As Republicans eye Nevada, the state’s battleground status may come down to one man: Joe Biden
President Donald Trump’s rallies are a certain kind of spectacle.
Supporters clad in Make American Great Again hats and assorted Americana-themed shirts and sweaters and necklaces and shoes camp out for hours beforehand with pop up chairs and blankets to secure a spot in line. When the doors open, thousands swarm into giant convention halls in Las Vegas or jostle for a spot on the tarmac at the Elko Regional Airport or wherever the day’s event happens to be. The speakers pulse with boppy hits like “We Are The Champions” and “Eye of the Tiger.” The crowd goes wild when Trump arrives.
Even a casual supporter of the president might show up to one of these rallies just for the experience. But it takes a different kind of supporter entirely to turn up to a meeting room in a library in Southwest Las Vegas on a Saturday morning a year and a day out from the presidential election to learn those crucial and yet entirely unsexy staples of any political campaign’s ground game — how to knock on doors and make phone calls.
Yet still they came, a little more than a dozen of them last weekend, dressed ready for a Trump rally, to hear a pitch about how Republicans lost each precinct in Nevada by an average of only 14 votes in the 2018 election — causing them to cede a U.S. Senate seat and the governor’s mansion to the Democrats — and how if only they door knock, or make phone calls, or help coordinate events, or register voters, Nevada might just go red in 2020.
“The Dems, they don't anticipate Nevada going red. But if we can get Nevada to go red, that is going to be a huge boost for President Trump when it comes toward the Electoral College,” Chris Haskins, regional field director for the Nevada Republican Party, told the group. “It's six extra points in the Electoral College that they were not expecting us to get.”
Nevada, with its independent, Western sensibilities, has long been a swing state. In the last 108 years of presidential elections, the state has only not voted in support of the winning presidential candidate twice, choosing Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016. In every other election — that’s Wilson twice, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, FDR four times, Truman, Eisenhower twice, JFK, LBJ, Nixon twice, Reagan twice, H.W., Clinton twice, W. twice, and Obama twice — as Nevada went, so went the nation.
But two cycles of blue wave elections in Nevada — coupled with an increasingly non-white electorate — has left many political observers wondering if the Silver State is now permanently blue. Several electoral college forecasts project Nevada as a lean blue state, with the real battlegrounds in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida and Arizona. Democrats aren’t taking Nevada’s newfound blueness as a foregone conclusion though, naming it as key state needed to take back the presidency, and neither are Republicans, who believe the other party has drifted so far left that it stands to alienate Nevada’s moderate voters in 2020.
A case in point: While Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a progressive, is surging in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire is beginning to look like a race between her and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist,” it is the moderate former Vice President Joe Biden who is leading in Nevada. And, though the state went blue in 2018, even Republicans will acknowledge that Gov. Steve Sisolak and U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen are hardly liberal firebrands.
The general sense among the more than a dozen Republicans operatives, party leaders, current and former elected officials and Trump supporters interviewed by The Nevada Independent is that if the Democratic nominee is Warren or Sanders, Nevada is in play in 2020; if Biden clinches the nomination, maybe not.
“If Biden is able to keep his head above water long enough to make the entire run and get the nomination, I think Democrats will close ranks around him,” said former Gov. Bob List, a Republican who led the state in the early 1980s. “You’ll see, despite all of his gaffes and his weaknesses and the questions about him, I think he’d be a much stronger candidate in Nevada than anybody else in that field.”
But Republicans nationally are promising the state will be a battleground no matter what. Rick Gorka, a national spokesman for the Trump Victory campaign who worked on John McCain’s presidential campaign in Nevada in 2008, noted that every hand on the July debate stage, including Biden’s, was raised when the candidates were asked whether their health care plan would cover undocumented immigrants — something that the left has long dreamed of but has never been a mainstream Democratic platform.
“If Gov. Sisolak would’ve run on gun confiscation and health care for illegals, I think you would say he would’ve lost this race … This is what the Democrats nationally are running on,” Gorka said. “When you look at where the 2020 field is now, I think Nevada is a much more competitive place today than it was a year ago. That’s just me being honest about it.”
Reactivating the ground game
The Republican ground game in Nevada in 2018 was — from the accounts of several Republican operatives who know the state well — better than any other in recent history. The party started staffing up in June 2017, a full year and a half before the election, and by January had hired 10 paid staff members and onboarded more than 500 fellows through nearly 100 trainings in all 17 counties of the state.
The Republican National Committee hosted a summit in early 2018 that brought together GOP consulting firms and Republican campaigns from across the state to learn how to use the massive trove of data the national party had gathered, a predictive analytics system known as the National Voter Scores program. By the primary, the party had trained 1,300 fellows, neighborhood team leaders, core team members and volunteers in Nevada and hit one million voter contacts in the Silver State by August.
The investment was significant — “unprecedented,” they said at the time — but proportional to the importance of the midterm election in Nevada, with Republican Dean Heller’s U.S. Senate seat and control of the governor’s mansion on the line. When the GOP lost what should have been a nailbiter of a Senate race by a full 5 points and the governor’s mansion by 4 points, Republicans were left grappling with what had gone so wrong. The national party’s conclusion was that all the time, money and effort they invested into Nevada had staved off an even worse defeat.
Now, they’re working to reactivate that infrastructure early in the hopes that it will help them pull out a win in the Silver State this time around. The Trump Victory campaign here in Nevada has, according to its self-reported statistics, already reactivated 300 volunteers, held roughly 100 trainings with more than 900 attendees, hosted 50 house parties, knocked 16,000 doors, made 13,000 phone calls and collected 6,000 petition signatures. The campaign also officially opened its Reno office last month, which staffers here believe is the first Trump Victory office outside of the national headquarters anywhere in the United States.
“We have an even larger ground game right now than we did at this point in the 2018 cycle,” said Michael McDonald, chairman of the Nevada Republican Party. “We’re looking obviously at the infrastructure of getting our message out door to door, and we also have programs where we’re looking at the crossover, the Democrats who are looking for a home to go to because the other side is going so far left.”
But much of the party’s messaging right now has been centered around the ongoing impeachment inquiry, which will officially move into its public phase next week. Impeachment was the primary focus at the recent Trump Victory training in Southwest Las Vegas.
“That's why we're here today is to encourage everyone to volunteer, register your friends, and get people out to actually vote and send a message back to Washington D.C. that we want you to work for us. You promised to work for us, it's time you held up your promise,” Assemblyman Greg Hafen, the Trump Victory campaign’s rural chair in Nevada, told the group. “It's witch hunt after witch hunt. When are they actually going to do some work for us?”
Impeachment is part of what got Las Vegas resident Thomas Sobol out to that training. He said that he’s never been involved in a political campaign before, but that he was spurred to action generally by his support for the president and specifically by the impeachment inquiry.
“I've always voted Republican growing up but I've never been involved like this,” Sobol said. “I've had conversations with family and friends, but I think now is the time to get out there to try and get something done.”
The Trump Victory campaign is aiming to engage two million volunteers, like Sobol, nationwide in 2020. To that end, the campaign already has staff in 17 states across the country, including more than a dozen here.
“The emphasis is on training and recruiting volunteers and those highly trained volunteers, which we call fellows, for the re-election effort,” Gorka said. “What we’re able to do, because we’re running with an incumbent, is we get to focus on building out the infrastructure and building out capacity where Democrats are worried about a primary.”
It also helps that they have the money to do it. The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee raised a combined $125 million in the third quarter of the year, double what President Barack Obama and the Democratic National Committee had raised by the same point in 2011 for his re-election bid.
“The lucky part for us is that we have more money than we know what to do with," Gorka said. "That allows us to build that ground game while targeting voters in Nevada with messaging and paid efforts."
In fact, Trump spent significantly more on Facebook ads in Nevada in October than all of the Democratic field except billionaire Tom Steyer, whose strategy has focused around spending millions on television and digital advertisements.
Gorka promised an ongoing investment in Nevada through the general election, regardless of which Democrat eventually picks up their party’s nomination.
“We’re in Nevada to win. We don’t invest in a state with any other intention,” Gorka said. “They’re going to have all the resources that are necessary to make that happen.”
Several Republican operatives on the ground here not involved with the Trump Victory campaign said they’re seeing the fruits of that investment early on, from the staff on the ground to the party’s merchandise-focused fundraising efforts. (The state GOP is selling everything from a “Witch Hunt” t-shirt featuring cartoon versions of prominent House Democrats on broomsticks to an “Impeach This” tote bag with a county-by-county map of the results of the 2016 election.)
Where operatives are less sure is how the party infrastructure will continue to be built up over the course of the election cycle — including to what extent there will be coordination with down ballot races like there was in 2018 — and whether it even will be if someone like Biden is the nominee.
“I think they’ll make those decisions sometime mid-year next year. They probably will put some infrastructure in place and see what happens here, what happens through the caucus and primary process, and who they think the nominee is going to be,” said Greg Ferraro, a longtime Republican operative in the state who isn’t affiliated with any campaigns this cycle. “I think then they look back at a state like ours with a million plus voters and see if it can make a difference.”
Even if the Trump Victory campaign decides to spend the bulk of its resources elsewhere, Republicans here anticipate at least some level of national investment in Nevada, owing to the fact that Chris Carr, who has deep Nevada ties, is Trump Victory’s political director, as well as the relationship that McDonald has built directly with the president and his family. Donald Trump Jr. will, for instance, be in Las Vegas on Monday for a fundraiser.
“We have a different relationship with the president, the White House, and the Trump campaign than any other state,” McDonald said. “We’re privileged to have that relationship with the family … We have privileges that other states don’t, and I don’t take them for granted.”
Others, however, aren’t sure how much the Republican ground game will actually matter with so much of the race shaped directly by Trump and his direct outreach to voters through social media and other channels.
“I believe that Donald Trump is going to win Nevada, and he’s going to win Nevada based on what Donald Trump says and does over the next year,” said Chuck Muth, a conservative political consultant. “They’ve got all these staff on the ground, these trainings on the ground, that’s really not going to make the difference. It’s not going to make or break the race.”
Longtime Republican consultant Pete Ernaut put it this way.
“All the Republicans are going to come out and vote,” he said, “and they’re all going to vote for the president whether they spend 10 cents or $10 million."
Bringing Nevada into play
If the 104 days until Nevada’s Democratic caucus is an eternity in political time, Election Day 2020, which is 359 days away, is doubly so. But most Republican operatives agree that to what extent Nevada matters in those intervening 255 days will essentially come down to Biden.
“Who the Democratic nominee is in Nevada is almost going to totally determine whether the president is viable here or not,” Ernaut said. “But I don’t think that’s unique to Nevada. That’s probably the case in 20 states."
That’s why many Republicans are eagerly eyeing Biden’s stagnating performance in the first two early nominating states, which could sink his ship before he can make it to Nevada or South Carolina, and his poor fundraising numbers.
“I think as Biden goes along he’s going to continue to erode in his strength,” List said. “I think he’s slipping, and I think there are a lot of people who are questioning his viability — I don’t want to be too rough on him — but in terms of his viability to grasp the issues and express himself. He appears to me to be to have lost a lot of vigor and some of his edge has slipped and so I’m not as concerned about that as I once was.”
List said that if the Democratic nominee is anybody but Biden, Nevada is “certainly” in play.
“I think if it’s Biden, I still believe that Trump can win this state and that he will invest here and campaign here,” List said. “But it would be closer. It would be tougher.”
But Republicans are counting on a number of other factors, including stable relationships with other countries and a good economy. Gorka noted the occupancy rates in Las Vegas — which are near a historic high — coupled with significant gaming wins, two methods of gauging the strength of the casino industry here.
“It’s pretty clear that the economy is doing fairly well and Nevada is benefitting, with some of the records we’re seeing on the Strip as far as occupancy and win,” Gorka said. “When this economy is performing at the level that it is, it’s hard for a Democrat to say that the economic policies of this president are bad for Nevada.”
And if Warren or Sanders is the nominee, they’ll be eyeing Nevada’s union workers even more closely.
“Do you think that a Culinary Union member is going to knock for Elizabeth Warren to get their health care taken away from them if she wins? I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Gorka said, referring to the union’s concerns about the Medicare-for-all health care plan that the Massachusetts senator favors. “Maybe the union leadership is all on board with whomever the nominee is, but the rank and file who see the policies coming from the Democratic Party, it’s not the Democratic Party they’re used to voting for.”
Jeffrey Proffitt, business manager of SMART Local 88, told The Nevada Independent last month that his union is split somewhere between 50-50 and 60-40 between Democrats and Republicans. He said many of his union members still openly support the president and noted that Trump was “saying the right things for union members” during the last election. But he believes it’s going to be a tougher sell this time.
“He was talking about trade. He was talking about the working person’s issues and come to find out that’s not what he was really about,” Proffitt said. “He was about giving away to corporations and tax cuts to corporations.”
But McDonald said that Republicans are planning to make another push for union support this cycle.
“We’re going into union households and talking about the president of the United States when they’ve been one thousand percent behind the Democrats,” McDonald said. “This president can go into union shops and union households and get their support. That’s something that’s a plus on our side.”
The trickle down effect
Most everyday Nevadans aren’t tuned into the presidential race, let alone any other contests that will appear on their ballot next year. But Republican operatives here are already beginning to look at how Nevada’s national competitiveness will affect the state’s down ballot races.
Every three presidential election cycles, there is no U.S. Senate race on the ballot, because Senate terms span six years and are staggered. Catherine Cortez Masto was elected to the Senate in 2016, followed by Jacky Rosen in 2018, meaning that 2020 is Nevada’s off election for the U.S. Senate. There is also no gubernatorial race this year, since in Nevada those elections fall during the midterm.
Voters in two Southern Nevada districts will face potentially close House races, in the 3rd and 4th Congressional Districts, but without a competitive statewide race there is not a lot of extra incentive for national parties to invest in Nevada if the presidential race isn’t looking close.
It’s not yet clear what that means for down ballot races. Presidential races generally see higher voter turnout than midterm elections, which will help get voters to the polls for races they know less about, including the congressional and legislative races. But it’s hard to tell which races will end up being competitive, with the swingiest congressional district, the 3rd District, yet to attract a robust field while Republican candidates crowd into the 4th District, which leans blue and is the more difficult pickup opportunity of the two. In the Legislature, Republicans are defending two Senate seats while gunning for two Democratic-held ones — which, if successful, would still leave Democrats with a 11-10 majority — and the math is even more difficult in the Assembly where Republicans are primarily aiming to not be in the super-minority.
There are two schools of thought on this. One is that all politics is local, and even if Nevada isn’t competitive in the presidential election and doesn’t see a high Republican turnout, Republicans still have a shot at some of these seats on a district by district basis.
“From the Assembly perspective and Assembly races it’s all about the candidate knocking on the doors. You see that in vote totals where Republican Assembly candidates get more votes in their precincts than Donald Trump,” said Eric Roberts, executive director of the Nevada Assembly Republican Caucus. “For me Assembly is all about ground game and then how much can the individual candidates sell themselves to a voter.”
The other is that all politics is national, and to what level Republicans succeed down ballot primarily depends on what happens at the top of the ticket.
“The only thing that matters in politics right now in Nevada is the initial after your name,” Ernaut said. “What happens in the presidential race, who the Democratic nominee is, and what shape they come of the primary process in is going to almost completely dictate the election, from the election of the president to the dog catcher of a county you can’t pronounce."
In some ways, both are true. There’s one question that Republican operatives say down ballot candidates get asked the most by their constituents.
Do you support the president?