Election autopsy: What happened to Nevada Republicans?

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Christopher DeVargas

Sen. Dean Heller leaves the South Point stage with his family after conceding to Democrat Jacky Rosen, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018.

Thu, Nov 8, 2018 (2 a.m.)

Incumbent Dean Heller issued a challenge to state Republicans during his concession speech to Jacky Rosen, who defeated him Tuesday in their race for U.S. Senate.

“As a party,” he said, “we’re going to have to come together and decide how we’re going to go forward in the future.”

Undeniably, the party’s approach to the 2018 midterms didn’t work, not only for Heller but nearly up and down the ticket.

“We hit a blue wave,” Heller said after a night when Steve Sisolak defeated Adam Laxalt to become the state’s first Democratic governor in 20 years and three of the state’s four congressional seats were claimed by Democrats.

So what happened?

It starts with Trump

Midterm elections are always a referendum on the president, and this one was no different in that regard. What was different was that President Donald Trump embraced it as one — a break from the standard practice of presidents with low approval ratings staying largely on the sidelines in midterms.

In Nevada, the referendum clearly went against Trump, as candidates who embraced his policies on immigration, health care, gun safety, women’s rights and more were defeated and voters instead sent Democrats Rosen, Susie Lee and Steve Horsford to Congress.

“The politics of fear and division — they have lost,” Rosen said to cheers in her acceptance speech at Caesars Palace.

Trump, after being silent on Twitter as results came in, released a series of Tweets early Wednesday taking credit for Republicans adding two seats to their majority in the Senate.

Turnout effort the difference

When polls closed across the state at 7 p.m., would-be voters were stuck with a dilemma: Wait for upward of two hours to fulfill their civic duty, or head home.

Sisolak took to social media with a stern message:

“NEVADA: Stay in line!” he posted on Twitter. “Every single Nevadan that was in line by 7 p.m. has the right to cast their vote! So encourage the folks next to you in line. Remind them why you’re all waiting — for Nevada’s future.”

Beginning with Trump’s election in 2016, Democrats and like-minded political action organizations had been working in Nevada to register voters and get them to the polls. They concentrated on locals in harm’s way — Latinos families with uncertain futures because of changes to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy and more strict deportation commands; students saddled with college debt; those enrolled in health care exchanges through the Affordable Care Act who fear losing coverage.

Democrats found creative ways to motivate their supporters, whether that was appearances from Jimmy Kimmel and the Killers alongside Rosen, or canvassing door-to-door on Election Day to get voters to the polls.

The efforts yielded results. This year, 62.1 percent of registered voters turned out, compared with 45.5 percent in 2014 and 38.7 percent in 2010.

“We are proud to have mobilized tens of thousands of hospitality workers and immigrant voters to elect politicians who will fight for our community,” said Geoconda Argüello-Kline, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Union, in a statement.

Year of the Woman

Women will make up the majority of the Nevada Assembly and Nevada Supreme Court after Tuesday’s election, and there’s a very slim chance that the state Senate could also be majority female.

That depends on one election that was still undecided as of Wednesday afternoon and appointments of seats surrendered by Aaron Ford and Tick Segerblom when they ran for attorney general and Clark County Commission.

But no matter how things go in the Senate, 2018 will be remembered as the Year of the Woman.

Nevada women showed up up and down the ballot and at the polls, where exit polls showed 52 percent of voters were women.

Young voters affected the election

Democrats’ message resonated with young voters, an overwhelming majority of whom were energized to participate in the midterms. Groups such as March For Our Lives, NextGen America and others staged multiple rallies over the past year, and at many of the events, gave a new generation of voter a chance to register.

The effort worked: Early voting among young people ages 18-29 was up 364 percent over 2014 levels.

NextGen, backed by California billionaire Democrat Tom Steyer, put up $2 million statewide toward getting young people to register and vote, regardless of party affiliation.

“We’re meeting young people where they are,” Mark Riffenburg, organizing director for NextGen, told the Sun. “We’re on the social platforms they’re on, we’re on their college campuses, in their text inbox. NextGen’s everywhere with young people, and I think that’s a big part of what we’re seeing here.”

On Election Day, NextGen provided rides from the UNLV campuss to the polling site at the Boulevard mall, complete with a red carpet leading to the shuttle door. UNLV student Lelaina Navarro, 18, voted for Rosen and Sisolak, saying it “felt like her vote mattered.”

It also happened in the North

In a state with only two sizeable blocs of Democratic Party voters — one in Clark County and the other in Washoe County — the outcome in Washoe is always critical for Democratic candidates.

Tuesday, things could hardly have gone better for Democrats in Washoe. Rosen defeated Heller by about 6,000 votes, for instance, while Sisolak beat Laxalt by about 5,000.

That was notable because Republicans still have an advantage in the county in registered voters.

“The biggest shift was what happened in Washoe County,” said UNLV political science professor David Damore, a longtime Nevada political observer.

If what happened Tuesday becomes an ongoing trend, Nevada will switch from a purple state to a solid-blue one. Populations in the rural areas aren’t growing at nearly the rate of the urban counties, meaning Democrats in Clark and Washoe would become increasingly dominant.

Robert Lang, executive director of both Brookings Mountain West and the Lincy Institute, said the Washoe County outcome may have been influenced by the infusion of Northern Californians working for Tesla and other companies that have expanded to the Reno/Sparks area in recent years after receiving tax incentive packages from Nevada.

“When they get here and they surrender their driver’s license … they don’t give up California-ness,” Lang said. “They don’t give up on a kind of progressive view toward inclusion, women, marijuana, you name it.”

In that respect, Lang said, anti-California messaging from leading Republican candidates — such as Cresent Hardy sounding a warning that the state would become “East California” if Democrats were elected, with high taxes and lax immigration policies — may have been harmful to them.

Although Republicans continued their stronghold in rural counties, their advantage in those areas wasn’t nearly enough to overcome the losses they suffered in Washoe and Clark.

“We will be one Nevada, working together, and that starts right now,” Sisolak said.

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