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Will 'Harry Reid Machine' Continue To Work For Democrats In Next Elections?


A Democratic machine that has shaded Nevada blue has become a model for Democrats in other parts of the country. People call it the Harry Reid machine, named for the former Senate majority leader and Nevada native. NPR's Leila Fadel reports.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: On Election Day, the largest union in the state, majority-immigrant and women of color, was out.


FADEL: In the Culinary Union parking lot, a mariachi band played as volunteers handed out breakfast to canvassers. Despite the pandemic and its members hard-hit by job losses, the union knocked on over 450,000 doors. The Culinary Union has been organizing for decades, but it wasn't until 2010 that Senator Harry Reid really harnessed that power. He was in the battle for his political career. And then...

HARRY REID: Republicans made a big mistake because the first ads they ran against me said, Harry Reid, the best friend illegal immigrants ever had. And what that did is energize the Hispanic community.

FADEL: The demonization got Latino voters to the polls, and they delivered the Senate seat to Harry Reid by a tiny margin.

REID: It made them mad, and they came out in droves. I wouldn't have won that reelection but for the Hispanics.

FADEL: The party woke up. Ever since, turning out the Latino, Black and Asian and Pacific Islander vote is the backbone of the Democratic model in Nevada, which means partnering with unions and community groups. It's something the Culinary Union's national group, Unite Here, replicated in Arizona, where Democrats flipped the state for Biden, and in Pennsylvania, where Biden also won.

D TAYLOR: The model was Nevada, and that was really where we decided to take control of destiny.

FADEL: That's D. Taylor, the president of Unite Here. The key, he says, is door-knocking, talking to people.

TAYLOR: And we particularly targeted those neighborhoods that, candidly, folks don't target - largely Black and brown communities.

FADEL: But in a pandemic, that was tough, as some 1,500 canvassers fanned out in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Florida and Nevada carefully with masks, gloves and social distancing. And it worked everywhere except Florida.

TAYLOR: We were up against a Trump ground game that was good. They were much better than they've ever been in the past. They were much more active.

FADEL: Without his union, Taylor says, Democrats would have lost because the Trump campaign was at the doors early when Democratic organizers, more careful about the pandemic, were largely inside.

Pete Ernaut is a longtime Republican political operative in Nevada and says the Republican ground game seems to have narrowed the margins.

PETE ERNAUT: Number one, it existed. Number two, it was organized.

FADEL: He says the Harry Reid machine was born because the Democrats were tired of losing, and now the Republicans are taking their cues from that same machine. Register people and turn them out.

ERNAUT: It's meat and potatoes, but the registration efforts and the turnout efforts the Republican Party for the last four cycles have been dismal. They finally showed up.

FADEL: Just not enough. Biden won. Across the country, there was record turnout on both sides. Trump's backbone of support - white voters. Exit polls indicate, though, he made slight inroads in Black, Latino and Asian communities.

YVANNA CANCELA: You cannot win without the Latino vote.

FADEL: That's Yvanna Cancela, a state senator and senior adviser to the Biden-Harris campaign in Nevada. She warns that polls may not tell a full demographic picture because so many people voted by mail. What is true, she says, is the Harry Reid machine worked despite the challenges.

CANCELA: Outreach to our communities of color and especially our Latino communities was at the cornerstone of our campaign's strategy, and every strategic decision we made took those communities into account.

FADEL: Cancela says Democrats in states like Arizona made similar calculations, and that's why Biden won.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Las Vegas.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUNSQUABI'S "ANYTIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.