The Massachusetts senator is turning heads in the early voting state with the size of her operation — and crowds.
LAS VEGAS — Kamala Harris hired a dream team of operatives. Joe Biden has solid establishment support. Bernie Sanders heads a volunteer army. And Julián Castro is seen as a “sleeper.”
But of the two dozen Democrats running for president, none matches Elizabeth Warren when it comes to the size of her campaign operation, the crowds at her rallies and the buzz among activists and operatives in Nevada.
“Elizabeth Warren just has a gigantic campaign,” said Laura Martin, executive director of the social justice organization Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. “There are counties all over rural areas where some campaigns are just doing tours, but she has staff there. And that was a strategy President Obama had in 2008 when he won Nevada.”
Another Democratic operative put it more bluntly: “Warren has built a monster.”
Among 17 Democratic strategists, activists and experts interviewed by POLITICO for this story, Warren’s campaign was mentioned most often as the most impressive of the field, followed by Harris’.
The standing of the two women speaks to their early organizing in the state, the on-the-ground experience of their staffs and one of Nevada’s unique political distinctions: the power of women. It’s the only state in the nation whose U.S. senators are both women and where women constitute the majority of the state Legislature and congressional delegation — a triumph of progressivism and political organization powered by former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s vaunted political machine.
Reid is neutral in the race. But he, like the others, singled out Warren’s organization in the state without prompting. In Nevada, Reid said, boots on the ground are more critical than, say, a TV advertising campaign that can make the difference in other states such as New Hampshire.
“Nevada is a hands-on game. For example, Elizabeth Warren is going to open 10 new offices this week in Nevada. If you want to win a caucus state, that’s what you have to do, things like that,” Reid said, though the Warren camp says it is opening 5 offices this week and will have a total of 6 in the state. “All the candidates are setting up offices; she just has got more than any that I’ve heard of, so far.”
Paradoxically, the front-runner in the early polls of Democrats in Nevada and the nation — Biden — isn’t singled out for having a top campaign, in part because he started so late relative to the others. But the former vice president has less ground to make up because of his high name recognition, positive brand with Democrats and deep connections to politicians in the state.
Biden and Harris are slugging it out for endorsements, and his campaign scored a political coup by earning the support of rising star Yvanna Cancela, the state’s first Latina state senator and a former Reid staffer and past political director of the powerful Culinary Workers Union. Biden’s campaign is counting on strong union support and was hosted on previous trips by the unions for painters and electrical workers.
A critic of Biden’s, former assemblywoman and 2014 lieutenant governor candidate Lucy Flores, said Biden is favored to win because of his name recognition, money and political connections. Plus, she said, Biden owns the moderate lane in the state while Warren and Sanders carve up the progressive vote. If Biden wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, as polls indicate he would right now, he would be likelier to win third-in-the-nation Nevada.
“Sanders lost some support but still has big name ID,” said Flores, who had accused Biden of unwanted touching. She added that Sanders, who narrowly losing the Nevada caucus in 2016, still has a legion of devoted volunteers and experienced campaign hands who know the vagaries of Nevada politics.
“You shouldn’t discount experience dealing with the Nevada caucus because it’s such a shit show,” Flores said.
There’s scant polling in Nevada in part because it has a caucus, which is far more difficult to poll, especially this far out. Also, Nevada this year has a virtual caucus and an early vote component for the first time, which make turnout projections so difficult that state Democratic Party officials won’t hazard a guess as to what the composition of the electorate will look like.
In the absence of polls, insiders are paying more attention to tangible signs on the ground: the size of campaign teams, endorsements, crowd sizes and candidate visits.
Of the top-tier candidates, Biden has visited the least during the campaign so far — four times — and Harris has campaigned there the most, eight times, according to the Nevada Independent’s candidate tracker. Warren and Sanders are tied with six visits each. Warren was one of the first candidates to participate in rural county “virtual meet-and-greets” to ensure candidates don’t just stick to Las Vegas and Reno.
In all, 19 candidates visited Nevada last weekend for an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees conference, around which many built two full days of outreach events that extended into rural areas.
The enthusiasm gap between Warren and Biden was apparent in Henderson over the weekend. Biden drew a crowd of 200 on Saturday at the Sun City MacDonald Ranch senior community center. The night before, across town at the Green Valley High School gym, Warren packed in 750 at a town hall.
In early July, Warren’s campaign hosted an event at an architecture firm in Reno. About 150 people were expected, but 800 showed up. The last time a crowd that big came for a political event at the venue was during Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign, when she was winning. Clinton won the popular vote in the state by nearly 6 percentage points that year, but she lost the caucus count to Barack Obama by one delegate.
For Castro, Nevada is a make-or-break state. He’s visited nine times, the most of any candidate, and has made deep inroads with the grassroots.
“Julián Castro could be a sleeper,” Martin, the social justice advocate, said. However, many believe he’s just too overmatched by the top-tier candidates to break through.
With eight visits, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker is right behind Castro in the number of campaign stops, tied with Harris. But like Castro, Booker is failing to gain traction in the eyes of insiders or polls. Booker has personal roots in Nevada, reminding reporters at the AFSCME conference that his mother lives in Las Vegas.
Booker, Castro and Harris are the only major nonwhite Democratic candidates, and Nevada is the first early state with a majority nonwhite population; 28 percent of the Democratic electorate is Latino, 14 percent is African American and 11 percent is Asian American and Pacific Islanders, the fastest-growing segment of the Nevada electorate and one that has been heavily courted by the candidates.
“The culture is shifting. It used to be we were afterthoughts. Now people understand AAPI is a determining group in Nevada,” said Grace Vergara-Mactal, executive director of Service Employees International Union.
Harris has also intensified her African American outreach, holding events last weekend at a Baptist Church and at a community center in North Las Vegas, a city with a large black population.
“She has a strong, strong grip on the black community, but she’s making sure to make her rounds around Nevada,” said Shaundell Newsome, a Las Vegas businessman and black business community insider who noted Harris is “pushing hard” with members of her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha.
“We haven’t really seen much of Biden. I haven’t had a Biden sighting,” Newsome added.
One of Harris’ biggest assets is geography. Not only is California next door, Democrats and union members from the state are frequently imported into Nevada to help political campaigns there. Harris’ campaign, an adviser acknowledged, wants to run a “two-state strategy” that takes advantage of the kinship between the two states and the fact that absentee voting in California’s March 3 primary will be going on during Nevada’s caucus, which ends Feb. 22.
Harris’ top-level state staff is also seen as a major advantage: Reid machine alumna Megan Jones, Obama-Clinton veteran Emmy Ruiz and Lauren Brooks, who worked on Jacky Rosen’s successful Senate bid last year. Sanders’ campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, is also a Reid veteran, as is Warren’s communications director, Kristen Orthman.
Warren’s operation earns broader praise because of its attention to detail and its apparent omnipresence.
During the legislative session, Warren’s team stood out in the state Capitol by testifying on behalf of an abortion-rights bill. It was signed into law by newly elected Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, a bright spot for Democrats as they watched Republican legislatures in other states crack down on abortion rights.
The campaign also focuses on the finer points. Operatives noted that others, Warren’s Nevada team members all have the same Twitter avatar backgrounds and launched a “#NVertheless” social media campaign that weds the Nevada’s postal abbreviation with Senate Majority Mitch McConnell’s admonishment of Warren that she adopted as a badge of honor.
Kenia Morales, an organizer with America Votes Nevada, said the campaign discipline of Warren, Harris and Sanders stands out even more when compared with Biden’s campaign. She noted that at an event earlier this year, his team had campaign stickers available for volunteers, but no T-shirts.
“It shows to me how important Nevada is or isn’t, from an optics perspective,” Morales said. “If there are 20 Bernie Sanders folks all in Bernie Sanders hats and shirts with a clipboard and giving out stickers, and you see five Biden folks in their regular clothes with the Biden stickers on their clipboard, it’s like: ‘Is Biden taking Nevada seriously?’ I don’t know.”