State Dems Dream of Early Caucus

By: Ed Pearce/Brendan Riley AP
By: Ed Pearce/Brendan Riley AP

Nevada! What better state for longshot dreams.
Maybe that's what Democrats had in mind this past weekend when
they recommended that a political caucus in the gambling mecca be
squeezed into the early 2008 presidential nomination calendar.
If the Democratic National Committee, as expected, blesses the
plan next month, the Nevada caucus would fall between the leadoff
Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. That could give Nevada
a major say in choosing the nominee looking to break the
Republicans' eight-year grip on the White House.
Intense lobbying by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.,
helped his state secure the coveted spot, but it was more than slot
machines, sequined showgirls, Celine Dion and Hoover Dam that made
Nevada attractive to national Democrats. Organized labor's strong
presence, a growing Hispanic population, Nevada's battleground
status and campaign dollars enhanced its appeal.
"We're the entertainment capital of the world, so people do
look at us differently," said Democratic state Sen. Maggie
Carlton, who works as a coffee-shop waitress at the Treasure Island
Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas strip when the legislature is not
in session.
"But when they see all the voting blocs they'll realize we're
not just a tourist destination," said Carlton, a 13-year casino
employee and a shop steward in the 60,000-member culinary union.
Intent on adding diversity to the early voting, Democrats chose
Nevada, a state that is nearly 23 percent Hispanic, 7.5 percent
black, 5.5 percent Asian and 1.4 percent American Indian, according
to the latest Census figures. That compares to Iowa and New
Hampshire, which are both about 95 percent white.
Although Hispanics comprise nearly a quarter of Nevada's
population, they were just 10 percent of the voters in 2004,
according to exit polls. Their preference: Democratic Sen. John
Kerry over President Bush, 60 percent to 39 percent.
Andres Ramirez, a Democratic consultant and Hispanic activist
from Las Vegas, said the caucus will help the party's efforts to
reach all minority groups while an early focus on Western issues
will appeal to more than Democrats.
"Water and energy aren't just Democrats' issues," Ramirez
said. "They affect everybody in our state and around the West."
Bush won the state in 2004 as he did in 2000, but the margin was
close - 2.5 percentage points - enhancing Nevada's reputation as a
burgeoning battleground state. Voter registration between the two
parties is about even, with Republicans up by less than 1 percent.
Early contests can build party strength, and in the case of
Nevada and other battleground Western states, possibly change the
results in the Democrats' favor in 2008.
"We have to figure out how to win in more innovative and
creative and out-of-the-box ways, and Western state wins are
critical to the future of the Democratic Party," said state Sen.
Steven Horsford, a Democratic Party national committeeman who
worked with Reid to get the early caucus.
Although Nevada is a right-to-work state, meaning employees
don't have to join unions, organized labor made recruiting in Las
Vegas a do-or-die fight in the 1990s, signing up hotel and casino
service workers.
It paid off with 145,000 union members, some 13.8 percent of the
workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nevada
ranks among the Western states with the highest percentages of
union membership.
In 2004, union households chose Kerry over Bush, 56-42 percent,
and favored Al Gore over Bush, 51-43 percent, in 2000, according to
exit polls.
Nevadans, who gave $15.4 million in contributions during the
2004 election cycle, are political high rollers, donating at a rate
of $7 per capita. That puts them in the same ranks as Californians,
higher than Texans, but not quite in the range of New Yorkers. Like
Texans, more than 60 percent of Nevadans contributed to
Republicans.
As a total, however, the state ranked 30th in the nation,
according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Las Vegas accounted for $12.3 million in contributions, placing it
34th among metropolitan areas.
Donna Brazile, a longtime Democratic strategist and a member of
the Democrats' rules and bylaws committee that selected Nevada,
said the early caucus is new territory for the state.
"Nevada can pay for their caucuses, unlike Iowa which must
raise money from the candidates," Brazile said. "So I hope this
will alter some of the dynamics, but the candidates will have to
work closely with labor, local activists and especially in the
rural areas to get their message out."
In 2004, the presidential caucus in Las Vegas was held on a high
school football field. In 2008, Democrats could hold caucuses at
the casinos. That image is a sharp contrast from gatherings in Des
Moines, Iowa, or Portsmouth, N.H., where party activists have been
known to spend weeks studying candidates' issues papers.
From cities that sleep to one that never does - Las Vegas in
Clark County, home to two-thirds of Nevada's voters.
"There's no question that Nevada is a very intriguing state,
especially to Easterners," said Billy Vassiliadis, a longtime
Democratic strategist. "But that's a positive, not a negative. We
get added value from that national intrigue."
The prospect of a media horde for the caucus will be a sober
reminder to any campaign: Don't count on "What happens in Vegas,
stays in Vegas."


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