The Bernie world takeover of the Nevada Democratic Party veers terribly off course

Last updated on February 25, 2023

When Bernie Sanders’ supporters took over the Nevada Democratic Party two years ago, progressives across the country were thrilled.

Socialists had managed to bring down one of the most powerful establishment forces in the nation, the famed Democratic machine built by former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. They saw it as a blueprint for the progressive transformation of state parties.

Two years after the experiment began, there are regrets.

Judith Whitmer, the insurgent party chair who wrested control of the party from mainstream Democrats, is facing a challenge in her reelection campaign next month amid doubts from her own former supporters and accusations that she abandoned her progressive principles. And even key figures in Bernie world — including Sanders himself — say they are unhappy and embittered by what’s transpired.

“The senator is pretty disappointed in Judith’s chairmanship, specifically around her failure to build a strong grassroots movement in the state,” said a person familiar with Sanders’ thinking. “A lot of us feel sad about what could have been. It was a big opportunity for Bernie-aligned folks in the state to prove some of the folks in the establishment wrong. And that hasn’t happened.”

The situation has left the Sanders coalition in Nevada fragmented right at the onset of the critical 2024 election. And it has set off larger debates about what, exactly, the progressive movement should be doing during the twilight of the senator’s career. There is even talk that it might simply be a waste of time for the progressives to win control of a state party’s machinery.

“There just has been a complete lack of competence or ability to accomplish anything significant,” said Peter Koltak, a Democratic strategist and former Nevada senior adviser for Sanders’ 2020 campaign, of the current state party leadership. “Look, there’s a lot of well-meaning activists involved there, but they don’t understand the ins and outs of how you build modern campaigns.”

In an interview, Whitmer expressed surprise over Sanders’ disappointment, pointing to a meeting she had earlier this year with him: “I think he would have said to me, ‘Hey Judith, I’m disappointed in what you’re doing’ if that was actually a true statement.’”

But even for the most optimistic-minded liberal in the state, the state of disarray among the progressive movement in Nevada represents a shocking turnaround from 2021.

Back then, former Sanders aides, members of the Democratic Socialists of America, and other progressives united to elect Whitmer after working on Sanders’ win in the Nevada presidential caucus a year earlier. Sanders was part of the effort, sending texts from his political committee to encourage people to run for party posts and later fundraised for the state party. At the time, Whitmer promised to make the state party “accountable to the people,” revamp its get-out-the-vote efforts, and leverage the national party to make Nevada the first-in-the-nation primary.

Former Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak “lost by a very small minority,” said Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom, a Sanders-supporting Democrat. “If we could have gotten our voter registration or get-out-the-vote efforts sooner, he could have won.”

The state party didn’t take Whitmer’s victory lightly. Shortly before it was sealed, party staff in an apparent act of protest moved hundreds of thousands of dollars from their own coffers to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and later quit their positions. Once Whitmer took her post, the Reid machine circumvented the state party and set up a coordinated campaign out of a local party in the state’s second-biggest county. Officials insisted it was necessary because Whitmer lacked experience in winning battleground elections.

said Whitmer. “When we got the keys, there was a lot of reorganization that had to be done. Records were missing and money had been transferred out.”

Whitmer’s critics — including those in the progressive wing — counter that any failures were largely hers. They accused her of having poor relationships with elected officials, of being a poor fundraiser, of failing to build the grassroots organizing infrastructure she promised, and of antagonizing leaders in the party.

They’ve bashed her over the state party’s decision to back a sheriff who appeared to support chokeholds as well as a lieutenant governor candidate, Debra March, who primaried the sitting Democratic lieutenant governor, who had been appointed by then-Gov. Steve Sisolak. They also accused her of trying to rig the March 4 election for state party chair by removing members from the state central committee, which chooses the chair.

Nevada was the lone state where the incumbent governor — a Democrat — lost in 2022. Beyond Sisolak’s defeat, Whitmer’s critics note that Nevada did not get the No. 1 spot in the Democrats’ new presidential nominating calendar.

“They had to create a separate coordinated campaign, which I think created a lot of confusion for a few months. And it wasn’t as united as it could have been,” said Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom, a Sanders-supporting Democrat who ran against Whitmer in 2021. “[Sisolak] lost by a very small minority. If we could have gotten our voter registration or get-out-the-vote efforts sooner, he could have won.”

The state’s Democratic senators, House members and other statewide officials have endorsed Whitmer’s opponent, Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno, who is challenging her for the state chair post.

But it’s not just establishment types who have gripes. Kara Hall, a leader in the Las Vegas chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, said Whitmer also hasn’t kept up relationships on the left. “She never once after she was elected spoke out and talked to the chapter,” Hall said.

The Las Vegas DSA, which played a key role in helping elect Whitmer two years ago, announced in a scathing statement this month that it was not backing her reelection.

“This is our lesson, and we hope socialists everywhere will pay close attention: the Democratic Party is a dead end,” it read. “It is a ‘party’ in name only; truly, it is simply a tangled web of dark money and mega-donors, cynical consultants, and lapdog politicians.”

Whitmer defended her tenure to POLITICO, arguing that she was elected to make change and delivered, providing party infrastructure to rural areas, raising money through small-dollar donations, and holding legislative roundtable sessions. She also said the state party successfully ran a mailer program for federal candidates and made over 1 million direct voter contacts.

“The state party has never invested resources in rural communities,” she said. “We actually provided resources and sent computer equipment and printers to each one of our rural county parties.”

Whitmer also shot back at critics who said she is rigging the chair election, describing the removal of committee members who have not attended recent meetings as “standard practice.”

As for the state party’s backing of March for lieutenant governor, she said that initially took place at a time when the Sisolak team had told her that he would not make an appointment. (A source on the Sisolak campaign said the governor never publicly decided to not appoint someone.) Whitmer said the party supported Kevin McMahill, the sheriff candidate, as a way to “keep extremists out of office.”

As Whitmer sees it, the criticism she endured from her own progressive brethren was not because she abandoned principles but because she opted to work within political realities.

“They really did not want to do electoral politics,” she said. “They wanted to work outside of the current electoral system. As the state party chair, I can’t do that. I can’t work outside of the system itself. I represent the Democratic Party. I don’t represent the DSA.”

Hall, the DSA leader, disputed Whitmer’s contention that the group was opposed to electoral politics, pointing out that the local chapter voted to make electoral research and recruitment a priority. But she said she now views the Democratic Party as a dead end not because of Whitmer or even the breakdown of their relationship.

“It has more to do with how the establishment reacted” to Whitmer’s victory, she said. “We did it the right way. We took seats on the [state central committee]. We got elected. We voted. We out-organized them. And then they just set up shop somewhere else. What I think about it is they’ll always do that.”

While the disappointment with Whitmer has left the future of the Nevada Democratic Party in a state of deep uncertainty, it has also sparked broader questions. For veterans of the Reid machine, those questions center on how to maneuver in the critical 2024 cycle without fracturing the party further. For Bernie followers, it’s whether it’s even worthwhile to take control of state parties at all.

“I think this is a lesson learned that that’s maybe not the best use of time,” said a former Sanders staffer in Nevada, who added that the progressive movement in the state has now been set back. “It really feels like any efforts to elect progressive or left-wing candidates here is back to square one. Whereas when Judith was coming into this role, there really was a foundation that could have continued to be built upon.”