Wednesday, June 23, 2021

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Socialists, Proud Boys, and anti-maskers: The political establishment struggles to keep up in Nevada


LAS VEGAS - Shortly before it took over Nevadas Democratic Party, the local branch of the Democratic Socialists of America began organizing "Sunday solidarity" giveaways for the homeless. Comrades set up card tables, loaded them with food, clothes and essentials, and brought them to a mosques parking lot, unbothered by police. They were usually joined by Amy Vilela, a 46-year old accountant and socialist who is making her second run for Congress.

"We're out here doing the front-line work," said Vilela, 46. "That really helps when you're campaigning, because you build relationships with people who are already motivated, not just people you hire for a job." The giveaway wrapped up, and Vilela joined a group photo under the red flag of DSA and the red, green, black and white flag of Palestine. "How many candidates," she asked, pointing to the flags, "would take a picture like that?"

Not many Democrats would, but Nevada's Democratic Party has been changing. In March, DSA members dominated the 458-member vote to elect new leadership. Local Republicans and national media called it a "socialist takeover" of a swing state's governing party, and a high-profile Democratic mayor quit the party to join the GOP.

But before they could press their advantage, Republicans faced a revolt of their own, including a vote to censure their only statewide official and an effort by the Proud Boys and anti-mask activists to take over the party. Last week, the Clark County GOP canceled a meeting, citing "risks" to members, and highlighting the "hateful and racist"conduct of activists who considered themselves the pro-Trump vanguard in Nevada. In a closely divided, racially diverse swing state - one that is competing to hold the first presidential primaries in 2024 - both major parties have been transformed by ideological activists.

"All I care about is winning the general election," said state Sen. Carrie Buck, a Republican, who is campaigning to lead the GOP in Clark County, where most Nevadans live. "I try and find people who are little more moderate, because you can win primaries all day long but it doesn't mean anything if you lose the general election."

The socialists who took over Nevada's Democratic Party intend to win those elections, too. Between 2016 and 2020, when Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., lost one presidential caucus and then won the nextby a landslide, left-wing activists here became serious political organizers. Vilela, who lost a 2018 congressional primary despite the backing of the Justice Democrats, sat out 2020 to help Sanders win the state. She'd entered politics after the sudden death of her daughter Shalynne, telling again and again the story of how she might still be alive if America had single-payer health care.

"Bernie Sanders gave me hope again," Vilela told Sanders's supporters at their caucus night victory party in February of 2020. "He gave me a reason to live again."

At the same time, Vilela was moving from the 4th Congressional District, which is competitive between Democrats and Republicans, to the 1st Congressional District, which covers most of Las Vegas itself and backed President Biden by 25 points. She announced her challenge to Rep. Dina Titus, a Democrat, in April, again running as a crusader for Medicare-for-all, a $15 minimum wage, and the rest of an agenda largely shared by Sanders and DSA.

"This is the most diverse, most Democratic district in the state, and it has the lowest turnout," Vilela said in an interview. "What is the purpose of voting for people if they're not actually going to go in there and fight? People don't want someone just to agree with them. Politics is about life-and-death decisions."

She thought, as she often does, about Shalynne,who died of a thrombosis that Vilela believes would have been caught had she been treated as well as a patient with comprehensive insurance. "My daughter is dead," Vilela said. "She's never coming back. And I understand fully why she's dead. People have been talking about universal health care since before she was born."

Democrats swept last year's elections in Nevada but they lost some ground in the state legislature after some early, hopeful expectation that they'd win a supermajority.Judith Whitmer, the DSA-backed party chair, won her job with a plan for all-year organizing; in a sign of how the party's center of gravity had shifted, the runner-up also was a supporter of Sanders. The new leadership faced a skeptical media and public hand-wringing from elected Democrats, such as Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who emphasized their own capitalist bona fides.

"We didn't do this to burn the party the ground," said Kara Hall, the 35-year old co-chair of Las Vegas's DSA chapter. "We did this because we want to get things accomplished. We want changes in our community. We want to be able to elect people who'll make those changes. People ask why Amy ran against Dina Titus, and to me, that's easy. Dina Titus is comfortable." She noted how the state's majority-Democratic legislature had balked at some things they ran on, and that local activists expected, such as banning the death penalty. "We have too many Democrats who are comfortable." Like Sanders, the new party leadership sees more risk in de-motivating their base than in giving Republicans material for "socialist" attacks they could make in their sleep.

The party is staying neutral in the Titus-Vilela race, but the contest has already exposed fault lines in the changing party. Titus, 71, moved to Las Vegas for a teaching job, got elected to the state Senate in 1988, and established herself as a pragmatic liberal. She lost a swing House seat in the 2010 Republican wave, then captured the new, deep blue Las Vegas district created after the last census. Since then she has spent as much time in the state as possible. On Memorial Day, at a charity that provided stable housing for homeless veterans, Titus was frequently recognized, pulling out a pen to take notes on what the veterans said they needed, over the loud music of a mariachi band.

"It's kind of hard for me to figure out how you attack me," Titus said, calling Vilela's bid "opportunistic," and noting thather challenger had run third in her 2018 race for an open seat. "I'm on Medicare-for-all, even though I know you need to move step by step, gradually. I had the bill that created the [renewable] energy standard here, so I don't know how you attack me and say I'm not green enough."

Like Cortez-Masto, Titus had avoided arguments with the new Democratic Party's team; since they took over, the biggest disagreement came when the party put out a statement criticizing Israel's military action in the Gaza Strip, calling for a cease-fire. That prompted a new member of the leadership team to resign, and got a rebuke from Titus.

"I realize that some of our representatives were not happy with their our statement," said Whitmer. "But we felt it was important to take a stand on human rights, and we're still really working really hard for our Democratic candidates, putting into place an infrastructure so that we're ready to mobilize in 2022."

Republicans looked ready to benefit from the infighting. Days after the DSA's win, North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, a conservative Democrat who'd twice backed Donald Trump for president, announced that he was becoming a Republican to fight "socialism" and a party he no longer recognized. Just months after Trump's campaign tried to overturn Nevada's election results, and after the state GOP endorsed an ersatz slate of "electors" for the defeated ex-president, the party was pitching itself as a home for anyone unwelcome in a left-wing Democratic Party.

Reality began to interfere. Republicans were also electing new leadership across the state to take them into midterm elections, and activists who wanted the party to move right were mobilizing to take it over. In April, the state GOP's central committee voted to censure Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, saying that she'd chosen to "disregard of her oath of office by failing to investigate election fraud." (An investigation by Cegavske found no evidence of widespread voting fraud, and she has defended herself as acting appropriately and refusing to put a thumb on the scale for her party.) Party leaders like Buck pushed for an audit to figure out who voted for the censure, after a leader of the far-right Proud Boys claimed that he and some friends got invited to the party meeting, got credentialed, and cast the deciding votes.

Weeks later, the Clark County GOP canceled its own meeting to elect new leadership, citing worries that fringe activists would show up and take over. At a news conference, they singled out Proud Boy members who posted racial comments on social media. But other groups that had been formed and mobilized during Trump's presidency were trying to swing the leadership race, including No Mask Nevada PAC, which had quickly collected thousands of emails from people who wanted to prevent the state's government from ever imposing unilateral lockdown rules. Ian Bayne, the PAC's co-founder, said that he could mobilize enough people to determine who controls the Clark County GOP, so long as the next meeting on July 20 meeting is kept open.

"The ball is in their court," Bayne said. "Will they keep our pro-Trump party members or wannabe-members out? Or will they have an open meeting? Are we a pro-Trump Republican Party, or an anti-Trump party?"

There's infighting, but not much debate about what the party should run on. At a Tuesday luncheon hosted by the Nevada Republican Club, Trump was referred to onstage as "the real president." Buck urged Republicans to unite to fight their actual opponent, holding up a picture of Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat. Lee joked about getting used to his new party - "clean the swamp, isn't that what you guys call it?" - and ran through his bipartisan successes as mayor, but one of the first questions he got was about 2024. Would he pledge to support Trump?

"Sure," Lee said. "Already supported him, both times."

Asked in a short interview whether the fight with the fringe was hurting the GOP, Lee suggested that both parties were losing votes from the perception that they'd abandoned the middle.

"It's almost even," Lee said, referring to state voter registration numbers, which have found the GOP slipping behind both Democrats and voters with no party preference. "Like, a thousand Democrats and a thousand Republicans are going independent."

The GOP's turmoils have encouraged Democrats, too. A fight over what the party stands for is inevitable. So is the primary challenge from Vilela, one of the best-known left-wing candidates in the country, after her appearance in a 2019 documentary about four women running as Sanders-inspired challengers. (Two of them, Missouri's Cori Bush and New York's Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are already in the House.) So, probably, is yet another campaign to portray all Democrats as socialists, pointing to the power that Sanders's movement now wields here.

"Yes, the Republicans might use that against some of the people in difficult districts," Titus said. "But the Republicans have got so many problems, right? I don't think they have the wherewithal or the resources to try to attack us on anything like that."

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Turnout watch

Democrats expected to win New Mexico's 1st Congressional District, but hustled like they were going to lose it. Republicans hoped to send a message in the June 1 election, with their nominee telling conservative media that he was challenging a "radical agenda."

Radical or not, the Democrats won by a landslide. Rep.-elect Melanie Stansbury captured 60% of the vote to just 36% for state Sen. Mark Moores, the GOP's nominee. A Libertarian candidate and a Libertarian-turned-independent split the other 4%, neither making any difference in the outcome.

Turnout was the highest of the four special House elections held this year. Moores's total of 46,977 votes was not far off the combined vote for all Republicans in last month's all-party primary in Texas,which locked Democrats out of the runoff for the 6th Congressional District. In Albuquerque, Democrats outnumber Republicans, and they turned out, giving Stansbury 79,208 votes.

Stansbury, a state representativenominated at a party convention a few days after Moore's party picked him, never lost control of the race. She outspent him by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, putting more than $875,000 into the race, while Moores spent nearly $470,000. Despite making appearances on conservative media outlets, and framing his race as a referendum on the Biden agenda and rising crime, Moores never attracted interest from PACs or his party's members of Congress. He got just $7,000 in donations from his potential colleagues, less than 1/12th of what House Democrats gave Stansbury.

The result, nonetheless, was the most financially balanced race between the two parties in this district for a decade. Last year, now-Interior Secretary Deb Haaland spent nearly $1.9 million on her reelection, compared to around $245,000 spent by the Republican candidate, and she won by 16 points. Stansbury won by 24, narrowly carrying Moores's district on a romp through Albuquerque and its suburbs. The state senator may have been the strongest possible Republican nominee, and his party argued that the defeat was a fluke.

"Republican voters were angry from 2020," the local party said in a statement. "Many questioned election integrity - and stayed home."

Democrats, eager to prove that there was no tea party-style backlash to their agenda, celebrated into the next news cycle. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Rep. Sean Maloney, D-N.Y., flew to the district, with the official spin that voters "rejected the tired Republican tactics of lies and fearmongering." The Working Families Party, one of several liberal groups that had members in the district and encouraged them to vote, argued that the result was proof that Democrats kept their base active if they passed far-reaching, redistributive legislation.

The race did clarify the crime issue and how it is hitting these races. Moores spent most of the campaign attacking Stansbury over her support of a national proposal toredirect somelaw enforcement spending to social welfare. Most of his ads said that Stansbury would "defund the police," and in debates, Moores repeatedly urged voters to look at the BREATHE Act, the police crackdown proposal from the Movement for Black Lives.

Stansbury's campaign quickly attacked back. It called in her supporters in law enforcement, including Albuquerque's district attorney, to cut spots thanking her for increasing public safety spending. Those testimonials ran alongside claims that Moores, who had opposed the American Rescue Plan, hypocritically "lined his pockets" with a PPP loan. That kept running even after a TV network flunked it in a fact-check. The campaign from McKenna Media, which had also worked on Haaland's races, largely neutralized the main GOP line of attack.

That gave Stansbury a broad victory,as she won in all the places that shifted left during the Trump presidency and improved slightly on Biden's numbers with Latino voters. Although some coverage mentioned Moores's Hispanic heritage, the candidate did not emphasize it in his paid media. Speculation that a White nominee could lose some Latino Democratic votes to a Hispanic Republican came to nothing, and Stansbury invested big in digital ads that got out the election information in English and Spanish.

Stansbury's win was bigger than most Democrats expected going into Tuesday. Not since Woodrow Wilson's presidency has a member of the House joined a presidential Cabinet and watched his or her party grow its margin in the resulting special election. But this also was the second special election of the year, after the race in Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District, where Democratic margins were up. In the other two, in Texas and in Louisiana's 5th Congressional District, Republicans beat their 2020 margins; in both of those races, the top vote-getter was the widow of the Republican who'd just won the seat.

So, what has been happening in these races? There have been just 25 special state legislative elections this year, and patterns have been hard to find. One reason is structural: The most recent elections in those districts happened in different years, from 2017 to 2020, with different political conditions each time. In some races, the party out of power fielded a candidate after running no one last cycle, making it impossible to mark a trend. No seat has changed hands between Democrats and Republicans.

Another problem in finding a special election pattern is the randomness of the results. In two Wisconsin elections, Democrats ran eight points ahead of their 2020 vote in a Republican-held Assembly district and three points ahead of their 2018 vote in a Republican-held Senate district.

But they were helped by the race for state superintendent of public instruction,in which Democrats invested, and which drove up their vote. In races in Connecticut, Iowa, Louisiana and New Hampshire, Republicans ran a few points ahead of their most recent vote share; in Maine and Oklahoma, Democrats ran ahead of theirs. (In Pennsylvania, the Republican vote stayed steady from the last election, while a Green candidate took 8% of the liberal vote, leaving the winning Democrat with less.)

Squint hard enough, though, and a familiar pattern emerges: a slight Democratic overperformance in suburbs, and Republican gains with white voters without college degrees, who preferred Trump over Biden last year.Oklahoma's 22nd state Senate district is just outside Oklahoma City, and Pennsylvania's 22nd state Senate district covers Scranton. But Iowa's 41st state Senate district includes Ottumwa and Fairfield, which have been moving right, and Republicans did three points better there than when they held the seat three years ago.

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Ad watch

- Kathryn Garcia, "Best." A New York Times endorsement helped Garcia grab fresh attention in the city's mayoral race, and the stumbles of some rival candidates pushed her into the top tier of the ranked-choice election. Her first spot portrayed Garcia as an emergency brake, literally, breaking out of glass. "I've been your crisis manager, I'm ready to be your mayor."

- Maya Wiley, "Breathe." The collapse of Dianne Morales's campaign simplified one of Wiley's challenges: Consolidate liberal voters who are skeptical that more police would reverse the city's rising crime rate. Wiley's spot highlights police overreactions during last summer's civil rights protests, and says that "it is time the NYPD sees us as people who deserve to breathe." The ad got a swift, angry response from police unions, which was the point: In a Democratic primary in the current climate, being on the wrong side of those unions is a plus.

- Andrew Yang, "La Familia." Actor John Leguizamo, a Yang supporter since his presidential campaign, narrates a Spanish-language spot. "Nothing is more important than family," Leguizamo says, as the candidate, wife, and kids scamper around a swing set.

- Shaun Donovan, "Experienca." The candidate himself speaks Spanish in this spot, which begins with video of former president Barack Obama praising him. As he calls himself the one "leader with experience in a crisis,"images of him with Obama and Biden flash on-screen.

- Scott Stringer, "Tour." Even before a sexual misconduct accusation sent many of Stringer's endorsers running, his ad campaign from the liberal firm Putnam & Putnam focused on making him look relatable. The gimmick here is the civics-obsessed comptroller taking his kids on a field trip, from small businesses to vacant lots, using the subway, which they fall asleep on. "They'll appreciate it when they're older," Stringer says.

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Dems in disarray

Democrats in June's most closely watched primaries did combat this week - Virginia Democrats at a Tuesday gubernatorial forum, New York CityDemocrats at their first in-person mayoral debate. Virginia's race has a clear poll leader and New York's doesn't, but a similar drama played out across both stages. Candidates who are counting on the party's liberal base but have struggled to break through and win them, looked for ways to portray their opponents as dangerously out of touch.

In Virginia, none of former governor Terry McAuliffe's rivals have dented his poll lead or pushed him off message ahead of the June 8 primary. (Early voting has been underway, but slow, for a month.) Former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foytried again at the Newport News debate, twice denouncing "politicians of the past" - a veiled reference to McAuliffe - and then repeatedly criticizing him by name.

"We jeopardize our majority and the governorship if we do what Republicans want and nominate a former governor who failed to keep his promises and who almost lost his election to an extreme Trump Republican," Carroll Foy said. After McAuliffe referred to his executive order that re-enfranchised tens of thousands of felons, part of his answer to a criminal justice reform question, Carroll Foy suggested that the answer was racist.

"Terry McAuliffe, not all Black people are convicted felons," she said. "We need a governor who will treat us in a holistic way to root out the inequities in our health care, in our economy, in our environment, in all of the systems, because we need intentional, anti-racist policies." Moments later, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax bemoaned that McAuliffe, who is White, was even running when several credible Black candidates were seeking the governor's office.

"When African Americans are shut out of opportunities repeatedly, it sends a signal to people about what our system truly values," Fairfax said.

McAuliffe ignored the attacks, after briefly rebutting Carroll Foy in their last debate. McAuliffe, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and state Rep. Lee Carter spent more time laying out their agendas, although McClellan and Carter both emphasized their experience - McClellan as a pathbreaking Black female senator, Carter as a veteran who is still waiting on unemployment payments. McAuliffe focused on his education agenda and on attacking GOP nominee Glenn Youngkin, whom he has been trying to define as a "radical" Trump supporter, while saying little about his Democratic rivals.

"We have a racist system when we have unequal schools," McAuliffe said. "Pay our teachers above the national average for the first time ever. The 40,000 at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds, get them pre-K. Get every child online here."

Youngkin tweeted during the debate about McAuliffe's rivals, arguing that the former governor was "struggling to earn the confidence of his party." But Youngkin didn't focus on anything McAuliffe himself said; as the primary wraps up, McAuliffe hasn't made the sort concessions to the left that Republicans hoped to run against.

New York's debate had more objects flying in more directions. Since the first debate, conducted on Zoom, former sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia had jumped up in public polls, 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang has sagged, and nonprofit CEO Dianne Morales had watched her campaign fall apart as key members of it bolted, citing a "hostile work environment toward Black and Brown staffers."

Morales made the stage anyway, defended the turmoil as the sort of thing that happens in large organizations, and was largely ignored by candidates looking to more credible threats. Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney who has struggled to unite left-wing voters and could benefit from the Morales slump, went after Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams for saying he'd continue to carry a firearm if elected mayor.

"Isn't this the wrong message to send our kids?" Wiley said. "Children who see their role models carrying guns may think it's okay."

"He may be packin' now!" joked former Citi executive Ray McGuire.

Adams, a former cop whose police reforms don't go as far as activists want, was attacked repeatedly by rivals, who grabbed opportunities to talk over moderators or inject a few jokes. ("That was important," Scott Stringer snarked, after former HUD secretary Shaun Donovan went over his time to say that one of his policies was cited by President Biden in his Tuesday speech on race in Tulsa.) It alternately amused and annoyed Adams, who repeatedly pointed out that he was following the debate rules, and who unloaded on Yang for leaving the city during the worst of the pandemic.

"I never fled the city," Adams said. "I protected the city."

Yang accused Adams of shoddy ethics, saying he'd "achieved the rare trifecta of corruption investigations" at multiple levels; when Adams said that Black men were sometimes falsely accused, Yang said the charges had nothing to do with his race. And Yang, whose months-long dominance of polling and media coverage rankled other candidates, took hit after hit.

"I don't think you're an empty vessel," City Comptroller Scott Stringer said, looking at Yang and quoting an ill-advised comment an adviser had made about the candidate. "I think you're a Republican."

Kathryn Garcia, who Yang had praised for weeks as his own second choice for mayor, included him in a knock on the field: "I invite anyone on this stage to talk about track records because I actually have one."

Yet Garcia was largely ignored by other candidates, as the race's struggling liberals tried to find an advantage. Stringer, who lost some endorsements to Wiley after being accused of sexual misconduct, again compared that allegation to the one a former Biden staffer made against him last year, convincing few Democrats; he challenged Wiley's civil rights record, saying she "was a rubber stamp" for police unions when she led the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

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In the states

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who gained national attention during the state's 2020 races and its confounding unofficial audit, announced a run for governor, pitching herself as a get-things-done candidate who would save the state from extremism.

"We've got this state government being run by conspiracy theorists right now," she told the Arizona Republic. "They are out of touch with everyday Arizonans and that's holding us back as a state."

In Texas, Land Commissioner George P. Bush launched a primary challenge to Attorney General Ken Paxton, who's seeking a third term despite fighting both securities fraud charges and allegations of unethical conduct by former staffers. Paxton, who led both the dismissed lawsuit to overturn the 2020 election and the third legal effort to kill the Affordable Care Act, narrowly won reelection in 2018.

"Enough is enough, Ken," Bush said at a campaign launch in Austin, warning that Paxton is the only statewide elected Republican in danger of losing in 2022. "You've brought way too much scandal and too little integrity to this office." In its first days, the race has been less about policy differences than about whether Bush can convince Trump to abandon a legal ally; Koozies distributed at the launch portrayed Bush and Trump together, with a quote from Trump about the 45-year-old being the "only Bush" who was smart enough to endorse him.

Published : June 05, 2021

By : The Washington Post · David Weigel