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Infighting and scandal plague Nevada politics ahead of 2022 midterm elections


Longstanding tensions in Nevada’s Democratic party boiled over last week as Gov. Steve Sisolak sat signing legislation to scrap the state’s caucuses in favor of primaries and move them to the front of the calendar for the 2024 presidential nominating contest.

Washoe County’s Democratic Party had just announced it is seizing control over next year’s coordinated midterm campaign operations from the state party in a move that can only be described as a party coup.

Judith Whitmer, chair of the Nevada Democratic Party, called it an “insurgency within our own party.”

And Democrats in Iowa, no doubt having heard about the infighting in Nevada, allowed themselves to feel some hope of retaining their state’s first-in-the-nation status—even after thoroughly fouling up last year’s presidential caucuses.

Iowa and New Hampshire lack diversity. They’re two very white states, and this has often been cited as a reason to have Nevada supplant them as the earliest state in the nominating contest. 

Furthermore, Iowa messed up its caucuses so badly last year that the Associated Press was never able to call a winner in the state. 

Democrats on caucus day 2020 in Reno, Nev. Image: Trevor Bexon / This Is Reno

The divisions between Democrats in the Silver State must certainly look bad to the Democratic National Committee members who are likely to finalize the nominating calendar as early as 2022.

When the Democratic Party in Washoe County announced in a press release its move to undercut the state party ahead of next year’s elections, it did so with statements of support from Sisolak, U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Governors Association.

It follows a takeover of the state Democratic party earlier this year by a slate of Bernie Sanders-supporting progressives who won top leadership positions in elections that prompted  the resignation of the entire staff and its consultants

The wins dealt a blow to the so-called “Reid machine” of party organizers who’ve been credited in recent years with helping usher in Democratic majorities in the state legislature and flipping the governor’s office from Republicans for the first time in nearly two decades.

Whitmer called the move by WashoeDEMs “ill-advised and undemocratic” in her own statement.

WashoeDEMS Chair Sarah Mahler defended it as correct. 

“Washoe County is a critical swing county in our battleground state and will play an outsized role in electing Nevada’s leaders in the 2022 elections,” she said. “That’s why we believe this is the right move to support our efforts to re-elect Governor Steve Sisolak … Cortez Masto and Democrats up and down the ballot.”

Unlike the Democrats, Republicans in Nevada appear to remain united—for the most part, though not entirely. The question, however, is what are they united behind?

Republicans oppose bid for Nevada to take first-in-nation position

State Republican Party Chair Michael McDonald last week joined the chairs of the Republican parties in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire in issuing a statement calling for the existing nominating calendar to remain the same.

Republicans are in the minority in the Nevada Legislature and hold only one of the statewide elected offices. They’ve largely stuck together in opposing most every action taken by Nevada’s Democratic leadership. But they turned upon one of their own in April and the move has been coming back to haunt them, planting the seeds of division within their party.

The leaders of the state Republican party voted in April to censure Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske after she determined that there was no widespread fraud in the 2020 election and refused to go along with the false “stop the steal” narrative pushed by Trump supporters. 

Members of the Proud Boys, in black polo shirts, show support for President Trump along with other conservatives during the "Return of the Minutemen" re-open Nevada protest on May 2, 2020 in Carson City.
Members of the Proud Boys, in black polo shirts, show support for President Trump along with other conservatives during the “Return of the Minutemen” re-open Nevada protest on May 2, 2020 in Carson City. Image: Ty O’Neil / This Is Reno

It came out not long after that members of the far-right, extremist group the Proud Boys—self-described “Western chauvinists” who in Canada are designated a terrorist group—had allegedly been invited to cast deciding votes on the censure.

The Nevada Senate GOP caucus and the chairs of the Clark and Washoe county Republican parties have called for an audit of the censure vote.

The caucus in a statement called reports of party leaders collaborating with the Proud Boys “profoundly concerning” and said if there is a “determination that any member or employee of the Nevada Republican Party conspired with these individuals or had knowledge of any wrongdoing in the party vote, Senate Republicans call for their immediate removal and resignation.”

There have also been concerns about the Proud Boys attempting to infiltrate the state Republican party officially by becoming members. The extremist group filed suit when GOP party members in Las Vegas blocked their attempts to become members, but a judge has declined to take action on it.

McDonald said in a June 5 statement that the group’s involvement in the Republican party is really a non-issue being blown out of proportion by the media.

“This Big Lie continues to ripple through national media, bringing unwarranted attention to the NVGOP at a time when we need to concentrate on the 2022 election cycle,” he said. “There is no evidence to support the allegations, and in fact the media was provided the proof to contradict what they reported on without researching, yet no retractions have been issued.”

How will party drama influence the DNC nominating calendar decision? 

Nevada may still stand a chance of jumping ahead of Iowa and the other early nominating states. Former U.S. Senator Harry Reid said in an interview with Politico earlier this month that he doubted the Democratic National Committee would penalize Nevada for any of the drama in the state party.

He also said reports of the division between Democrats in the state have been exaggerated.

“The mere fact that somebody took over the state party, it happens all the time,” Reid said.

And arguments against Iowa maintaining its first-in-the-nation status abound. Dave Peterson, a political science professor at Iowa State University told the publication National Interest in February that the case against Iowa and New Hampshire as the first nominating states is that they do not represent the present or future of the Democratic Party. 

“They are both overwhelmingly white in the party that is relying heavily on the votes of Latinos and African Americans,” he said. “Iowa faces other challenges because the caucus system is somewhat archaic and can limit participation.”

Jeri Chadwell
Jeri Chadwellhttp://thisisreno.com
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.