The soul of the party

There is a war going on in the Democratic Party, though few voters are likely aware of it. From coast to coast, party leaders have been anointing conservative candidates in hope of having more electable slates. It is a fight that will determine what kind of party the Democrats will be. “Will it be centrist, establishment candidates who lead the much-anticipated ‘blue wave,’ or will progressive insurgents sweep them aside?” asks a New Yorker writer in the current edition.

Community-based candidates are being pushed aside in states and districts in favor of the scions of influential families or moneyed candidates who can help fund the party. Worse, in the eyes of insurgents, is that they are friendly to the National Rifle Association or fossil fuel lobbyists.

In Nevada, this war is manifesting itself principally in the Democratic primary for governor, where Steve Sisolak and Chris Giunchigliani are fighting for primacy.

U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, the party’s 2006 nominee for governor, and former U.S. senator Harry Reid shocked the party organization rank and file last year when they endorsed conservative Sisolak over liberal Giunchigliani.

The definitions are their own. “Some people say I’m the most conservative Democrat they’ve ever seen,” Sisolak said just three years ago. He has recently tried to get himself straight with the party base by switching on a variety of hot-button issues like marriage equality. He is wealthy and is running an expensive television campaign that has given him a polling lead.

Both are now local officials, but earlier, Sisolak spent a quiet decade on the Board of Regents, which governs Nevada’s higher education system. He was critical of fee increases and high executive salaries. Giunchigliani was a member of the Nevada Assembly for 16 years. She sat on the Assembly’s budget committee and advocated for students and workers.

One way to show how the two candidates stand is to look at what they are best known for outside their home territory. In Sisolak’s case, it is likely his push for subsidies to lure the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas while he was a county commissioner. (Giunchigliani voted against the deal.) If is more difficult to select such an issue for Giunchigliani. In the small counties, she is probably best known for traveling from town to town for three years—1987 to 1990—in a van while she headed the state teachers association. In the urban areas, it may be her opposition in the Assembly to making workers pay the price of debts run up by businesses for whom premiums in the workers’ injury insurance system were kept artificially low for years.

But veteran Democratic county organization volunteers were angered at the Reid and Titus power play, one of them saying flatly of Sisolak, “I can’t sell him.”

These kind of party organizers—experts at what makes people vote—are worried about turnout, and they see Sisolak’s stolid image as a killer. “I wanted Chris in this race because she will excite people,” one said. “He may squeak through [in November], but she would win big. “

However, political analyst Fred Lokken said it is the job of party leaders to recruit candidates and shape slates that can win. Speaking of Sisolak, he said, “There’s a question about his statewide appeal, but he’s been successful in his own back yard, and … Reid’s ground game that has now been adopted for the entire party nationally can work wonders.”