LAS VEGAS — Harry Reid had no business winning as many races as he did in purple Nevada over his many years in the US Senate, but the Democratic machine he built in the state proved formidable. Now, out of the Senate and recovering from cancer, Reid could still emerge as Democrats’ most important kingmaker, even in retirement.
Reid quietly has his hand in the race against Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, considered the most endangered Republican senator this year. Hillary Clinton won the state in 2016, and polls show the race is a dead heat.
A handful of Democrats were eager to challenge Heller, including Rep. Dina Titus, but Reid cleared the field for Jacky Rosen, a 61-year-old freshman Congress member, ex-synagogue president, and former computer programmer.
“He personally recruited Jacky to run for Congress and then Senate,” one former aide said. “He’s been a huge fan of hers from the beginning.”
Reid took a bet that Rosen, a moderate Democrat with a relative lack of political experience, would be the right kind of candidate to run against Heller in purple Nevada. Political experts in the state agree that Rosen’s thin voting record is a boon juxtaposed with Heller’s lengthy (and often shifting) political stances on key issues like health care.
This bet also comes with a risk — Heller is a known quantity in the state, and he might be able to define Rosen before she can define herself. But Reid is not averse to political risk, since he was an early backer of former President Barack Obama, when Obama was still a freshman senator.
The race is a must-win for Democrats if they have any shot at taking back the Senate. Even with Democrats up in the polls and President Trump’s dismal approval ratings, the math does not look great for Senate Democrats. They have a very narrow path to victory, and it goes straight through Reid’s Nevada.
The Democratic Party’s success or failure this November rests on shoulders of the legendary “Reid machine,” a grassroots army of local organizers, Culinary Union members, and state Democratic Party workers and volunteers. They’ve been canvassing the state for Rosen and other Democratic candidates for months, even in sweltering 100-plus-degree desert heat. Year after year, the Reid machine has done what other states cannot: successfully turn out Nevada’s growing Latino voting bloc.
“The machine is still here,” said Megan Jones, a former longtime Reid campaign aide and current Democratic consultant at Hilltop Communications.
Inside the Reid machine
The best way to understand Harry Reid’s lingering influence on Nevada politics is to look back to 2016. While that year was a bloodbath for Democrats in most states, Nevada was the rare example where they trounced Republicans. Clinton won the state narrowly, but Democrats had also flipped the state legislature, beat Republicans in three of the state’s four US House seats, and sent Catherine Cortez Masto, the first Latina senator, to Washington.
Democratic senators gathered in the election’s aftermath in Washington to grapple with the major losses the party had suffered, and Reid brought his closest aide, Rebecca Lambe (whom another former aide called “the best political operative in America”), to Capitol Hill to give the caucus a pep talk.
“Fundamentally, Rebecca used the Seattle Seahawks expression ‘defend every blade of grass,’” a former Reid aide who was at the meeting told Vox. “There’s no secret sauce; you just have to be relentless and work every day.”
Operatives and volunteers in the Nevada state Democratic Party operation aren’t just working in the months up to an election, they are at work all year round: showing up at doors, registering new voters, helping boost candidate’s name ID, and getting people to show up to early voting or go to the polls on Election Day.
“Vegas is largely apathetic to politics, it’s about getting folks disciplined enough to do the basic stuff,” said former Reid spokesperson Jim Manley.
They’ve had notable success: In 2010, Latino voters accounted for 12 percent of the state’s voters, and made up about 16 percent of the total number of voters who cast ballots for Reid in the Senate race, according to research firm Latino Decisions. This year, Democratic organizers want to see that vote share increase to 18 to 20 percent, according to Artie Blanco, a Democratic National Committee member and labor organizer in Nevada.
“There’s been consistent investment in the Latino population here. I think the community is figuring out they have a voice,” Blanco, who is Mexican-American, told Vox.
In a year when Democrats are counting on a backlash to Trump to spur Latinos and other minorities to the polls in Southern states like Texas, Georgia, Florida, and Arizona, organizers in Nevada are clear on one thing: You cannot expect a reaction to Trump to translate organically to votes. You have to go out there and get every vote yourself.
Rosen is using the Reid playbook
Jacky Rosen’s campaign schedule on a recent weekend made it clear she is running the Reid playbook — making a huge play for Latino, Hispanic, and other minority voters, groups that have been disproportionately affected by the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
Las Vegas is a city where Trump’s name is emblazoned on the skyline in gold lettering topping the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas. But the president’s disapproval rating has climbed from 39 percent to 50 percent in Nevada, per a Morning Consult poll tracker.
He does remain popular with the state’s Republican base. Trump recently went out to campaign for Heller, drawing a crowd of about 8,000.
Rosen began her day on the campaign trail with a roundtable with African-American entrepreneurs before attending a Hispanic heritage celebration (complete with homemade flan with her name on it — something she was very enthusiastic about), and the Fiesta Las Vegas festival, a huge celebration of the city’s Mexican-American population.
“I don’t have to tell anybody that Latinos are on the forefront of the fight,” she said at a recent event with Latino voters. “DREAMers, TPS recipients, families torn apart at the border.”
Unlike Nevada’s Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who is Latina, Rosen is not of the Latino community. She doesn’t speak Spanish — but then, neither did Reid. Rosen, the granddaughter of immigrants from Eastern Europe, frequently talks to the state’s immigrant community about deportation and family separation in relation to her own family story.
“I will tell you, my grandmother came to this country 100 years ago as a young widow,” Rosen said. “What if she came her now, would my uncle Phillip been torn away from her? Would my family be considered a mixed-status family?”
Trump’s rhetoric and action on immigrants has rankled many in the city, according to community activist Margarita Rebollal, who is from Puerto Rico. Rebollal said she hopes Trump’s recent tweets about the island’s death toll during Hurricane Maria spurs Vegas’s Puerto Rican population to the polls to vote against Heller and the GOP.
“I know it’s motivating me and close friends of mine,” Rebollal said.
Latino voters are uniquely motivated in Nevada
One game changer in Nevada is the strong union presence that can organize voters. The Culinary Union, one of the state’s most active labor unions that represents workers in Vegas’s many hotels and restaurants, allows for workers to take a months-long leave of absence to volunteer knocking doors, registering voters, and handing out fliers.
Vox recently joined two Culinary Union members — Mary Anne Corre, a housekeeper at MGM Grand, and Alfonso Maciel, a cook at Excalibur — as they went out to knock on doors nearly two months before Election Day. Corre is Filipino and speaks Tagalog, and Maciel is Latino and speaks Spanish, which means they have most of the area’s language bases covered.
Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, is diversifying rapidly, with Latinos making up a little more than 30 percent of the population, followed by African Americans and a smaller percentage of Asian Americans and American Pacific Islanders.
Flipping Heller’s Senate seat is personal to both of them, but especially for Maciel, whose family members fear Trump’s crackdown on immigrants.
“My family has lived in fear of being deported or having family taken away, to the point where they were afraid to come out of their homes,” Maciel said. “Everyone knows someone impacted by immigration.”
Deportations are increasing in Las Vegas and Nevada as a whole, immigration advocates say. More people are being picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and are at risk of being deported for such minor infractions as unpaid traffic tickets. More than 6,000 Salvadoran immigrants will likely face deportation in September 2019 after Trump ended temporary protected status (TPS) for them earlier this year. (Trump’s move was recently blocked by a federal judge.) Still, people who have been in the community for 15 years or more, own homes, and pay taxes have been impacted.
“Immigrants are completely under attack,” said Geoconda Arguello Kline, secretary treasurer of the Culinary Union. “We’re the largest immigration organization in Nevada. This election is a very, very important election for us, too.”
Harry Reid gave Nevada’s Latino community reasons to vote for him — and Rosen needs to do the same
One of the reasons Latino voters showed up to vote for Harry Reid year after year is he followed through on his promises, according to those close to him. He understood that courting the Latino vote was more than just talking the talk — he had to play transactional politics with groups that typically don’t get that big of an advocate in Congress.
Facing reelection in 2010, the then-Senate majority leader made another risky political bet: He brought the DREAM Act — a bill that would allow young unauthorized immigrants known as DREAMers to eventually get US citizenship — up for a vote in the Senate. Reid did so against the advice of his own campaign advisers and pollsters, who warned this would turn white independent voters against him.
“He was being told by his pollster that he should not touch the DREAM Act with a 10-foot poll,” said Jose Parra, who ran Latino communications for Reid’s campaign and his office. “He still went for that; he went hard on it. At a time when Hispanic voters were being attacked by his opponent, he had their backs.”
Reid also put together a bilingual college guide for Latino families, created a program to help people with foreclosures in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and hired Latino staff.
“He had a huge hand in DACA as well; he twisted a lot of arms in the [Obama] administration to get DACA going,” Parra said.
The entirety of Reid’s legacy on immigration is complicated. In 1993, he introduced a bill that would have gotten rid of birthright citizenship for children of illegal immigrants born in the United States. Reid later referred to his bill as a “travesty” and the “low point” of his career, and became one of the few senators openly spearheading immigration reform when it was still “the third rail of Democratic politics,” according to Parra.
Still, he came around to taking the Latino vote seriously, so much so that he became a leading voice on the subject, even as the issue became more polarizing in his own party. And it helped boost him in a tough, 2010 Senate race against Republican Sharron Angle.
“Reid was right there from the beginning, before it was popular or considered safe,” Parra said. “That obviously turns people out. Good policy, when it’s messaged well, is good politics.”
As a freshman Congress member, Rosen doesn’t have much of a voting record to be judged on. But in January, she voted against a short-term government spending bill — a vote Heller is hammering her on in ads. House Republicans ultimately had enough votes to pass that spending bill without Democrats. It failed in the Senate over frustrations about the lack of action on an immigration bill and short-term funding of children’s health insurance and community health centers, pushing the government into a three-day shutdown.
“It’s not a good choice to pit kids who need children’s health insurance against other children like our DREAMers,” Rosen told Vox in a recent interview. “So that’s why we voted against it; it was a false choice. It’s something the Republicans put up there as a poison pill to force us to choose one group of children over another.”
Parra said Rosen taking a tough vote like that and siding with DREAMers sends a message to the state’s Latino community that she is serious about fighting for them. That’s an important contrast to draw, especially since Heller has recently voted against immigration reform and largely aligned himself with Trump after disavowing the president in 2016.
Rosen said she’s called Reid on a few occasions to offer comfort as he recovers from cancer treatment. Asked if she’s received any advice from the former Senate majority leader and political kingmaker (or queenmaker), she nodded: “Know who you are, stay true to yourself, stay true to your values, and be a straight shooter.”