Nevada Democrats are grappling with turmoil in their ranks ahead of a critical state party chair election this weekend, sparking fears that the divisions could hinder them as they head into 2024.
Top elected officials have called on Nevada Democratic Party Chair Judith Whitmer to resign as she has fielded unflattering headlines in recent weeks — the latest developments in a series of longstanding tensions between progressive and moderate factions of the party.
Democrats worry that the conflict could roll into the 2024 election cycle, where Nevada holds a crucial early presidential primary for Democrats and one of the Senate’s most vulnerable candidates, Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), is up for reelection.
“What has happened to the Nevada state party is an embarrassment to progressives and Nevada,” said Peter Koltak, a staffer for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt) 2020 presidential campaign in Nevada. “A lot of it is rooted in incompetence.”
“Is the party going to get new leadership and be a partner in elections or is it going to continue to be an isolated, rump organization?” he added.
Roughly two years since a group of democratic socialist candidates, led by Whitmer, took the reins of the state party formerly run by operatives associated with the famed “Reid machine” — a group of establishment Democrats once led by the late Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — Nevada Democrats have seen a growing rift between progressive and establishment members of the party.
Not long after the 2021 state party chair elections, career Democratic operatives and the entire permanent staff of the Nevada Democratic Party resigned. Progressives allege that those staffers took much of the party’s money with them and left the organization in financial and logistical disarray.
Those divisions deepened heading into the 2022 midterm elections as the same operatives who fled the Nevada Democratic Party founded a new organization, Nevada Democratic Victory. It acted as what some called a “shadow party,” fundraising and campaigning on behalf of candidates like Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-Nev.) while the state party coordinated its own campaign efforts focusing on down ballot races — creating a split screen of two different campaign efforts run by Democrats in the state.
Finally, the bubbling tensions between progressives and establishment Democrats in the Silver State came to a fore last month. Officials started calling on Whitmer to resign following reporting that the state party had removed over 230 members of Nevada State Democratic Party’s governing body ahead of their state party chair elections – a move that Whitmer argues was not politically motivated. Meanwhile, top politicians like former Gov. Steve Sisolak (D), along with influential organizations like the Culinary Workers Union, have endorsed her challenger, state Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno.
“It’s time for our State Party to get back to basics and to reunite our Democratic family. That means raising the resources to be successful, restoring trust with our grassroots members and local elected leaders, and serious year-round organizing in every corner of the state,” Monroe-Moreno told The Hill in a statement.
Now Nevada Democrats are staring down contentious state party leadership elections just months after the midterms and the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) move to make Nevada one of the second presidential primary states.
“The state Democratic Party is not the party respected by elected officials,” said Jon Ralston, founder of The Nevada Independent newspaper and a respected political commentator in the state. “There’s no evidence that they’ve done what a party needs to do.”
Some suggest the damage has already been done. Even if the party split is mended, it has already had a negative impact on the state, Koltak and Ralston said. As infighting makes headlines, large donors may be less likely to spend in the state, and Nevada’s reputation in the Democratic National Committee may falter.
And while Nevada Democrats, including Cortez-Masto, won most of their major seats in 2022, some insiders believe it was more despite Whitmer’s influence than because of it, raising questions of whether Democrats might work around the state party again next cycle if tensions persist.
“If you’re ultra-ideological, the state party is the wrong place for you,” Koltak said.“What they got was a big electoral machine that they were not prepared to run.”
Some politicos believe that Sisolak, who lost reelection to Republican Joe Lombardo by about 30,000 votes, could have at least lost by a smaller margin without party infighting.
“It didn’t make things easier having to navigate a new process,” one longtime Nevada Democratic staffer said, who asked to be anonymous out of concern for their career future in state politics.
In an interview with The Hill last month, Whitmer argued that the operatives who ran the state party before she was elected “sort of burned the house down before we even got the keys” following the state party elections and explained that “our intent has always been to build a stronger, more inclusive party, where every voice is heard, everybody has a chance to participate.”
But the state party chair also voiced concern that unresolved tensions between Nevada Democrats could hurt them going into 2024.
“I think it will have an impact if the narrative continues to be from the other side” of this electron “that they’ve got to get control of a party back away from progressives and that they’re embarrassed by progressives, that’s going to be a problem,” Whitmer said.
“Because that … sets us up for a wider conflict that I don’t want to see happen,” she added.
Others suggest if the lingering tensions persist, that could trickle down to intraparty divisions in key races.
“The first part is, do we see a lot of primary challenges, right?” said David Damore, professor and chair of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“[Rep.] Dina Titus, for example, got challenged from this group of, sort of, the leftover Sanders campaign people. She crushed it. I think the open question is what happens when seats [become] open?”
While the last election suggests that Nevada Democrats can stillremain competitive in holding onto key Senate and House seats despite internal turmoil, it could come at the cost of a united front among members.
“You have two trains of thought. One is we need unity, don’t upset the applecart. And then the second thing that you need is a functional organization that supports candidates and actually works to get them elected,” said former Nevada GOP executive director Zachary Moyle.
“Ideally, you want both of those. But you know, honestly, the past decade it feels like parties [have been having to choose] which one do I want more instead of aiming for both.”
Whitmer’s leadership has now inspired the same “Reid machine” Democrats to attempt to wrestle control of the party back again.
Meanwhile, the Las Vegas branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, who backed Whitmer in her leadership election in 2021, have declined to endorse her, saying that the party has turned its back on the principles the leadership slate it was elected to fulfill.
Some observers suggest that the state party chair outcome could mean a return to the way things were before Whitmer took the reins.
“Assemblywoman Monroe-Moreno is someone who people who already have a vested interest prefer,” the longtime staffer said. “If Assemblywoman Monroe-Moreno were to win, the coordinated campaign would likely go back to the state party.”