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Viva the Las Vegas Political Machine

Premier UNLV fireworks held on the North Field on August 26, 2010 /UNLV Photo Services / GERI KODEY

Harry Reid is the highest roller in Nevada’s politics. His hand includes kings of the casino lobby, queens of the energy sector, jacks of the Latino caucus, and aces of Washington’s most distinguished policymakers. Senator Reid retired in 2017 after thirty years in the US Senate, including eight as Majority Leader and two as Minority Leader. He leaves behind the “Reid Machine,” which transformed a red desert state into a blue urban one: Nevada voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and then Hillary Clinton in 2016. Harry Reid’s resurrection of the political machine reinvigorated the Democratic party in Nevada.

Nevada considers itself a demographic microcosm of the larger United States. The ethnic composition of Nevada is 52 percent white, 28 percent Latino, 8 percent black, 8 percent Asian, and 4 percent “other.” The Las Vegas Review-Journal posits that the state is already as diverse as the US will be in 2042. Nevada shares the political pulse of the nation with a nearly impeccable voting record, correctly choosing the winner of the Presidential race (both Republicans and Democrats) in every election since 1980. The sole exception was 2016, when the Reid Machine helped fuel a Clinton victory in the state with “get out the vote” tactics that facilitated a Nevada record for early voting turnout.

Reid’s political machinery is not new – he is a direct descendent of the political bosses of old. New York’s George Washington Plunkitt (1842-1924) and Chicago’s Richard J. Daley (1902-1976) each operated a similarly intricate apparatus for winning elections. Reid has emulated the features of those party leaders. To political bosses, votes were the most valuable commodity. Plunkitt and Daley had unions and ethnic factions at their disposals, delivering them favors in return for votes. Political machines worked to produce voter turnout; bosses focused on mobilizing immigrant and marginalized populations. Machines saw minorities as major electoral assets. The Democratic machines, above all, were self-sufficient; they hand-picked successors and survived independent of any one individual.

The Progressive movement and civil service reform had been targeting machine politics since the dawn of the 20th century, and by the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the old Democratic machine appeared to self-destruct. National TV coverage unmasked Daley’s rampant racism and manipulative tactics. The old machine collapsed. In its wake, the Republican Party began to build its own party infrastructure. The GOP used big money donors to flip local elections and build up a grassroots Republican presence nationwide. The Democratic Party remained stuck in the Washington mud and could not keep pace. Enter Harry Reid.

Harry Reid straddled the divide between the old machine of the Democratic Party and the new Progressive wing. Reid was Nevada’s chief advocate in Washington from 1987 to 2017. He pushed Progressive clean energy and immigrant policy on the federal level while building up a grassroots Democratic movement in Las Vegas. James Morone, Brown’s John Hazen White Professor of Public Policy and Professor of Political Science and Urban Studies, outlined three ways of approaching an election: the machine method, the policy path, and the tribal technique. The machine way is based on the legacies of Plunkitt and Daley and is continued by Harry Reid. Hillary Clinton took the policy path, outlining a platform of principles to change the country. Donald Trump capitalized on the tribal technique, which feeds into the American tendency to think in terms of “us versus them.”

Morone said: “I think the Reid model is a really good one. To me, the crisis of the Democratic Party starts at the states. The Democratic Party has always been overly Washington-centric… Democrats’ job is to rebuild on the state level, and for that, they’ll need to use all the levers that are available to them.”

The Reid Machine has done exactly that; Reid and his right-hand woman Rebecca Lambe rebuilt the Democratic Party on the local level. In 2016, Reid’s Democratic infrastructure and GOTV tactics in early voting contributed to Hillary Clinton’s win in Nevada by 2.4 percentage points. The Democrats also fueled the victory for Reid’s hand-picked successor, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, and flipped one seat in the House of Representatives and five in the state assembly. It was a resurgence that ran counter to the nationwide right-leaning trend.

Reid utilized explicit boss tactics in his transformation of the Nevada Democratic Party. Richard Daley was known for his partnership with Chicago’s labor unions; likewise, Reid depended on his alliance with the Culinary Union to cook up the Democratic win in 2016. Harry Reid personally called casino execs and secured paid leave for 300 culinary workers to knock on 350,000 doors, talk to over 75,000 voters and deliver 54,000 early votes. Of the diverse union membership, 60 percent are registered to vote. Health care and immigration reform were chief issues for the Union, and Reid pushed for the Affordable Care Act and DREAM Act on the national level.

He and the Nevada Democrats were rewarded with unyielding political support and reliable votes from the union’s 270,000 members. This approach is what Morone calls “‘particularistic politics’; you bring home things people want. That’s what Harry Reid was doing, that’s what Dick Daley was doing, and it’s still a part of American politics. It’s a problem if you neglect it.”

Like Plunkitt and Daley before him, Reid relied on the immigrant and marginalized populations in his state. The Latino faction in Nevada makes up 28 percent of the population and is pivotal to any electoral success in the state. Reid’s push for comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level, particularly his endorsement of the DREAM Act, catered to the Latino voting bloc and inspired them to turn out in droves in early voting. Nevada has led the push for Latino voter registration nationwide. Professor Morone elaborated: “[The Latino population] has flipped the state from absolutely red to quite blue.”

Political bosses saw infrastructure and economic development as the most reliable forces of political support. Harry Reid is no different. He helped make Las Vegas one of Forbes’ fastest growing cities in America in 2010. He was the gaming industry’s biggest advocate in Washington, transforming a vice-driven national blemish into a $240 billion industry legal in all but two states. He single-handedly saved MGM’s $9.2 billion CityCenter project from falling victim to the pressures of the Great Recession. Reid’s economic development and job-saving for the gaming industry was indispensable to his accumulation of political power. The casino industry and the Culinary Union, two of the biggest games in town, owe their sustenance (and votes) to Harry Reid.

The political machines of old were often plagued by patronage and curtailed by corruption. The new Reid machine is susceptible to similar criticism; rumors have swirled in the right-wing media regarding Reid’s apparent nepotism (RealClearPolitics highlighted that his eldest son, Rory, holds elective office in Nevada) and association with Big Pharma (Wall Street Journal). Observer Media, owned by Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, has also published and propagated rumors of Harry Reid’s supposed accumulation of net worth. Breitbart and InfoWars, which have both received backlash for “fake news,” have published similar stories. There are no government reports or investigations to corroborate these doubtfully reliable accusations of corruption.

The boss model is fallible; the original Progressive movement dismantled the machines with civil service reforms and electoral changes. Reid’s politics are largely a new, progressive take on that old, dishonest machine.

“A good machine, part of what it does is pick successors. It should be able to operate beyond any one individual,” Professor Morone posited. Reid passed the baton to Senator Cortez Masto in 2016, entrusting her with the intricate Reid Machine. Only time will tell if his connections will carry over to the new junior Senator from Nevada. His partner and political operative, Rebecca Lambe, remains young and committed to furthering Reid’s legacy. She said of the “Reid Machine” after the ‘08 election: “This is a vision had by Sen. Reid. I’m here to help implement it… it’s a culmination of the work of a lot of people – it took donors, allies, and activists to move the ball forward.” The Democratic wave in the desert shows no sign of drying up anytime soon. Reid’s party infrastructure seems secure in the Silver State.

Reid’s legacy is twofold. He leaves his local Democratic machine in the hands of Rebecca Lambe and Sen. Cortez Masto. He also gives the Democratic party a model for winning coming elections. Reid ran a well-oiled and well-funded machine without much of the grease of corruption. New DNC Chair Thomas Perez can design a blueprint for turning the nation blue that is based on the Reid method: a mix of particularistic politics and progressive principles.



About the Author

Michael Bass '20 is the Co-Editor in Chief of the Brown Political Review.