Harry Reid; Union workers picketing on the Las Vegas Strip, June 14, 2013. (Getty/Brendan Smialowski/Ethan Miller/Photo montage by Salon)

LISTEN: Jon Ralston breaks down Harry Reid's "ruthlessly pragmatic" success in getting Democrats elected in Nevada

Salon talks to the veteran Nevada political journalist about the secrets to the Nevada Democrats' success


Amanda Marcotte
February 1, 2017 10:08PM (UTC)

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Last month, Salon's Amanda Marcotte interviewed veteran Nevada political journalist Jon Ralston about how the state's Democrats triumphed in 2016 when so many others fell to the Republicans. Listen to their conversation here.

This audio feature is part of a larger story about why Democrats were so successful in Nevada, and how the Democratic party in other states can replicate this success. Read the full story on the Nevada Playbook and watch a video that explains how this swing state turned blue.

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Amanda Marcotte: I want to start off by asking you what your kind of general bird’s eye view of the Nevada Democratic Party is and why it is that they seem to have been more successful in 2016 than other democratic parties in the other states did? It was kind of a bad year for the Democrats across the country, except in Nevada.

Jon Ralston: Yeah, kind of a bad year — you have a gift for understatement. The Nevada Democratic Party is a machine that was essentially built by Harry Reid and a woman named Rebecca Lambe, and so maybe the most formidable political operation in the country. Rebecca Lambe is a field operative Harry Reid brought in from Missouri more than a decade ago to essentially rebuild the Democratic Party. She is probably one of the most intense, skilled, political operatives you’ll ever meet and she was Harry Reid’s hand in the state.

They built up a data operation and a voter registration, and then voter ID and then Get Out the Vote, operation that was second to none. They were able to do that and to use that in almost every cycle since 2008 with the notable exception of — I maybe even go back to 2006 — with the notable exception of 2014, into an operation that was able to turn the odds in districts where they either should have been closed, or slanted towards the Republicans, towards the Democrats. In 2016, rebounding from that 2014 disaster, they led a sweep of the state.

I don’t use that word inadvisably, it was literally a sweep from Hillary Clinton to the U.S. Senate race, the flipping of Republican Congressional districts that were in play, the flipping both houses of the legislature. It was a top to bottom sweep that was accomplished by this machine that Harry Reid and Rebecca Lambe built.

How would you describe their philosophy of organizing the party? How is it that they can be so effective in building this machine? What are some of the most important components of it?

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Well, Harry Reid and Rebecca Lambe share a quality that I have often attributed and others have attributed to Harry Reid and that is ruthlessness. They will do what is necessary. If people get in the way they will sweep them out of the way. They hired professionals, they hired loyalists, they hired people who could get the job done and were willing to work the crazy hours that Rebecca Lambe was willing to work, to get it all done. Even Rebecca Lambe I think, when she went back to the U.S. Senate and talked to the Senate Democrats after the election to try to explain this how it was done in Nevada where it didn’t work out anywhere else, essentially said it’s not rocket science. Now I think she is being a little bit too humble there because you have to do it all. You have to know where the votes are, know where the voters are, know where the opportunities to register voters are.

Let me just say a couple of things and if I’m going off on tangents here, you let me know. Let me say a couple of things that are endemic in Nevada that helped or at least they tapped into . . . one is the relatively small nature of the state. Still there’s a limited electorate to go after, which helps if you have the target.

Secondly, there is probably no single operation like the culinary union, which represents 50-60,000 people, mostly working in casinos, to harness the power of that union to help your turn out machine, especially Latino voters. The union is more or less Latino, and you have family members, too. That translates into a lot of voters.

For instance, in the 2016 election the culinary union, led by its political director [Yvanna] Cancela who was very close to Reid, worked in Reid’s campaign, and is close to Rebecca Lambe.

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She single handedly elected Ruben Kihuen to that congressional seat, flipping that seat back to the Democrats, winning the primary for him when he was nowhere in the polls with the kind of voter identification and turn out machine that I’m referring to. It requires dedication, it requires data and it requires the right people who are familiar enough with the electorate in the state.

Let’s talk a little bit about the culinary union because it’s gotten a lot of attention and I think rightfully so. Why do you think that union power seems to be so strong in Nevada, when it seems to be fading in other places across the country, even traditional strongholds like Wisconsin?

It’s even more ironic in Nevada because we are a right to work state, which we’ve been forever, and yet you have this formidable union presence in southern Nevada, mostly, where the population base is. The culinary union has been very skillful for decades in organizing most of the casinos. There are some notable exceptions, Sheldon Adelson's places being the most notable exceptions, where they have not made headway. The culinary leaders have sensed from early on that the casinos generally would not want picket lines out there on the Las Vegas strip, knowing that would get national attention and would dissuade visitors from coming. It really only happened one year and that was way back in 1984 and it did prove to be very very bad for the casinos. There was violence on those picket lines and so they settled that strike, but in every year since with the exception of one isolated strike at one property, you have not had that going on. The culinary [union] realized the leverage they had with the casinos so they were a little organized inside those casinos and most of the workers there are with the culinary union, at least most of the workers they try to organize are there.

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Again, 55,000, 60,000 people is a big block to draw from when you consider extended families as well, and so that is how that power is derived. Again, they have had skilled political directors in the past but not until Yvanna Cancela was able to realize how that could be used in an isolated political subdivision, especially CD4, which is . . . Ruben Kihuen's, whose mother is a culinary worker, was able to be elected from out of nowhere. He was essentially a backbencher state senator who was nowhere in the polls.

I think even some of those who were leading in the polls didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late, and that was a landslide, they were able to deliver there. There were reverberations up and down the ticket from their ability in that congressional district.

It’s interesting to me because I think a lot of the discussion on the national level about union’s influence and labor and the working class has focused on this image of working class, potentially unionizable, people as white men. That’s not what it looks like in Las Vegas or Nevada generally, does it?

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Well that’s certainly true of the culinary union. I mentioned the demographics and the Latino population here of course has exploded over the last few decades and has become more of both an economic and electoral force here in Nevada. This is the thing about Nevada and especially Las Vegas that I don’t think a lot of people recognize is Nevada and Las Vegas especially really are a microcosm of the nation. A melting pot with this growing Latino population, also quite a robustly growing Asian population and a significant African American population.

I do think that the whiteness of labor unions and labor union leadership, while it still exists here in Nevada and some of the other unions, if you look at the laborers or SEIU to some extent, which are also forces here, it’s just not true of the largest and most powerful union.

Do you think the diversifying of union workers… it’s more female, more racially diverse. Do you think that that is helping strengthen unions in Nevada?

I guess it depends how you define "strengthen unions." There are some things that have happened, especially during the last legislative session when the Republicans controlled all the levers of power, both houses and the governorship in which they lost power, in which there were provisions passed that hurt unions. But that is all going to be at least partly reversed if not totally reversed, I would guess, in this upcoming session depending on what Governor Sandoval in his last session does.

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Again, the same percentages in terms of union representation declining across the country, it’s not necessarily, to look at it as the total population, it’s not a huge number. It’s certainly their political influence here is disproportionate to their numbers. Partly as I mentioned because the state is so small and because turn out in elections generally is not that robust.

Let’s bring this back to the Democratic Party and some of the things that they do right. You have written about having a mixed relationship with Harry Reid yourself. There are things you love about him and things that you find troubling about him and they both go back to this kind of ruthlessness. Why do you think that Harry Reid has got his fingers in every pot in Nevada? Why is he so focused on making sure that the party on every level sort of reflects his philosophy of politics?

Well, I guess there are several reasons for that. One, he does it because he can or has done it because he can. Secondly, he’s done it because he thinks it’s good for the party, in other words bottom-up; to go all the way down to the lowest possible race. I have nicknamed him — among my many nicknames for him — The Meddler in Chief, because there is nothing so granular that he will not get involved, including local races in which he has recruited candidates or kept candidates out of races.

One thing people forget about the ruthlessness of Harry Reid is that he’s a gatekeeper, not only keeping the gate open to get people in but also to keep people out, or to usher them out once they’ve said they're in races. This kind of iron-fisted control of the Democratic Party has allowed him to maximize his power and to maximize the Democratic Party’s power as a gatekeeper of who wins and who loses in primaries. Listen, we haven’t mentioned, but one factor that he has been able to bring that they are going to miss the most when he’s gone, that is the ability to raise money.

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I’ve used this many, many times, but I’ll use it again: He turned the Democratic Party into a legalized money laundering machine in which he was able to raise millions upon millions of dollars and then put it through the Democratic Party to fund third party efforts, to fund voter registration and voter ID and Get Out the Vote program. Only the senate majority or minority leader would have had access to that much money to put through the party that way and he was a relentless fundraiser.

That money which Rebecca Lambe then deployed into the various resources that we just talked about, was able to create an operation in which he was able to determine who won and who lost races up and down the ticket.

Many of the other sources I’ve been talking to on this piece have emphasized over and over again the importance of money going to the party. The importance of money so that you can hire full time staffers not just during elections but year-round. The importance of money in, like you said, getting these kinds of third party efforts. How can the Democrats generally replicate the fundraising apparatus that’s been so effective in Nevada? I know Harry Reid’s a singularly important figure in fundraising but what else do they do, do you see, that makes it easy for them to raise the money they need to get things done as a party?

Well, I mean you glossed over it, but you can’t replicate it, because Harry Reid is such a singular figure and because as I mentioned the prominence that he had, his ability to call up a casino owner and say, “Give money to the party,” and he would make those phone calls without compunction. He was a prolific fundraiser for the party. No one can replace him and the problem for the Democrats is the woman who replaced him, Catherine Cortez Masto, is not the same kind of person that Harry Reid is by a long shot.

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She is more apolitical than most people who have ascended to the heights that she has ascended to while you could argue Harry Reid was completely political, so she’s not the person. If you don’t have somebody at the top doing it, that’s going to be a problem for them. So how do you try to closely approximate what Harry Reid was able to do so that the party can still do at least most of, if not all, of what it did? That’s a very difficult question that they are grappling with right now and I think the first sign of what they are trying to do is when they elect a new chairman of the party or chairwoman of the party in 45 to 60 days. I forget exactly when the elections is, it’s sometime in early February, I believe. There is some talk about getting someone in that position as the leader of the Democratic Party in Nevada who is not like Roberta Wang, the person who is there now, who essentially was a hand of Harry Reid… was a handmaiden of Harry Reid, maybe is a better way to describe it, and Rebecca Lambe, and find somebody there with Harry Reid gone who can do this, who can raise the money. You need a prolific fundraiser, you need somebody who has access to the major donors, as opposed to someone who is not able to do that.

I think you are going to see that confrontation shaping up that may actually end up looking like a remnant of the Bernie Sanders versus Hillary Clinton fashions, which could end up either helping the party get towards the Harry Reid model or really, really diminish their ability to do that. The first sign we’ll see of that is who is elected to helm the party, which will be a much more important job and a visible job than it was during the Harry Reid era.

It seems a lot of what you are saying is, “Be more like Harry Reid,” or ideally, “Be Harry Reid.”

There’s never going to be another Harry Reid, I would guess as the head of the Democratic party, as essentially the gatekeeper, as I’ve described him. So you are going to have to find a different way to do it, that’s why it depends what you want a party to be too, right. Do you want the party to be a place, a cauldron of ideas, where dissent is welcome to central committee meetings and where you have these robust debates about policy ideas and don’t worry so much about raising money and electing candidates? I think that’s what some of the Sanders people think it should be.

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On the other hand, if you want a party to be a place where you can… where its sole function is to elect Democrats to make sure that the best Democratic candidates are nominated, then you want the Harry Reid model and that’s someone different. Again, I don’t believe, to use your words, you can ever replicate what Harry Reid did because there will never be anybody who was willing to do what Harry Reid does and by the way I doubt there will be anyone ever again like Rebecca Lambe, whose importance to this machine cannot be underestimated, because as much as Harry Reid funded it, Rebecca Lambe was able to deploy those resources and hire the best people and get the voters registered and turned out in a way that nobody else has been able to do. Her abilities are going to be sorely missed as well.

Talking to you, it occurs to me that this is the difference between the two parties in a lot of ways, right. The Republicans have always been incredibly effective about making… the old joke is that "Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line." The Republicans have an organizational advantage across the states, across the party, across the national party in that they are kind of constitutionally just the sort of people that are conservative, tend to be a little bit better about everybody falling in line, doing what they are told. Focusing on fundraising and organizing above all things like, as you said, the cauldron of ideas.

Whereas the Democrats, being more liberal, tend to fall into that camp you said that Bernie Sanders sort of exemplified for the party which is debate and discussion and everybody having a voice instead of being told what to do and where to go. Do you think ... but Harry Reid of course acts like a Republican before the Democratic Party. Not in his ideology but in the way he views politics. Do you think that that’s a good thing or are the downsides too many to do that, to have that kind of attitude?

I’m not sure how to answer that question except to say I don’t think they have to be mutually exclusive, although they can be. I do think that — and this is one of those great questions for the ages — did Harry Reid just believe in process and winning as opposed to having that cauldron of ideas also always roiling within the Democratic Party? I think there was a little bit of both but certainly much more of the former with Harry Reid. Again, I think it fundamentally goes, I’m sorry to repeat myself, to what you believe a state party organization’s function is.

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I think there was a very good argument to be made that let Congress and let the legislature, let even the county commission, be a place where that cauldron of ideas bubbles, while the state Democratic Party has a function of raising money and then deploying that money to make sure you get the people into those places so they can be the ones making the decisions once those ideas start to bubble forth. I think that was Harry Reid’s philosophy. I think that philosophy while it is much more Machiavellian than maybe what some of the Sanders people want to see or some of the so called "Let’s change everything group" wants to be.

It makes much more sense in terms of having an effective political party. You need to elect the people who you think think like you, to be able to make the changes you want as opposed to just having a party just be a social meeting where people can debate whether single payer or Obamacare is the best policy. I think you leave that to the legislative bodies and you make sure that the party is a functioning behemoth as Harry Reid made it into of fundraising and voter registration and turn out.

One thing that a lot of people that I’ve spoken too already have kind of addressed and to get to that Machiavellian thing is the role that opposition research really plays for the Nevada Democrats. A lot of my sources suggest that the Reid machine’s willingness to fund opposition research, to keep a continuity of it, to be doing opposition research even when it was an off year, was very helpful in winning elections. Do you agree with that? Can you talk some about the sort of nastiness that democrats in that state were willing to go hard on the opposition?

Yes and it’s a great point. They funded, as you mentioned, opposition research, but it was more than just opposition research. There are opposition research combined with an amazing rapid response unit that they had built in there. There were times when no Republican they didn’t like or were trying to be could say anything without having a document surface, sent to the press, put out on social media that would attack them for that. They created files and databases that they were willing to deploy and yes, in very heavy handed and vicious and repetitive ways at times. Which probably I was not alone in the media and being thoroughly inundated and eventually annoyed or angered about. “Okay, enough already. We’ve heard this." But because repetition is so important in messaging, I knew why they were doing it. They were able to very skillfully adapt into a changing social media world. They used Twitter very very effectively to get their messages out. They did have these… you could call them and say I’m looking for some information about so and so's stand on this, do you have anything? They would instantly have chapter and verse that they had prepared months beforehand with sites of articles and positions, et cetera.

There was no underestimating how their combination of opposition research and rapid response helped them win races or just win policy debates when there wasn’t a race going on.

I think to kind of conclude this, it seems to me that you are arguing that the Nevada Democratic Party does sort of bat outside of their league, that they have pushed the state more to the left than maybe the resident population of a similar state would lean. Am I correct in that?

I don’t know if I’d say — you are putting it in ideological terms. I’m not sure they pushed the state more to the left necessarily, but I guess maybe I take that back, maybe there is some truth to that, but I don’t think that Harry Reid is very ideological in general, and I don’t think that a lot of Nevada Democrats are as ideological — let’s just use the L word — or as liberal as some Democrats in some other states and I think that Nevada is a middle of the road kind of state despite the Democrats’ success.

Don’t forget, despite the Democrats' success in many of these areas the governor for the last eight years has been a Republican, and the Harry Reid machine was unable to find a Democrat to run against him in 2014 and found a guy named Rory Reid to run against him in the great irony in 2010, who was absolutely crashed by him, by Sandoval, whom his father did not want to run and that’s a classic Shakespearean Nevada story that you are not that interested in. I got to tell you I’m not so sure that we are as much of a ideologically less state as a state again, where the pragmatism and the ruthless pragmatism of Harry Reid has been successful.

While those Democrats went up and down the ticket in 2016, it remains to be seen just how progressive/liberal they are going to be.

That’s a really really good point and I’m glad that you’ve kind of corrected me on that because it does seem that in a sense the Nevada party is a little bit different from the direction I think of a national party in a lot of ways in that way. The Obama era I think allowed us to sort of get to this position where things have become ideological and are very about liberalism and ideas instead of the ruthless pragmatism that you see in Nevada.

That’s really how I see it exactly, yes.

Awesome. Do you have any kind of concluding thoughts for the audience? Anything... that secret sauce of the party, anything that you would like them to take away at the end of the day about this?

Listen, I guess what I’d say is, and again Rebecca Lambe was asked about this when she went back to meet with the Senate Democrats in the kind of post-mortem — how did you make it work in Nevada where it worked nowhere else? I do sense that Harry Reid and Rebecca Lambe are sui generis, they cannot be replicated anywhere else. I think that Nevada has the advantage of being a relatively small state where you can target relatively few voters and you don’t have to worry about vast swash of voters like in a California, Texas, Illinois, or even many many other states. I also do think that the singular focus by a political party, not on getting policy changes, not on being ideologically pure but on just, “I’ll use it again,” the ruthlessly pragmatic goal of electing Democrats, I think that’s the model that Harry Reid would suggest for every other Democratic party in the nation.


Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. Her new book, "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself," is out now. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte

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