Nevada Democrats Struggle to Live Up to 'Blue Wave' Hype

Nevada Democrats are failing to put away Republicans despite demographic and funding advantages

President Barack Obama Rallies Nevada | Getty
October 26, 2018

LAS VEGAS—Despite favorable demographics, a fundraising advantage, and top-tier candidates, Democrats in Nevada are struggling to live up to the hype of a coming "blue wave."

On a recent campaign swing through the Silver State for gubernatorial nominee Steve Sisolak, Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez touted Nevada as a "model" for the blue wave.

"The Democratic Party nationally needs to emulate what Nevada has been doing since the beginning of 2015, which is organizing early, organizing everywhere," Perez said. "Making sure we have a 12-month party where we are talking to people."

Nevada has long been trending in the Democrats' direction because of extensive in-migration from other areas of the country. Between 2000 and 2017, Nevada's population grew by approximately one million people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A significant portion of the new additions are individuals of Hispanic origin, who now account for nearly 30 percent of Nevada's total population. 

The majority of population growth has been clustered around urban Clark County, which is home to Las Vegas, in the southern part of the state. Clark County now constitutes three-fourths of Nevada's total population and voters in the county often decide statewide races. 

Still, Democrats haven't been able to garner mass enthusiasm for their ticket two weeks away from November.

At the top of the ticket both Republican senator Dean Heller and attorney general Adam Laxalt, the GOP's nominee for governor, are favored to win their races.

Heller, who was once thought to be the most vulnerable Republican senator on the ballot this year, has opened up a lead over first-term congresswoman Jacky Rosen, the Democratic nominee. Rosen was initially perceived to be a strong candidate to unseat Heller given her lack of political baggage and fundraising prowess. Democrats also hoped a female candidate would galvanize women voters, especially in light of the #MeToo movement. To that end, Rosen's campaign has been heavily underwritten by special interest groups working on women's issues and abortion.

Rosen, however, has proven to be a poor campaigner drawing criticism from Republicans and noted political observers for not journeying far outside of the liberal stronghold of Clark County. The Democrat has also suffered because of her ties to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.

Although Rosen led the polling and money races—raising $16 million to Heller's $12.8 million—for most of the summer, the incumbent began to pull away shortly after the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Recent polling has shown Heller consistently in the lead. 

A similar story is playing out in the governor's race where Laxalt is favored over Sisolak. Laxalt, the grandson of a former governor and U.S. Senator, has emphasized his commitment to keeping Nevada from becoming a high-tax state like neighboring California. Sisolak, the chairman of the Clark County Commission, has raised more money than Laxalt but has come under fire for allegedly abusing his ex-wife.

Even before the abuse allegations surfaced, recent polls had shown Laxalt ahead of Sisolak and with greater name recognition statewide. Laxalt has run a smooth campaign albeit a lack of support from incumbent governor Brian Sandoval, a moderate to liberal Republican who is one of the most popular chief executives in the nation.

Democrats' chances don't look any better in two swing districts that are vital to the party's hopes of re-taking the House majority.  

In Nevada's 4th Congressional District the early retirement of incumbent Democratic congressman Ruben Kihuen over sexual misconduct allegations has forced Democrats to spend time and resources defending a seat that is a must-win for them. 

Working against Democrats is the fact that the 4th District, which covers portions of Las Vegas and the city's northern suburbs, as well as large swaths of central Nevada, has traded hands between the two parties since it was created in 2012.

After Kihuen's decision not to seek re-election earlier this year, Democrats were able to entice former congressman Steven Horsford, who represented the district for one term, into the race. His Republican opponent is former congressman Cresent Hardy, who bested Horsford for the seat in 2014 before subsequently losing his own re-election bid to Kihuen in 2016.

Horsford has led in fundraising for the majority of the race—pulling in $1.6 million to Hardy's $698,000—but is by no means a favorite to win the seat. A recent poll conducted by Emerson College found the two candidates in a near dead heat, with Horsford slightly ahead but well within the margin of error.

Likewise, in Nevada's 3rd Congressional District, Republican Danny Tarkanian is holding his own against Democrat Susie Lee. The district, which includes the southern portions of Clark County bordering Arizona and California, is territory more favorable to Republicans, who have held the seat for most of the past two decades.

Regardless of the district's partisan lean, the seat is a prime target for Democrats. Since the seat became open last year when incumbent first-term Democrat Jacky Rosen opted to mount a campaign for the U.S. Senate, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has poured $3 million into the race.

Compounding the Democrats' problems is that Danny Tarkanian, the Republican businessman who narrowly lost to Rosen in 2016, is making another bid for the seat this year.

Tarkanian, the son of a Las Vegas city councilwoman and a University of Nevada Las Vegas basketball coach, has wide name recognition and strong backing from the conservative grassroots. Even though Tarkanian has trailed Lee in fundraising—$3.9 million to $1.8 million—polls have shown the Democrat leading within the margin of error.

Michael McDonald, the chairman of the Nevada Republican Party, told the Washington Free Beacon that the Democratic struggle in the state was partially the result of the GOP's extensive ground operation. 

"Nevada was the first state to commit to training 2,000 people statewide to carry our message forward this election cycle," McDonald said. "We have 10 field offices across the state to mobilize turnout. Every level of our party—from local county committees to the NRCC—is working in unison this cycle for our candidates." 

Juxtaposing the GOP's message of tax-cuts with that of the Democratic Party, the chairman expressed that one of the reasons Democrats were doing so poorly in Nevada was because the party as a whole was out of the political mainstream. 

"If you look at the socialist agenda that the Democrats are running on, if you see the shift the party has gone through over the past few years it's easy to understand why so many voters are repelled." 

McDonald cited the Democrats response to the Kavanaugh confirmation, the party's stance on immigration and various other cultural issues as proof that the Republican party was now the dominant vehicle for working-class voters.

"Working-class voters, especially working-class Democrats like those that identified as 'Kennedy Democrats,' have no place in the modern Democratic Party," McDonald said. "Our message and the president's message is focused on ensuring that we can represent all people."