By Scott Sonner
RENO — Twenty years ago, long before Nevada was part of the early presidential selection process, the phone typically rang unanswered at Washoe County Democratic Party headquarters in Reno during mid-term elections.
“We had a small conference room and a tiny reception area, but no staff at all,” recalls Chris Wicker, who started a seven-year run as county party chairman in 2002.
“There wasn’t any state party focus up here except in presidential years. If you talked to people, they would say `I didn’t know there was a Democratic Party in Washoe County,” he said.
In the last decade Nevada has undergone a political transformation from Republican outpost to a contested battleground to emerging Democratic hotbed. All but one member of the state’s congressional delegation is a Democrat along with all but one of the statewide officer holders. The Democratic swing has been so pronounced that President Donald Trump’s campaign views Minnesota — a state that hasn’t voted for a GOP presidential candidate since 1972 — as friendlier territory than Nevada. When Democrats caucus here Saturday to pick their preferred nominee for president, there will be 165,000 more total registered Democrats in Nevada than in 2008, the first time the state held its closely watched contest.
Nowhere is the new blue streak clearer than in northern Nevada’s Washoe County, a place not long ago considered a GOP stronghold. But as the growing suburbs tucked into the shadow of the Sierra have changed, so has Nevada’s political landscape.
California transplants have brought their politics with them. A tech boom — spurred by companies like Tesla, Apple and Microsoft — has drawn the young and college-educated, demographic groups that lean left as do Hispanics who made up 29% of Nevada’s population in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Now the phone is ringing all the time in county Democratic headquarters in Reno, which is staffed year-round.
For decades, the key to Republicans winning a statewide election in Nevada was to sweep the more conservative rural counties and build just enough of a margin in the Reno-Sparks area to offset heavily Democratic Clark County.
In 2008, President Obama became the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 to carry Washoe County. Just four years earlier, Vice President Dick Cheney capped a campaign swing across the country with an appearance at a Sparks high school in a working class neighborhood the night before George W. Bush won re-election against Democrat John Kerry.
The GOP hasn’t carried Washoe County — or Nevada — in a presidential election since. Thanks in part to the once red bastion of Washoe, Nevada was one of the few swing states that sided with Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016.
“You guys have turned this state around,” former Vice President Joe Biden told hundreds gathered last month in the same Sparks High School gymnasium where Cheney rallied the GOP troops in 2004. “You sort of hold the keys to the kingdom here.”
Republicans argue they have a comeback plan, one bankrolled by an incumbent president popular with his party and party donors. Keith Schipper, Nevada spokesman for the Trump campaign, said the GOP has built a”top-notch ground-game operation, unparalleled data program, and vast fundraising war chest” that will out match Democrats.
Most Democrats credit former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid with building Democrats formidable ground force statewide. Reid for years collaborated with organized labor, worked with groups registering new, Latino and young voters and used clout to bring the early caucus and its national spotlight to Nevada. But demographic changes sweeping the West also worked in Democrats favor.
“I think we honestly have now joined the rest of the West Coast and Democrats are basically going to be in control like they have been for some time in Washington, Oregon, Hawaii,” said Fred Lokken, longtime head of the political science department at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno.
Bob Fulkerson, longtime leader of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada — a coalition of labor, social justice and minority groups in Reno — said a growing population of Asians and Pacific Islanders is adding to the influx of Hispanics, who the state demographer projects will account for one-third of Nevadans by 2029.
“I think we’re undergoing a sea change largely driven by demographics,” Fulkerson said. “It has been happening in Clark County for decades and now it is happening in Washoe.”
Those changes are seen at Democratic party events and in the prominence of progressive groups. But not all the California transplants are Democrats.
Wicker, the former Washoe County Democratic chairman, said the influx from California is a “mixed bag” politically.
“Many people are coming to northern Nevada to avoid taxes, or their company is moving here. They are not necessarily naturally Democrats just because they came from California,” he said, adding that many young people register non-partisan but show up at progressive group’s events.
But some observers note Nevada’s Republican Party hasn’t necessarily tapped into that new pool of voters. The party took a turn to the right, embraced hard line tea party politics and then later Trump’s bombastic, anti-immigration platform.
“It’s too conservative for many Republicans,” Lokken said.
As they ramp up their push to win Nevada back, Republicans are focusing on an economic message aimed at nonpartisan and moderate voters and arguing it’s Democrats that are too far out of the mainstream.
“If these 2020 Democrats honestly believe their socialist agenda is a winning message in Nevada, they are going to be severely disappointed,” Nevada GOP Chairman Michael McDonald said in a statement following Wednesday night’s Democratic debate in Las Vegas. One of the leading Democrats in the race, including the one, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, identifies as a democratic socialist.