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July 25, 2014

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State Democrats capitalizing on Reid’s party-building enterprise

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For Sen. Harry Reid, the day after the 2004 general election was bittersweet.

He had just coasted to a fourth term in the Senate, but the good news stopped there. His boss, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, narrowly lost reelection and President Bush had won another term — with the help of Nevada.

It was the fourth straight cycle that Democrats had taken a bath, and Reid, mulling the results in his Searchlight home, decided things had to change. He arranged a series of meetings with Nevada’s key political players to draft a new strategy. Among them was Billy Vassiliadis, the high-powered Democratic consultant and owner of the public affairs and advertising firm R&R Partners.

Reid, fielding calls from Sens. Ted Kennedy and Tom Harkin, was in a prizefighting mood, Vassiliadis said.

“We’re not going to do this anymore,” Reid said. “This is no way to run the place.”

The comments were directed at the Nevada Democratic Party, a largely skeletal organization run by volunteers. For years the party, without a network of precinct captains or an effective voter file, relied on organized labor — and a presidential campaign every four years — to turn out voters.

“It was never a permanent organization. We would create the structure from scratch every cycle,” Vassiliadis said. “There was nothing good to say about being a Democrat.”

In four short years, that has changed, mostly due to Reid’s direct involvement.

Democrats now outnumber Republicans by 60,000 voters, and the marriage of the so-called “Reid machine” to the campaign organizations of Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has Nevada Republicans contemplating a stretch in the political wilderness.

It started in 2003 when Reid’s former chief of staff, Susan McCue, recruited Rebecca Lambe to run the state party. In turn, Lambe, working with paid staff and a communications director, cast a wider voter net and started building a Web-based voter file and a grass-roots network, tapping into various constituencies.

The efforts, besides reelecting Reid the following year, led to Democrats capturing all but two constitutional offices in 2006 and laid the groundwork for Nevada’s early presidential caucus, which attracted thousands of new voters to the party. The campaigns built precinct-level organizations and advanced voter files, which were absorbed by the party afterward. Fundraising soared, with the party taking in $1.3 million during the first half of the year. Republicans raised less than a third of that.

“I think for the first time in a lot of years I see a formidable grass-roots and turnout network for the Democrats,” said Pete Ernaut, a veteran Republican consultant who urged the state GOP to move up its caucus to compete with the Democrats.

Republican candidates, with the exception of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, ignored the contest though. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., finished third.

The enthusiasm gap between the parties is stark.

By the end of the month, the Obama campaign expects to open 20 offices and employ 75 paid staff statewide. Hundreds of supporters are showing up at surrogate events, attending house parties and walking precincts. Since last month the campaign has trained 600 precinct leaders statewide, joining the more than 1,000 who were trained for the caucus. Thousands of others are making phone calls and knocking on doors.

Last weekend 280 volunteers canvassed for Obama statewide, 30 of whom walked Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District, where Democrat Dina Titus is challenging Republican Rep. Jon Porter. Pushing the entire ticket, and Titus especially, the volunteers targeted independents and Republicans. Dave Heflich, 58, and Don Carlin, 59, spent two hours in triple-degree heat last Saturday advocating the “Campaign for Change.” They held lengthy discussions with voters, suffered a few slammed doors and after more than 20 knocks, it seemed Democrats had the edge. Still, Obama has work to do.

Labor will be doing its part. The 60,000-strong Culinary Union will be overseeing the political operation of the Change to Win labor coalition in Nevada. About 150 full-time canvassers will visit the 100,000 members the coalition has statewide. The program will also feature mailers — in English and Spanish — and an “aggressive” work site campaign, said Jeffrey Lerner, Change to Win’s national political director.

“Nevada is always important, and this cycle it’s taken on a new importance,” Lerner said. “It’s one of these states that’s spreading the map. And it’s hard to do the math on how a Democrat wins without strong turnout from union households.”

(Nevada is second only to Ohio among 13 targeted states in terms of the unions’ resources.)

All of this has Republicans distressed, particularly those who helped to build the party’s machine in 1998, when Kenny Guinn became the first Republican governor in 20 years. Steve Wark, a Republican consultant and veteran field operative, built a ground game that abandoned standard precinct organizing in favor of people tapping their own social networks. Republicans were encouraged to use their Christmas card and wedding invitation lists to reach other Republicans.

“It takes a lot of time and effort and discipline to do it correctly,” Wark said. “As long as there’s somebody at the top and driving it very hard it works. You can capture, maintain and deliver votes.”

But, after a banner year in 2002, when they swept the constitutional offices, “Republicans got fat and lazy,” said UNR political scientist Eric Herzik, a registered Republican. In successive cycles, Herzik said, “Republicans didn’t tend their field. They didn’t do the daily work.”

In 2006, then-Rep. Jim Gibbons, always considered somewhat of an outsider in the state party, ran a largely media-based campaign for governor. Republicans worry about the long-term implications: If state Democrats win in 2010, they’ll have the power to redraw districts, potentially pushing Republicans out of power for a decade.

For now, Nevada Republicans seek to energize their own. Volunteers worked a state party phone bank Monday in Summerlin.

If the party and McCain can “animate” conservatives on the core issues, they’ll succeed, Deputy RNC Chairman Frank Donatelli said. “To do that, we need more of what you’re doing,” he told volunteers Monday. “Identify McCain supporters now, then rally them in the final week. We can’t win without Nevada.”

The party has seven offices open in the state, five of them new, party Chairwoman Sue Lowden said.

McCain’s campaign here has made the case that Obama is too liberal for Nevada and that he needs the enormous resources he’s spent to convince voters otherwise.

Meanwhile, Democrats continue to increase their ranks.

Reid and Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley fired up a crowd of about 100 supporters at the opening of Obama’s headquarters Thursday. Reid said volunteers had registered 600 new voters statewide in the hours before the rally. “And we still have four hours to go.”

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