Over the past two years, the Democratic Party of Nevada—once, under Harry Reid’s tutelage, one of the most formidable political machines in the country—has been riven by divisions. In 2021, a pro–Bernie Sanders group managed to take over the state party and to capture key positions. Afterward, Reid’s allies walked, taking with them key voter data, hundreds of thousands of dollars of donations, and senior personnel, who regrouped under the auspices of the Washoe County Democratic Party (Washoe is home to Reno, the state’s second-largest city). They proceeded to establish National Democratic Victory, which Sanders’s supporters promptly denounced as a shadow party.
The new leadership then embarked on what can only be described as a two-year flounder, failing in most of its efforts to activate a large, energized, progressive base, and ceding organizing ground and the image of political competence to the Washoe-centered grouping.
Now nearly two years on, and one messy midterm election cycle later—a midterm in which the incumbent Democratic senator eked out a win, but the governor was defeated by his GOP opponent—that intraparty upheaval has reached its zenith.
Late last month, Politico reported that party chair Judith Whitmer, originally elected with backing from Sanders supporters, the Democratic Socialists of America, and an array of other progressive groups, was facing a challenge in her March reelection effort, in the wake of widespread discontent about her inability to build durable grassroots campaigns.
Whitmer had, by then, lost the support of pretty much the entire state party apparatus, including its caucuses in the state’s two legislative chambers, the large DSA chapter in Las Vegas, and most of the state’s big trade unions. She was widely seen as having lacked the ability to fulfill her 2021 promises and had gotten into an extraordinary, and needless, contretemps with then-Governor Steve Sisolak by backing a rival to his choice for lieutenant governor during primary season. As the Politico article reported, she had been lambasted for continuing to back a sheriff who supported the use of choke holds, and, most recently, faced a chorus of calls to resign after the state party purged 40 percent of the central committee’s members from its rolls.
Last weekend, the party took its vote and booted Whitmer from office, replacing her with Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno. The result wasn’t close: Whitmer lost by a more than three-to-one margin. Every one of the candidates for state party office backed by Monroe-Moreno’s “Unity” campaign won; every one of Whitmer’s candidates lost.
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Henry Kissinger, War Criminal—Still at Large at 100
Henry Kissinger, War Criminal—Still at Large at 100
There is a lesson here. The sort of posture politics practiced by Whitmer doesn’t cut it—probably not anywhere, certainly not in a complex swing state such as Nevada, with its core group of Democratic voters in Las Vegas and in Reno, and with deeply conservative hinterlands surrounding the big cities.
Posturing aside, there’s a lot of good politics going on in Nevada—witness the recently introduced bill to expand postpartum Medicaid coverage for low-income mothers for the first year after they give birth; the cutting-edge water-recycling programs that are in place; the ambitious CO2 reduction strategy that has been adopted. But that good politics gets put at risk, and the likelihood of GOP election victories grow, when leaders such as Whitmer fail to live up to the expectations of those who put them in power in the first place.
Last year, Oregon Democrats nearly fell apart at the seams as their gubernatorial candidate, Tina Kotek, struggled to consolidate support, following the reputational collapse of outgoing Governor Kate Brown. It wasn’t that voters didn’t like Brown’s basic political philosophy; it was more that they saw her as having failed to deliver on basic quality-of-life issues—failing to tackle the housing crisis, to respond to rising crime, and so on. In other words, she talked a good talk but ended up walking a lousy walk. Throughout 2022, she was the most unpopular governor in the country. Kotek did eventually win, but only after a massive effort to distance herself from Brown and her legacy. In California, San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin was recalled, not because he was far to the left of San Franciscans but because he was widely perceived to be incompetent at his job and unable to deliver outcomes that matched his soaring rhetoric.
There are lessons in these elections: There is plenty of room for radical politics out West, and plenty of room for candidates looking to shake up the status quo. In many ways, it remains a petri dish in which new, and experimental, political ideas and alliances are cultivated. But at the end of the day, voters also want tangible results. Whitmer’s mediocre tenure, and her election defeat last week, is a wake-up call: If Democrats want to continue to hold power in places like Nevada, they need a party political machinery led by leaders who aren’t just idealistic but are also competent.