AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
When former President Donald Trump touched down in Nevada on Friday to campaign for the state’s Republican U.S. Senate and gubernatorial nominees, he was wading into what could turn out to be one of the biggest political stories of 2022. On November 4th, Nevada—a state now run almost exclusively by Democrats—could wake up a decidedly red state. If so, it will be not only because of the issue Trump was there to highlight—the rising crime rates under Democrat leadership—but because of trends that have been a long time coming.
In politics, realignments come fast. When West Virginia cast its electoral votes for George W. Bush instead of Al Gore in 2000, in the process deciding the election (Florida would have been irrelevant if Gore had won West Virginia), it was a shock. West Virginia had two Democratic Senators, an all-Democratic congressional delegation until Shelly Moore Capito’s equally shocking win in 2000, and it was believed to be a stronghold of working-class, union Democrats. But in hindsight, the contest between Texas Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore in West Virginia looked like a preview of the future national divorce between the rural American working-class and the Democratic Party.
The midterm elections of 2022 may see a similar occurrence. November is by many estimations set to be a Red Wave, but waves do not just bring victory in swing states. They can also bring about long-overdue revolutions in states which no longer line up with a party. For all the focus on the Upper Midwest as an area which appears to be trending Republican, or on Democratic optimism about Georgia, the better candidates for revolution lie in the West—in particular, in Nevada. Democratic rule is nearly total in the Silver State, with the party controlling both Senate seats, three out of four House seats, every state-wide office aside from Secretary of State, and the state legislature. The Democratic candidate has carried the state in every presidential election since 2004.
Yet, just as in West Virginia, Democratic rule in Nevada appears to be increasingly built upon a foundation of sand. Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak and Senator Catherine Cortez Masto face serious challenges, while Democrats may lose every congressional seat this fall. In short, 2022 may well be Nevada Democrats’ last stand.
Polls show the races for both Governor and Senate close, with Masto stuck in the low 40s against Adam Laxalt, the former Attorney General who lost a narrow race for Governor to Sisolak by 4% in 2018. This time around, Sisolak faces Joe Lombardo, the Sheriff of Clark County in an equally close race. Democratic confidence in both races appears to be based not on polling, which if anything shows Republicans ahead, or on qualitative considerations, which are perhaps worse for them in working-class and Latino-heavy Nevada than anywhere else in the country, but rather on a faith that Democrats “always” win in Nevada.
But even recent history quickly reveals holes in this logic. In 2014, Republicans swept every statewide office and both houses of the legislature. Democrat margins in both Presidential and Senate races are also often narrow, even in good years. Sisolak’s 49%-45% victory in the Democratic wave year of 2018 is a case in point, as was Jacky Rosen’s 5% win in that year’s Senate race. The myth of Democrats “always” winning Nevada appears to mostly owe its origins to Harry Reid’s come-from-behind victory in the 2010 Senate race. Yet Harry Reid is now dead, and there is evidence that his Democratic machine is on its way to the grave as well.
Nevada Democrats have long been dependent on the power and influence of Harry Reid’s Las Vegas political machine, which, in alliance with the major service unions, especially the culinary unions, utilized Nevada’s generous early and absentee voting system to build insurmountable leads through organizing. But this coalition depended heavily on service workers, whose industries were hit hardest by lockdowns, and more recently by inflation, even as Democrats were already bleeding votes from other working-class Latino and white voters.
Even before COVID, there were already signs of erosion. While Democrats won the state in every Presidential election since 2004, when compared to the country at large Nevada has drifted rightward:
|2000||49.5%-46% Bush||48.4%-47.9% Gore||4% R|
|2004||50.5%-47.9% Bush||50.7%-48.3% Bush||0.2% R|
|2008||55.2%-42.7% Obama||52.9%-45.6% Obama||5.2% D|
|2012||52.4%-45.7% Obama||51%-47.2% Obama||2.9% D|
|2016||47.9%-45.5% Clinton||48%-45.9% Clinton||0.3% D|
|2020||50.1%-47.7% Biden||51.3%-46.8%||2.1% R|
As is evident, Nevada trended toward Democrats rapidly during the 2000s. In 2000, Nevada voted 4% more Republican than the nation as a whole. By 2004, that advantage had been almost entirely erased, and Nevada voted almost identically to the country. In 2008, Democratic strength peaked, and Nevada voted for Obama by a 5% greater margin than the country as a whole. Yet already by 2012 this trend began to reverse, and nearly half of the Democratic advantage vanished. It had almost entirely disappeared by 2016, and in 2020 Nevada actually voted 2% to the right of the country at large.
What is striking is the consistency of the trend over the last decade. Nevada shifted 2.3% to the GOP between 2008 and 2012, 2.6% between 2012 and 2016, and then 2.4% between 2016 and 2020, Powering this trend has been the fact that Democrats have built their strength on trying to expand the turnout of their core electorate rather than expanding their appeal. The result is that while they have managed to hold-onto their raw vote margins in Las Vegas’s Clark County and Reno’s Washoe County, they have failed to make the gains which would be needed to counter their collapse in the rural areas. Unlike in other urban areas, where Democratic margins have increased dramatically, they have been static in Washoe, and actually declined in Clark.
|Year||Clark Margin||Clark Raw Vote Diff||Washoe Margin||Washoe Raw Vote|
|2012||56.42%-41.82% Obama||100,873||50.79%-47.09% Obama||6,956|
|2016||52.43%-41.72% Clinton||80,170||46.39%-45.14% Clinton||2,621|
In total, since 2012, the raw Democratic margin in Reno and Las Vegas has declined from around 107,000 in 2012 to 102,000 in 2020. This occurred as total turnout in Nevada as a whole increased by 380,000. In short, Democrats have not only failed to gain net votes in their strongholds, they have lost votes, all while being hit with the same erosion in rural areas and small towns as everywhere else in the country.
This is key context for 2022. Democrats in Nevada, despite their superficial strength, largely built on a history of narrow wins, were already in trouble even absent any sort of GOP wave. The trend-lines have not been moving in a positive direction since 2012, and unlike in the previous decade, they have been unable to harness Nevada’s rapid population growth to increase their margins. The 2018 elections, despite the Democratic sweep, were evidence of this. Adam Laxalt, supposedly a flawed candidate in the eyes of the media, lost by a mere 4% when nationally Democrats were winning the House vote by 8%. Contrast that to neighboring New Mexico, where Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham defeated former Congressman Steve Pearce for Governor by more than 15%.
Worse, it is not a neutral year. If Democrats face a shrinking margin of error in a year like 2018, what is it likely to be in 2022 when the national situation is so much worse, and the major demographic groups on which they rely are turning against them? A hint was provided by the primary, where more than 235,000 cast ballots in the Republican primary compared to only 135,000 in the Democratic one.
The hope among Democrats, beyond the belief that they “always win” in Nevada, is that somehow the flawed nature of GOP candidates will help them. They point to how Lombardo defeated former U.S. Senator Dean Heller in the primary for Governor, and claim that Adam Laxalt is too closely aligned with Donald Trump. But this ignores that Laxalt was a former statewide officeholder, and even in 2018 when he was cast as equally “flawed” and “extreme” he still only lost by 4%. With the current trends, do Democrats really think he can’t do 4% better?
Rather than confronting this threat, Nevada Democrats appear to be in denial. When they redrew congressional seats, they spread their support thin, leading Congresswoman Dina Titus to warn that in their effort to win three out of four seats, they risk ending with zero. Not only do Democrats seem confident this will not happen, but appear to believe that they do not need to take any action or produce any message other than reminding everyone they are Democrats in order to win.
Often when the winds are against a party, what makes the difference between an against-all-odds victory and a collapse is having some sort of message. Democrats in Kentucky have held on largely because they have tried to provide an independent reason to vote for their candidates. By contrast, if you merely assume people should vote for you because of your party, then the election will come down to whichever party the electorate sides with, which does not bode well for Democrats this year. The biggest problem for Masto and Sisolak is perhaps not even the wider trends, but that Sisolak seems unwilling to sell his record, and Masto seems to have no idea what she has done in the Senate or why she should have another term other than that she is a Democrat and liberal and Laxalt is a Republican and a conservative.
That may have worked in Nevada ten years ago. But evidence suggests it will not work this year. For that reason, Nevada may well be a red state come 2023.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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