Progressives throughout the country rejoiced when Bernie Sanders supporters took over the Nevada Democratic Party two years ago.
Socialists had brought down one of the nation’s most formidable establishment groups, the infamous Democratic machine founded by former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. They saw it as a model for the gradual reform of state parties.
There are regrets two years after the trial began.
Judith Whitmer, the rebel party chair who wrested control of the party from conventional Democrats, faces a reelection fight next month, fueled by misgivings from erstwhile supporters and claims that she abandoned her progressive values. Even prominent figures in the Bernie campaign, including Sanders, have expressed dissatisfaction with the outcome.
“The senator is quite unhappy in Judith’s chairmanship, particularly her failure to establish a significant grassroots movement in the state,” a source close to Sanders’ thinking said. “A lot of us are disappointed in what may have been. That was a huge opportunity for Bernie supporters in the state to prove some establishment figures wrong. That has not occurred.”
The incident has fractured Sanders’ alliance in Nevada, just as the crucial 2024 election campaign gets underway. And it has sparked bigger questions about what the progressive movement should be doing in the senator’s final years. There is even speculation that winning control of a state party’s machinery would be a waste of time for progressives.
“There has just been a complete lack of competency or capacity to accomplish anything important,” said Peter Koltak, a Democratic strategist and former Nevada senior adviser for Sanders’ 2020 campaign. “Look, there are a lot of well-meaning activists involved there, but they don’t understand how modern campaigns are built.”
Whitmer expressed surprise over Sanders’ disappointment in an interview, citing a meeting she had with him earlier this year: “I think he would have said to me, ‘Hey Judith, I’m upset in what you’re doing,’ if it was genuinely a true comment.”
Even even the most hopeful liberal in the state, the level of disarray among Nevada’s progressive movement constitutes a startling shift from 2021.
Former Sanders aides, Democratic Socialists of America members, and other leftists banded together to support Whitmer a year after Sanders won the Nevada presidential caucus. Sanders helped by sending SMS from his political committee encouraging people to run for party positions and then fundraising for the state party. Whitmer claimed at the time that she would make the state party “accountable to the people,” restructure its voter registration efforts, and work with the national party to make Nevada the first-in-the-nation primary.
Whitmer’s victory was not taken lightly by the state party. Soon before it was sealed, party staff moved hundreds of thousands of dollars from their personal coffers to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and afterwards resigned. When Whitmer assumed office, the Reid machine bypassed the state party and launched a coordinated campaign from a local party in the state’s second-largest county. Authorities said it was necessary because Whitmer lacked battlefield election experience.
Whitmer stated. “When we got the keys, we had a lot of reorganising to do. Money had been transported out and records had gone missing.”
Whitmer’s detractors, notably those in the left wing, argue that any failings were primarily her fault. They accused her of having bad relationships with elected officials, being a lousy fundraiser, failing to establish the promised grassroots organising infrastructure, and antagonising party leaders.
They’ve chastised her for supporting a sheriff who looked to endorse chokeholds, as well as a lieutenant governor candidate, Debra March, who defeated the current Democratic lieutenant governor, selected by then-Gov. Steve Sisolak. They also accused her of attempting to rig the state party chair election on March 4 by removing members from the state central committee, which selects the chair.
In 2022, Nevada was the only state where the incumbent governor, a Democrat, was defeated. Aside from Sisolak’s defeat, Whitmer’s detractors point out that Nevada did not receive the top place on the Democrats’ new presidential nominating schedule.
“They had to build a second coordinated effort, which I believe caused a lot of confusion for a few months. “And it wasn’t as united as it should have been,” said Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom, a Sanders supporter who ran against Whitmer in 2021. “[Sisolak] was defeated by a very slim margin. He may have won if we had completed our voter registration and get-out-the-vote activities sooner.”
Democratic senators, House members, and other statewide leaders have endorsed Whitmer’s opponent for the state chair position, Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno.
Yet it’s not just the establishment that has complaints. According to Kara Hall, a leader in the Democratic Socialists of America’s Las Vegas chapter, Whitmer has also neglected to maintain contacts on the left. “She never spoke out or talked to the chapter after she was elected,” Hall claimed.
The Las Vegas DSA, which was instrumental in Whitmer’s win two years ago, stated last month that it will not support her reelection.
“This is our lesson, and we hope socialists everywhere take note: the Democratic Party is a dead end,” it said. “It is only a ‘party’ in name; in reality, it is a convoluted network of dark money and mega-donors, cynical consultants, and lapdog politicians.”
Whitmer defended her term to HEADLINESFOREVER, claiming that she was elected to bring about change and that she did so by expanding party infrastructure to rural regions, garnering funds through small-dollar donations, and organising legislative roundtable sessions. She also stated that the state party ran a successful mailer operation for federal candidates and made over 1 million direct voter contacts.
“The state party has never invested in rural communities,” she explained. “We actually offered resources, as well as computer equipment and printers, to each of our rural county parties,” says the coordinator.
Whitmer also responded to opponents who said she was rigging the chair race, calling the removal of committee members who had not attended previous meetings “normal practise.”
About the state party’s support for March for lieutenant governor, she stated that it occurred at a time when the Sisolak team had informed her that he would not make an appointment. (According to a source close to the Sisolak campaign, the governor never publicly decided not to nominate someone.) Whitmer stated that the party supported sheriff candidate Kevin McMahill in order to “keep extremists out of office.”
According to Whitmer, the criticism she received from her progressive colleagues was not because she abandoned beliefs, but because she chose to operate within political reality.
“They didn’t want to pursue electoral politics,” she explained. “They desired to operate outside of the established election system. I can’t do that as the chair of the state party. I’m unable to work outside of the system. I am a member of the Democratic Party. “I do not speak for the DSA.”
The DSA’s chairman, Hall, refuted Whitmer’s claim that the organisation was anti-election politics, noting out that the local chapter opted to prioritise electoral research and recruitment. But she said she now sees the Democratic Party as a dead end, not because of Whitmer or their friendship.
“It’s more about how the establishment reacted” to Whitmer’s election, she explained. “We accomplished everything correctly. We were elected to the [state central committee]. We were elected. We cast our ballots. We were more organised than they were. Then they merely move on to another location. They will always do that, in my opinion.”
While Whitmer’s defeat has cast serious doubt on the future of the Nevada Democratic Party, it has also raised broader concerns. For Reid machine veterans, the issues are about how to move in the crucial 2024 cycle without further dividing the party. For Sanders supporters, the question is whether it is even worthwhile to seize control of state parties at all.
“I think this is a lesson learned that maybe that’s not the best use of time,” said a former Sanders aide in Nevada, adding that the state’s progressive movement has now been put back. “It certainly feels like any efforts to elect progressive or left-wing candidates here are starting from scratch. Although when Judith first took on this duty, there was a solid base that might have been expanded upon.”