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Nevada gaining clout in Washington with Biden as president

Updated February 15, 2021 - 11:55 am

WASHINGTON — Nevada is about to experience a power surge inside the Beltway.

After four years without a buddy relationship between a Silver State elected Republican official — hint: there aren’t that many — and former President Donald Trump, President Joe Biden’s White House has many reasons to roll out the welcome mat.

“We’re plugged in,” said Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom, who expects relations with this White House to be as different as night and day from the last one. “If someone from Nevada calls up, it’s not like calling up from somewhere like Wyoming or Idaho.”

Added Segerblom, “The president may not answer, but one of his deputies definitely will answer and get back to us.”

Despite owning the eponymous Trump International Hotel off the Strip, the 45th president never quite nailed how to pronounce “Nevada.” At one point during the 2016 campaign, Trump even told a Reno rally that Nevadans pronounce their state’s name wrong.

Biden and Nevada

Biden, by contrast, knows Nevada well. He was on the ticket that won the state in 2008 and 2012 and has campaigned in the state during midterm elections. And he was well-received at a Culinary Workers Union Local 226 appearance before the February 2020 caucus. (A flier distributed to members said Biden would protect the union’s negotiated health care plan, while slamming then-rival Sen. Bernie Sanders, who supported a Medicare for all plan that would “end Culinary health care.”)

Although he came in a distant second in the Democratic caucus, Biden won Nevada in 2020, and if he runs for re-election in 2024, he’ll want to hold on to the state.

University of Virginia Institute of Politics Director Larry Sabato counted the ways of mutual love: Nevada’s two senators, three out of four House members and the governor are all Democrats.

Then there’s Harry Reid, the former Nevada senator who served as majority leader and had the ear of President Barack Obama. Reid also has a decades-long connection with Biden from their mutual service in the Senate.

“As long as Reid is around, Nevada is going to be well-represented at the top,” Sabato said.

The statement added: “In addition to the letter sent to Acting Secretary of Health and Human Services Cochran, the Governor and his office have continued to speak with as many members of the administration as possible to discuss Nevada’s vaccine allocation and other matters regarding the COVID-19 pandemic that relate to Nevada. The State is eager to see more vaccines continue to come into the State, both through increased production and by fixing the pro rata allocation.”

Nevada has clout

For a smallish state, even before Reid’s leadership position, Nevada has enjoyed outsize political clout with various administrations over the years.

Paul Laxalt, onetime Nevada governor and U.S. senator, won the honorific “First Friend” when Ronald Reagan was president. Even after Laxalt’s two terms on Capitol Hill ended in 1986, the native Nevadan served as an ambassador to ambitious young locals who wanted to make a mark in the Reagan and then George H.W. Bush administrations.

Trump’s election left Nevada, a state that supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, in the shadows politically, although Trump did have ties with Vegas casino giants, most notably the late Sheldon Adelson, but also Steve Wynn and Phil Ruffin.

“But really, Nevada’s run by Democrats,” said Segerblom, a member of the all-Democrat Clark County Commission, who recently filed to become chairman of the state party.

Biden endorsed Gov. Steve Sisolak in 2018, and Sisolak similarly backed Biden in 2020. That relationship may be tested early, especially when it comes to coronavirus vaccines, where the governor says Nevada’s been shortchanged.

In January, Sisolak sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Acting Secretary Norris W. Cochran asking for more vaccines because Nevada received the second-lowest number of doses per capita.

Asked if Sisolak has reached out to Biden directly, spokeswoman Meghin Delaney said in a statement: “The Governor enjoys regular and productive conversations with the Biden-Harris Administration, including on weekly calls hosted by the National Governor’s Association. Additionally, the Governor’s staff and state leaders from various agencies have experienced a welcome increase in direct, regular and responsive communication with the new Administration and federal agencies.”

Clout in Congress

Former Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., spoke of how the Silver State delegation is well positioned to exercise its muscle.

“Even though we have a relatively young congressional delegation, I believe they’re ideally placed in various committees to have a lot of clout,” Berkley offered as she talked about the three Democrats’ plum committee perches.

Rep. Susie Lee has a slot on the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Steven Horsford is on the Ways and Means and Budget committees and Rep. Dina Titus, the dean of the delegation, is on the Transportation Committee.

Given the Biden administration’s push for electric cars, Berkley quipped, “That puts Dina in, dare I say, the driver’s seat.”

Berkley added that Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto, who as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee helped turn the Senate blue, and Jacky Rosen have been a successful team working for the Silver State.

Local issues

Trump supported restarting the licensing process to use Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste facility early in his tenure, although he later dropped funding requests for the project.

And while Biden voted for a 1987 omnibus spending bill that designated Yucca Mountain as the nation’s permanent repository for radioactive waste, he later cited conversations with Reid as leading him to change his mind on the repository.

Berkley said that despite Trump’s friendship with Adelson and Ruffin, “I don’t think he was the least bit interested in what anyone from Nevada had to say.”

Nevada’s rising stature might put the state in a front-row seat in the 2024 Democratic nominating calendar. “Hopefully we can jump over Iowa,” Segerblom said, referring to that state’s first-in-the-nation nominating caucus.

Although Reid and others have called for Nevada to move from its No. 3 place on the nominating calendar to first in the nation, citing the state’s diversity, union population and western location, the matter remains a sensitive one in national Democratic circles.

Familiar faces

The Biden White House also has made some high-profile hires with ties to Nevada.

Emmy Ruiz, who worked on the winning 2016 Nevada Hillary Clinton campaign, will serve as White House director of political strategy and outreach.

Given Biden’s ties with the Culinary and other unions, she sees more Nevadans in the Biden administration. While Ruiz, 37, hails from Texas, she worked in Nevada for three caucuses.

“I think it’s a great place to raise a family. I think it’s a great place to take a shot on yourself,” Ruiz said.

Democratic state Sen. Yvanna Cancela resigned from the Legislature this year to take a position with the Department of Health and Human Services.

Cancela lived in Washington once before, as a summer intern for Reid, so “it’s bittersweet to leave Nevada,” she said, adding that she’s thrilled to work in the Biden administration.

Cancela sees the Biden economic recovery package and COVID plan doing good things for a state “feeling the effects of the pandemic acutely.”

Nevada Republican operatives, meanwhile, see their party’s clout in the state fading.

“Nevada has changed. We’ve become really more like a suburb of California,” said Tom Lorentzen, a onetime Nevadan who now lives in California. Although rural Nevada remains reliably conservative and Republican, Washoe County has become more Democratic in recent years.

Biden beat Trump in Washoe County by more than 4 percentage points in 2020, and Clinton carried the county in 2016. Sisolak narrowly won there in 2018.

Veteran Nevada Republican political consultant Sig Rogich sees the formerly red Silver State as “probably purple moving to blue.” Even still, he noted, Trump came closer to taking Nevada in November than many expected.

In the past, Rogich offered, Nevada was treated as a stepchild who “never received back what we should.” Now, he said he expects Nevada to be treated with more respect in the Biden White House, in part because of Reid, “who arguably has as much clout as anybody.”

That said, Rogich cautioned, when Reagan was president, Laxalt “was always reluctant to ask for too much.”

It’s easy to say you’ve got clout, but harder to use it.

The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Sheldon Adelson, the late CEO and chairman of Las Vegas Sands Corp.

Contact Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.

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