end of next year, because you’ve got to sign up the following March, you start taking stock,” he said.
He also wants to see what life will be like in the minority, which will be his first time.
“It will be kind of a giggle if, well, there’s not a hell of a lot of difference,” Amodei said.
In a sign that retirement is not on his mind, he said he plans, along with health care and the economy, to continue to work on lands bills and press to pass immigration reform in the next Congress.
“We’ll continue to work on all of those and at the end of 2019, ‘Ok, so where do you think we’re at,’” he said.
“I don’t want to get to the point where I feel like I’ve gotten old and I’m still here,” Amodei said.“I can tell you this, as a guy who turned 60 this year…I still feel young.”