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October 21, 2014

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Jon Ralston is struck by caucus firsts, from the unprecedented Democratic voter turnout to Culinary’s drubbing by Clinton

At the climax of an unprecedented week in Nevada politics, there were multiple firsts, some freighted with more significance than others:

The Democratic Party’s turnout exceeded what I thought were delusional predictions by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of 100,000 caucusgoers — a quarter of the Democratic electorate, more than 12 times the turnout of 2004, showed up.

The Culinary Union’s endorsement of Barack Obama proved to have marginal significance as Hillary Clinton, rolling to a statewide victory, crushed the Illinois senator in Culinary country of Southern Nevada by double digits — a result unthinkable by even the most seasoned observer. (Reid seemed stunned when I asked him about it as results came pouring in.)

The Hispanic vote, often derided and discounted, may have been decisive here, with Clinton reportedly garnering the majority of Latinos by a more than 2-1 margin a huge victory for Assemblyman Ruben Kihuen and others who escorted Clinton through neighborhoods and helped her divide the Culinary’s large Hispanic vote.

And then there was the scene of a former president on the Las Vegas Strip for a couple of days and on caucus day, shaking hands and having pictures taken with casino employees, many of them Culinary workers — Bill Clinton angling for votes, glad-handing in a casino, a scene that may never be repeated.

It should be noted that after all the Sturm und Drang about those casino caucuses, which Clinton pollster Mark Penn claimed Friday gave Obama a five-point advantage, the New York senator ran very strongly in those events. A sample: She was victorious at the Mirage, where her husband was politicking, at the Bellagio, where they stayed, and at New York-New York. She held Obama to a virtual tie at the Wynn.

And although turnout was huge across the state, it does not appear to have been as large at the casino precincts, either because the Culinary didn’t have enough time to organize or because the Clinton campaign divided and conquered so well or both.

When time has passed and more data are in and the definitive post-mortem of this caucus is written, my guess is, this will be a case of the Culinary coming into the race too late, making it vulnerable to a Clinton machine (constructed from the ground with an underrated grass-roots effort and from the top with those elected-official endorsements) that pulled out all the stops from that lawsuit to the entire family campaigning here to closing the deal on caucus day with its turnout operation and the former president’s hands-on efforts.

Even before the results started coming in, confident Clinton folks were predicting that the intense nastiness of the past week would be forgotten by today and pessimistic Obama folks were preparing for defeat. You almost could feel that the Culinary knew it could not short-circuit a Clinton machine with too many weapons, as epitomized by what union Secretary-Treasurer D. Taylor told the Los Angeles Times’ Mark Barabak in Saturday’s paper: “Whatever differences we have — and there are real differences — clearly the alternative of several more years of an administration like the Bush administration would be disastrous.”

That olive branch was in sharp contrast to the vengeful sword Taylor and others had brandished in the days since that lawsuit threatened to derail at-large precincts the Culinary hoped to dominate. From the moment the Culinary endorsed Obama, the campaign by the union to make it mean something and the jihad by the Clinton camp to undo it were two of the most vociferous and angry campaigns I have witnessed in 20 years covering Nevada politics.

Maybe Taylor is sincere that bridges burned in the past week can be rebuilt. Maybe County Commission Chairman Rory Reid, who was one of Saturday’s biggest winners, can help rebuild a party that should be energized by the turnout and the energy the early caucus generated. And maybe Reid the Elder, who brought the caucus here and who surely understood a revitalized party would help him in 2010, can salve the wounds inflicted by this campaign.

The challenge for the Democrats now is to rebuild the riven party before the general election. Despite all the firsts they accomplished Saturday, the Democrats would much rather achieve something that hasn’t happened since that man shaking hands Saturday morning in Las Vegas took Nevada in 1996.

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