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What Does The Nev. Democratic Party's Progressive Move Mean For State Politics?

Andrew Nixon

A Bernie Sanders supporter at University of Nevada, Reno during last year's Nevada Caucus.

For the last four elections, Nevadans have voted Democratic.

The majority in the Legislature is Democratic, as is the governor. By most accounts, Nevada is now a reliably Democratic state.

But is it progressive?

Control of all of the state Democratic Party is now in the hands of progressive Democrats.

Last week, a group of progressive who are aligned with Sen. Bernie Sanders won the party's top leadership spots.

Judith Whitmer defeated Clark Commissioner Tick Segerblom to become chair of the state party. She and others were backed by a local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. 

Steve Sebelius, politics and government editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, said he gives the progressive wing of the party credit for organizing and understanding the party rules enough to get their people elected.

He also noted that although Segerblom was on the "establishment" side, he is actually one of the most liberal politicians in the state.

After the election of Whitmer to chair the party, party staff quit and almost a half-million dollars was transferred to U.S. senatorial race coffers. 

Jon Ralston, publisher of the Nevada Independent, said staffers believed they were likely going to be fired anyway, which is why they quit.

"I think the Democratic establishment - the [Harry] Reid folks - were worried that with this change inside that they would not be able to use the state party as that legalized money laundering operation," Ralston said, "They knew it was an uphill battle the whole way for Tick Segerblom to be elected. So they made sure that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee got that money."

Ralston said those staffers were the backbone of the party and the party chair is really just a figurehead.

He believes much of this rift between the progressive wing and the establishment is connected to the 2016 Nevada caucuses, where Hillary Clinton defeated Bernie Sanders, but Sanders supporters used caucus rules to try to reverse that win. The establishment pushed back and the state convention became so raucous security at the Paris Las Vegas hotel-casino where the convention was being held had to shut it down. 

One of the lasting effects of the election of Whitmire and others to leadership spots could be the alliance with the Democratic Socialist Party, Sebelius said.

The socialist party platform is far from real socialism, he said, and he doesn't think Whitmire or any of the other progressives elected to party leadership want to execute socialist reforms like government take over of the means of production; however, just having the word 'socialist' near the process will be used against the Democrats in the upcoming election cycle. 

"The fact that you have all these headlines that say 'socialist' in them is all the Republicans will need," he said, "I think even a rather pedestrian ad maker could really make hay out of this."

Sebelius pointed to an op-ed this past weekend in Real Clear Politics by former Attorney General Adam Laxalt highlighting the 'socialist' takeover of the state Democratic Party.

Ralston agreed that the GOP will try to use the progressive takeover against Democratic candidates like Steve Sisolak and Catherine Cortez Masto, who he notes are both moderate Democrats.

"They are going to try to tar Catherine Cortez Masto and Steve Sisolak and other Democrats running as socialists," he said, "They won't call them Democrat socialists. They won't even say they're leftists. They'll call them socialists because of this takeover of the Democratic Party."

In addition, Ralston said Republicans will try to make the progressive takeover sound more important and influential than it really is. 

Both Sebelius and Ralston say that the state party and its chairperson don't have much influence as people might think.

Sebelius said the people who pushed for the Democratic Party change believed it would mean more liberal candidates and a more liberal party platform. 

"Jon and I have both had conversations, I'm using the term in its most liberal sense, on Twitter with some of these folks who really fail to understand the fundamental nature of a political party," he said.

He said a political party doesn't exist to make speeches, write platforms or enforce party discipline. Sebelius doubts that most elected Democrats have actually read the party's platform.

"It exists for a very basic reason: to raise money, to identify voters, to register those voters and to turn them out on election day. That is the purpose of the political party," he said.

He said the party is not an ideological tool like the progressive wing of the party believes it to be. 

"I think what's going to happen is the party will become less influential and the organization that does the raising of money and identifying and registering and turning out voters will simply shift to another organization," he said, "The Reid Machine in exile if you will."

Ralston agreed with Sebelius. He believes traditional Democratic Party donors will be less likely to donate to a progressive party. Instead, Democratic candidates will set up political action committees to take in money.

"I think the traditional major donors of Democratic Party will not give to the actual state party organization as they have in the past," he said.

With that said, Ralston said it is too early to tell if the change will hurt efforts by Democrats to stay in power in Nevada.


Steve Sebelius, politics and government editor, Las Vegas Review-Journal; Jon Ralston, publisher, The Nevada Independent

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.