For the last decade, candidates seeking the nation’s highest office have sojourned West in the hope of courting and winning the approval of Nevadans, from the union workers in the bowels of Strip casinos to the rural ranchers across the state’s vast ranges.
Since 2008, the Silver State has held the first early presidential nominating contest in the West, a distinction that has led to a revolving door of candidates.
Nevada’s pitch for its early status — behind only Iowa and New Hampshire — has and continues to be that it looks like America, with a population that is 28.8 percent Hispanic, 9.8 percent black and 9.6 percent Asian American and Pacific Islander. In other words, Nevada looks very different from the two nominating states that precede it, where roughly nine in 10 people are white.
Some, including former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, have speculated that the two biggest states in the country, California and Texas, holding presidential primaries on March 3 may diminish Nevada’s importance in 2020, though it could be helpful for Democrats on the whole. Both the Republican and Democratic caucuses are slated for the last week of February.
“It’s going to hurt Nevada a little bit. It’ll weaken our power,” Reid said in a recent interview with The Nevada Independent. “But it’s going to be the right thing because I think we’re going to have a nominee out there more quickly than we have in the past and we should concentrate on that person and do what we can.”
California’s early primary may actually boost Nevada’s profile, though, encouraging candidates to swing through both states on trips out West. Rebecca Lambe, a longtime Reid campaign aide and Democratic strategist, noted that candidates already make early trips to California for fundraising events.
“The reality is it increases the focus on the West,” Lambe said. “Does it diminish Nevada’s status? No. For a presidential candidate, a win in Nevada, a good performance in Nevada still means a lot for them in terms of building momentum.”
2020 may also be a year of increased attention on the West, generally, with three Democratic Western governors — Colorado’s John Hickenlooper, Montana’s Steve Bullock and Washington’s Jay Inslee — and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti mulling or, in the case of U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, committed to presidential bids. On a recent trip to Nevada to deliver the keynote address at Battle Born Progress’ annual progressive summit, Inslee highlighted his record fighting climate change, an issue that resonates with Democrats across the country but keenly in the West.
Both Democrats and Republicans on the ground here are adamant that the state will be on the map in 2020, both for its role in the nominating contest and in the general election. Despite Trump’s loss here four years ago and two blue waves in the past two cycles, Republicans aren’t writing off the state and Democrats aren’t taking their victories for granted.
Concerns that candidates may spend less time and attention on Nevada this cycle are also belied by the couple dozen visits that Democratic hopefuls and the president himself made to the Silver State last year. More than a dozen Democratic 2020 hopefuls showed their faces in Nevada in 2018 ostensibly to campaign for Democrats up and down the ballot here including now-U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen and Gov. Steve Sisolak, while Trump made a handful of trips to the state, stumping for Republican candidates from Las Vegas to Elko.
Like Inslee, other Democratic candidates have quietly begun making trips to the state this year as they flirt with and eventually commit to 2020 bids.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who announced her 2020 bid on New Years Eve, was scheduled to host an organizing event at Springs Preserve Friday evening, the first event hosted by a candidate who has officially announced a presidential bid. But the event was canceled so Warren could stay in the capital in case of a shutdown vote. Last June, Warren delivered the keynote address at the Nevada State Democratic Party Convention in Reno and spoke at a Democratic event in Henderson in June.
Earlier this month, Julian Castro, former Housing and Urban Development secretary under President Barack Obama and the former mayor of San Antonio, met with students at Rancho High School before announcing a presidential bid a few days later.
“I remember that when I was in high school, I kind of had mixed feelings about politics because in some ways I felt like I didn’t see what difference it made,” Castro said, according to the Associated Press. “I didn’t see that the people in office were doing much to help the people I was growing up with.”
Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who is mulling a bid, announced last week that he will be traveling to Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina as part of a “Dignity of Work” tour kicking off later this month.
The Draft Beto Campaign, which is focused on building up campaign and volunteer infrastructure should former Rep. Beto O’Rourke decide to throw his hat in the ring for president, hired a Nevada state director last month. The campaign is holding house parties in Las Vegas and Reno on Saturday with the goal of drumming up support for O’Rourke, who came to national prominence during his failed 2018 bid for U.S. Senate against Republican Ted Cruz.
Other announced candidates, including Harris and former U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, haven’t yet visited the state this year but traveled here in 2018 to boost Democratic turnout — and their own profiles in an early nominating state.
Like Warren, Harris participated in a “Local Brews + National Views” event hosted by the Nevada State Democratic Party at Lovelady Brewery in Henderson in March. Harris, who officially announced her 2020 bid on Monday, also participated in get-out-the-vote events in Las Vegas and Reno in the final days of the 2018 campaign.
In October, Delaney attended a house party in support of now-Rep. Susie Lee’s campaign, while Gillibrand appeared by videoconference with female Democratic candidates in Nevada at a state Democratic Party field office in September.
Several prospective 2020 candidates have also contributed financial support to the Nevada State Democratic Party over the last cycle. In the last reporting period alone, which ran from Oct. 18 to Nov. 26, the party received $20,000 from Kamala Harris for Senate, $5,000 from Harris’ Fearless for the People PAC, and $55,000 from Elizabeth for Massachusetts.
On the ground, Democrats are already putting together a delegate selection plan to send to the Democratic National Committee and strategizing how to increase transparency and accessibility in the caucus process, including early voting for caucus goers. Nevada’s Democratic caucus is slated for Feb. 22, 2020, and party officials say they aren’t concerned about anyone challenging the state’s first in the West status.
“We’re going to be ready and obviously we’re doing a lot of work to make sure we have more transparency, more involvement, more inclusion from progressive groups to see with this coming election that we’re poised to win again,” said Will McCurdy, an assemblyman and chair of the state party.
Alana Mounce, the party’s executive director, said that in addition to being an opportunity for Democrats to build up their volunteer infrastructure early, the caucuses will continue to be an opportunity for campaigns to test their campaign infrastructure and mettle ahead of a nationwide campaign.
“We are a battleground state,” Mounce said. “The work that campaigns do here is a test of how they’ll perform in the general election.”
On the Republican side, Trump made several trips to the state in 2018 to drum up support, including attending the Nevada Republican Party Convention in Las Vegas in June, rallying thousands at the Las Vegas Convention Center in September, and a speaking at the Elko Regional Airport in October. Vice President Mike Pence also traveled out west several times over the course of 2018.
Despite Trump’s 2.3 percentage point loss to Clinton in 2016, Nevada Republican Party Chairman Michael McDonald is bullish that Trump can win Nevada in 2020.
“I think you look at what he’s done for Nevada, taxes. The [Bureau of Land Management] is the big thing for us out here, with the majority of land owned by the government. I think having that type of leadership and having him here for Nevada, we’re able to pinpoint what he has done for Nevada,” McDonald said. “I think his chances of winning Nevada are excellent.”
McDonald said he believes Trump will continue to make frequent trips to the state not just to connect with Nevadans but with those members of his base who live in surrounding states.
“He is very fond of Nevada on a personal level. He loves the people of Nevada. He has friends here. They are very loyal to him, but he has that status everywhere,” McDonald said. “He likes Nevada and the people in the rural communities and the people in Clark County. We get people from all over … By coming here he’ll have people coming from California and other areas that aren’t as strong for the president.”
As far as whether Nevada’s first in the West status is in jeopardy on the Republican side, McDonald is equally optimistic. According to state party rules, the caucus is slated for Feb. 25, 2020.
“I don’t take anything for granted because we have to defend it. But I know what the RNC looks for, I know what the president of the United States looks for, what the White House is looking for. At the end of the day, we’re soldiers for the president,” McDonald said. “I feel very good in every conversation we’ve had with the RNC, with the White House and the president. I feel good about our status as far as first in the West.”
For a list of 2020 hopefuls’ visits to Nevada in 2018 and 2019, check out the table below:
This story was updated at 10:15 AM to reflect Elizabeth Warren’s change of plans.