Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/10/washoe-county.jpgWashoe County, Nev. (Flickr: Ken Lund)
RENO, Nev.—Three hours after Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, held a campaign rally down the street, the Washoe County GOP chairwoman Heidi Smith was puzzled as she looked over early-voting numbers. Democrats were turning out in droves.
Four hours east of San Francisco, Washoe County is the leading swing county of Nevada, a battleground state. Sen. John McCain needs a win here to keep his flickering presidential hopes alive.
For decades, Washoe County was considered a lock for Republicans. But last week, county registrar Dan Burk released stunning news: registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 1,284 voters.
“How did this happen?” Smith said as she shuffled through papers on her desk and eight volunteers in the strip-mall office manned the phones and occasionally handed out McCain-Palin signs. “This was a strong Republican county. And all of a sudden — it is Democrat.”
The Democratic takeover of Washoe County has Republicans across the state reeling because it opens the door for Sen. Barack Obama to win Nevada’s five electoral votes on Nov. 4.
Traditionally, Nevada’s electorate has been divided between the Democratic stronghold of Clark County, which includes Las Vegas and its suburbs, and the GOP-dominated rural areas. The GOP could usually count on places like Washoe County, which includes Reno, to tip statewide elections in its favor. Until now.
“No one thought [a Democratic takeover] would happen this fast with this kind of numbers in Washoe County,” said Chuck Muth, a GOP strategist from Carson City, Nev. “Washoe County had a large Republican registration four years ago, when [George W.] Bush barely carried the state.”
Polls show that the presidential race in Nevada continues to be a tossup. But Obama’s grass-roots-driven campaign is steadily attracting support for the Illinois senator, and Democrats are turning out to vote. “The early numbers are encouraging, to say the least,” said Jeff Giertz, an Obama campaign spokesman.
Democrats were ready to hit the polls on the first day of early voting “[It] was like a tailgate party for Obama,” said Eric Herzik, a political science professor at University of Nevada, Reno, and a registered Republican. To stoke the fires, Obama held campaign rallies before large crowds Saturday in Las Vegas and Reno.
Meanwhile, McCain’s fortunes in the state seem to be fading. He failed to lock down Nevada’s independents and reassure nervous conservative Republicans. Add to that a faltering economy and Obama’s 4 to 1 spending advantage.
“This thing is crumbling before their eyes,” said Jon Ralston, a Las Vegas Sun political columnist.
Latinos, unofficially, make up about 11 percent of the registered voters in Nevada, and are roughly 24 percent of the population. The Nevada secretary of state does not track voter registration by ethnicity, but Latino organizing groups report registering more than 53,000 Latinos in Nevada over the last year, led by The We Are America Alliance, which conducted a national Latino voter registration drive.
Political analysts here say that Obama’s caucus win last January was a turning point in reshaping Nevada’s political map. Working outside Democratic Party powerbrokers, Obama managed to create a network of supporters at the precinct level who carried him past Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Since then, the Obama campaign, with the help of the state Democratic Party, has continued to organize at the precinct level, according to David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Now you are going to see what a community organization does,” Damore said.
Obama’s grass-roots network, which in the past year has grown to more than 4,500 volunteers, has registered tens of thousands of Democratic voters. Its success is evident here in Washoe County.
“We haven’t had Democrats in the lead in Washoe County in 30 years,” said Herzik.
“It was something we thought we would never see happen,” said Paul Kincaid, spokesman for the Nevada state Democratic Party.
Herzik said it’s too early to tell whether the Democratic registration advantage is more than a short-term phenomenon, inspired by Obama. But there are indications that Democrats are digging in for the long haul.
Amy Curtis-Weber, executive director of the Washoe County Democratic Party, said more than 8,000 new voters were registered on the day of the Democratic caucus. That was the beginning of the big surge in Democratic registrations that pushed the party’s edge in the state to more than 110,000, A year ago, the margin was 4,200 voters. When President George W. Bush carried Nevada by 20,000 votes in 2004, registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats by 4,000.
While Obama’s campaign is taking it to the streets in Nevada, McCain’s campaign seems a virtual no show other than Palin’s Oct. 21 appearance, which drew about 3,000 supporters, about half the size of her audience in September. “The other day, I saw three different groups of Obama supporters walking through my neighborhood,” said Muth, the GOP strategist. “I have yet to see one McCain person.”
That pretty much dooms McCain in Nevada, contends Paul Davis, a veteran Republican activist and political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He partly based his prediction on the overwhelming support for Obama by his students, many of whom have already voted. “I believe that as far as Washoe County is concerned, not only is Obama going to win — he’s going to win big,” Davis said.
There’s more troubling news for McCain. About one-third of Davis’ Republican colleagues tell him they are planning to vote for Obama because of the country’s financial crisis. “They want something passed to stop the bleeding in the stock market,” Davis said. “They are afraid if McCain gets elected, it will be gridlock all over again.” Davis said he already “gladly” cast his vote for Obama.
McCain hasn’t been to Nevada since Aug. 9, and his absence has further hurt his standing with the conservative Republican base here. “Being a maverick doesn’t really help him,” said Herzick. “They wanted a true fiscal conservative.”
McCain’s vote for the $700-billion Wall Street bailout package also alienated a segment of Nevada’s conservative voters, who may turn to Bob Barr, the Libertarian candidate. That vote undermines McCain’s attempt to paint Obama as a “socialist”, said Muth. “You can’t make that argument with moral authority when you just supported the government bailout and nationalization of the banks,” he said. “That just makes you a hypocrite.”
Last Wednesday, a steady stream of voters turned out at the downtown Reno public library, a designated voting site. Bryant Broxson, 46, and his wife, Lani, 38, voted for McCain. “If [Obama] becomes president, America will change and will never recover and never be the same again,” Lani Broxson said.
Mario Lopez, 39, a court clerk, said he voted for Obama because the “Republicans are responsible for the condition of the economy.”
Six other voters all said they favored Obama, citing his positions on health care and the economy, his poise and the greater likelihood that he would restore America’s international standing. “It’s been a miserable eight years,” said Amber Armstrong, 29, a registered independent.
About 273,800 votes have been cast in Clark County in early voting
and Democrats have widened their lead to 7,300 voters. Democrats cast 31,900 votes, while Republicans cast 24,560.
“This is by far the largest number of early voters that we have ever seen,” said Burk, the Washoe County registrar. “Nothing else comes close.”
The strong Democratic turnout has Republicans mulling possible legal challenges. “We question whether these are valid registrations,” said Smith, the Washoe County GOP chairwoman.
While talking to Smith, she was interrupted by a cell phone call, which she inadvertently put on the speakerphone. It was the state GOP executive director Zachery Moyle, and the two discussed what could be done about the tsunami of Democratic Party registrations.
“I’m looking for people to sign on to a lawsuit,” Moyle said to Smith, who fumbled with the phone while turning off the speaker. “You didn’t hear that,” she said glancing in my direction.
When asked later that day about the potential for a lawsuit, Moyle said there was no “definitive plan” to go to court. “There’s been obviously concern with voter fraud across the country,” he said.
Democratic Party leaders said the only evidence of voter fraud so far in Nevada was a series of phone calls made to Democratic Latino voters telling them they could vote by phone and didn’t have to go to the polls. “The Republicans who are complaining about voter fraud are doing it simply to scare people,” contended Kincaid, the Democratic Party spokesman.
Moyle said he was still confident that Republican voters would turn out in big numbers for early voting and on Election Day, and that McCain would win Nevada.
“Yes, we are losing the early voting now,” Moyle said. “But in order for the Democrats to win and for us to be scared, we have to see [Democrats] to continue to turn out the vote.”