Nevada is lining up to be the wild card in the Democratic presidential primary. The Silver State, which is third in line to vote in the 2020 nominating process, has largely been ignored by the candidates in the rush to lavish attention on Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
So far, only seven of the 24 Democrats running for president have paid staff on the ground in Nevada, making it anyone’s ball game and a potential launching pad for a dark horse candidate trying to break out from the pack.
“It’s a wide-open race,” said Molly Forgey, the communications director for the Nevada Democratic Party. “Nevada is a real wild card and there are any number of reasons to believe any of the candidates could do well here.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has placed the biggest bet on Nevada, getting an early start and laying out significant investments on staff and campaign infrastructure.
The Warren campaign was the first to hire in Nevada back in January and has close to 30 paid staffers on the ground. Hillary Clinton began placing staff in Nevada in March of 2015, and strategists credit the early start with helping her eke out a narrow victory over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the caucuses.
From their Las Vegas headquarters, the Warren campaign has begun opening field offices across the state, adding regional directors and outreach coordinators with a narrow focus on different interest groups.
“We are running a grassroots campaign and competing everywhere. We have a unique opportunity out here,” said one campaign aide. The campaign is hoping their head-start will pay dividends down the road, but other campaigns are now moving in.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic front-runner, has paid staff on the ground. And Sanders already had infrastructure in place from his previous presidential run. In the 2016 Nevada caucuses, Clinton took 20 delegates to Sanders’s 15, but he fell short by fewer than 1,000 votes.
The Sanders campaign is about to begin its second wave of hiring in Nevada and the candidate will return to the state for the third time this week as a 2020 presidential contender.
Sanders has focused early on reaching the tribal community in the state, releasing videos warning that the Trump administration wants to move forward on building the Yucca Mountain facility that would store the nation’s radioactive nuclear waste.
That remains a big issue for Native Americans in the state.
“The Trump administration prefers putting their trash next to the original owners of the land,” Mary Gibson, a member of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone, says in the video.
Meanwhile, a couple of dark horse candidates are looking to capitalize on the Nevada free-for-all. Sens. Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Cory Booker (N.J.) have both moved into the state. Booker will make his third trip to Nevada next week and Harris just completed her fourth trip.
Booker was the first 2020 Democrat to visit rural Nevada in the western part of the state. His state director is Phil Kim, who oversaw Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) outreach for the Democratic National Committee.
Nevada has the fastest growing AAPI population in the country and the state party has added Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines, to the voter preference ballots, alongside English and Spanish.
“You have to be creative and scrappy to win in Nevada and there’s a lot of value in starting early,” said Vanessa Valdivia, Booker’s communications director in Nevada. “We’ve put together a team that really understands the nuances of the state and how to make inroads with the different communities here.”
An aide for Harris told The Hill that the campaign has prioritized hiring staff that reflects the abundance of racial diversity in Nevada.
On her last trip, Harris met with an AAPI advocacy group and separately with a Latino organizing association.
Her state director is Ernesto Apreza, who was featured in Spanish-language ads that ran in Nevada for President Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012. More than a quarter of Nevada’s population is Latino.
“We’re talking to every voter, we think everyone is within reach,” said a Harris campaign aide. “But a big part of what we’re doing is organizing with communities of color. Latinos, AAPI and African-Americans are a big part of the vote out here.”
Strategists are keeping a close eye on Warren and Harris, as Nevada has been a leader in electing women to office.
Both of Nevada’s U.S. senators and two of the state’s four House members are women. The state legislature is the first and only in the country to have a majority of women, and women justices make up a majority of the state Supreme Court.
A couple of long-shot candidates are also on the ground. Rep. Seth Moulton (Mass.) has paid staff in the state, as does former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who hopes the Latino population there will turn Nevada into a springboard for his campaign.
Nevada, which only became a part of the early-voting process in 2008, is difficult to poll and the caucuses are notoriously unpredictable.
Candidates have a wide range of interest groups to consider as they begin organizing a ground game for the months-long slog toward the caucuses.
The working-class population in Nevada is transient and the labor movement, led by the culinary workers, is a political force. Rural voters can be tough to reach in a state where 13 percent of the population does not have internet access.
And the state party is adding virtual caucuses to the mix for the first time ever, a new wrinkle that will face a critical test over the course of two days in February.
Strategists say Nevada is not the kind of state where a late television ad blitz will provide much value. As a result, they say the clock is ticking on the campaigns that have been slow to build out a presence there.
“The top crop would be making a mistake not to have campaign infrastructure in place for after New Hampshire and Iowa,” said one Democrat with close ties to the state. “There are several candidates eyeing Nevada as a potential springboard and it will be the first real test as far as who can best reach out to a diverse electorate.”