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Bernie Sanders Leads in Nevada and the Establishment Isn’t Doing Much to Stop Him

6 minute read

Somewhere in the recesses of the sprawling Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where giant animatronic dragons live, slot machines are always busy, and bad decisions are likely being made at any given moment, former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid sits in a quiet executive office. He’s wearing a newsboy cap, a pink tie, and a Nancy Pelosi pin that her daughter gave him at the Las Vegas Democratic debate the night before.

It’s two days before the Nevada caucuses, but already Reid appears to be looking beyond them, to Super Tuesday on March 3, when more than a third of overall delegates to the Democratic convention will be awarded. He’s waiting until then to decide whether he will endorse a presidential candidate. I’ve asked him if it’s because he’s worried about being wrong in his choice.

“I just think that it’s wrong for me to interject myself into this primary process, and I’m not going to. I’m going to wait until after Super Tuesday,” Reid says, “and then I’ll make a decision.”

Reid isn’t the only one sitting on the sidelines. Nevada’s Culinary Workers Union Local 226, the biggest organizing force in Nevada Democratic politics, chose not to endorse a specific candidate, despite (like Reid) expressing concerns with Medicare for All, one of Senator Bernie Sanders’ key proposals.

Countless members of the Democratic establishment are worrying about Sanders—whether he’s about to run away with the primary contest and whether he can win in November if he does. Yet here in Nevada, where Sanders is widely expected to win for the third time in three states, there’s no organized effort to stop his momentum. Moderate Democrats are airing anti-Sanders ads, but at the Nevada debate on Wednesday night, rivals focused their fire at Michael Bloomberg rather than the Democratic front-runner.

The risk in waiting, for those who fret about Sanders, is that by the time Super Tuesday comes around, it may be too late. There’s a growing possibility that Sanders, who won the popular vote in Iowa and eked out an uncontested win in New Hampshire, will gain enough momentum to run away with the nomination as the rest of the field remains split on which other candidate to coalesce around.

“The moderate group—Klobuchar, Mayor Pete, Biden, Bloomberg, however you want to put that—until they decide on a singular candidate, the vote’s going to get all whacked up,” D. Taylor, the president of UNITE HERE! (Culinary Workers Union Local 226’s parent union), told TIME in an interview on Friday at the busy Culinary Workers Union complex.

To be sure, Nevada will award just 36 of the nearly 4,000 pledged delegates who will attend the Democratic National Convention, and the primary race is a fluid one. There’s little clarity about what is happening in the fractured field, and the race still seems open to late surprises, not least from the late-arriving billionaire Bloomberg. As one Democratic operative put it: “We know less than we knew a month ago.”

But Nevada is important for several reasons. It’s one of the last chances to reset the popular story line of the race before it’s too late to change it. And perhaps more tellingly, Nevada is the first test of how the Democratic candidates fare with minority voters, who help form the backbone of the party and wield increasing power in upcoming contests.

Nevada is the first state to vote that is majority-minority: it’s nearly 30% Latino and just over 10% black. In Clark County, where most of the state’s population resides, nearly 25% of residents reportedly speak Spanish at home. The American Immigration Council estimates that nearly 20% of the state’s residents are immigrants. And the state’s Democratic party is offering its caucus and training material in English, Spanish, and Tagalog.

“We are the first diverse state to make its voice heard, we’re much more reflective of the country. This cycle, we are a good indication of what might happen on Super Tuesday now with states like California and Texas who demographically look similar to Nevada on how they will turn out just a couple of days after our caucus,” Molly Forgey, the communications director for the Nevada Democratic Party, told TIME. (California and Texas both have a nearly 40 percent Hispanic or Latino population.)

All the candidates have been trying to show they can perform best with minority voters.

Sanders is showing strength with these voters. Part of the Vermonter’s advantage in organization here is thanks in no small part to his campaign’s diligent focus on Latino outreach. Others aren’t doing so well. “Unfortunately we haven’t had much contact with the Pete Buttigieg campaign or the Amy Klobuchar campaign. I haven’t really seen them in my community,” says Erika Castro, the organizing manager of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN) Action, which did not endorse a candidate.

The candidates have been trying to speak directly to minority voters. “Look, I get it. I am not a woman of color,” Warren told supporters at a canvass launch in North Las Vegas on Thursday morning. “I never got thrown across a hood. I have the privilege of never having been slammed into the wall by a police officer.” Despite having been criticized for Obama-era immigration policies, former Vice President Joe Biden notched a win this week when Latino Victory swooped in with a last-minute endorsement of him.

But the most important factor at this point in the race may be time. And with just 11 days to go to Super Tuesday, and no concerted effort to stop Sanders, the Democratic establishment may look back at Nevada as a missed opportunity to stop him.

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Write to Lissandra Villa / Las Vegas, Nev. at lissandra.villa@time.com