Democratic 2020 Race Heads to Sheldon Adelson Country

Nevada is the first state to vote that's home to a significant Jewish community. Most Jews vote Democrat – and the overall race increasingly looks like a battle between two Jewish candidates

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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Sheldon Adelson looking on as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a Hanukkah reception in the East Room of the White House, Washington, December 11, 2019.
Sheldon Adelson looking on as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a Hanukkah reception in the East Room of the White House, Washington, December 11, 2019. Credit: TOM BRENNER/REUTERS
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON – The Democratic caucus in Nevada often attracts less media attention than the earlier races in Iowa and New Hampshire. But this year, the fractured field of candidates and close initial results have reinforced the western state’s importance ahead of Saturday’s vote in the fight for the presidential nomination.

Nevada is also the first state to vote that is home to a significant Jewish community. While there are Jewish communities in Iowa and New Hampshire, Nevada’s community – concentrated mostly in Las Vegas – is much bigger: Some 75,000 Jews live in the state, compared to about 10,000 in New Hampshire and 5,000 in Iowa.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 63

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The majority of Nevada’s Jews tend to support the Democratic Party (like most U.S. Jews); in 2018, Nevadans elected Jewish-American lawmaker Jacky Rosen to the U.S. Senate.

But the state’s most famous and influential Jewish political figure is a staunch Republican: billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the single most important donor to GOP politicians over the past decade. Las Vegas is home to the headquarters of his international gambling empire, and Adelson also owns the city’s highest circulation newspaper, The Las Vegas Review-Journal.

“Adelson represents the Republican, right-wing elements of the local Jewish community. But that’s absolutely not the entire Jewish community in Nevada,” says Jon Ralston, editor and founder of news website The Nevada Independent. Ralston is the state’s leading political analyst, and accurately predicted the election results in Nevada in the 2018 and 2016 elections – two cycles in which Democrats did well in the state.

People waiting in line to vote in Las Vegas on the final day of early voting for the Nevada Democratic presidential caucus, February 18, 2020.Credit: AFP

“Las Vegas is a very Democratic city and county, and that’s where a lot of the Jewish community is,” recounts Ralston, speaking to Haaretz by phone while prepping to co-host Wednesday’s Democratic presidential debate. The city is home to more than 20 synagogues, representing every denomination and stream. The other main Jewish community can be found in Nevada’s third largest city, Reno.

The Sanders factor

“The Jewish community here is not uniform politically,” says Sam Lieberman, a former chair of the Nevada Democratic Party. Lieberman says he is not aware of any recent studies on the exact political breakdown of the community, but estimates that national trends for the Jewish community are also true in Nevada. “You have more Jewish Democrats than Republicans, but the Republican group is also significant,” he says.

Nevada was added to the “early states” schedule partly in order to counterbalance the demographics of Iowa and New Hampshire – two states where more than 90 percent of the electorate is white and where there are very small racial, ethnic and religious minority populations.

The electorate in Nevada is more representative of the country as a whole, and specifically the Democratic Party’s base. More than a quarter of the local population is Hispanic and about a further 9 percent black. The Jewish community comprises some 2 percent of Nevadans – similar to its national share.

Exterior view of the Paris Las Vegas hotel which is the venue for the Democratic Presidential Debate in Las Vegas, Nevada, February 18, 2020.Credit: AFP

In 2016, Donald Trump won the Republican Nevada caucus with 45 percent of the vote, while Hillary Clinton won the Democratic race with 52 percent. There is no GOP caucus in the state this year, but Nevada seems poised for drama on the Democratic side.

Up until early February, former Vice President Joe Biden led in most polls here. In recent days, though, several polls have shown a growing lead for Sen. Bernie Sanders, who lost the state to Clinton four years ago but still managed to secure 47 percent of the vote.

Back then, Sanders and Clinton were the only serious Democratic candidates. This year, though, Sanders could secure less votes than he did in 2016 but still be declared the big winner out of Nevada. That’s because the various moderate and centrist candidates will split votes between them.

“The polling numbers are good for Sanders, and the other campaigns also sense he has the momentum,” Ralston says. “But caucuses are very difficult to poll. It’s not a straight vote like a primary; you have second alignments and it’s a more complicated process. So the polls can be misleading. And even if Bernie wins, there will be a big fight for second place.”

Attendees listening as Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign event at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, February 18, 2020.Credit: Patrick Semansky/AP

Ralston notes that although former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg didn’t submit his paperwork early enough to run in Nevada, he could nevertheless upend the race in the state. “He is going to be on the debate stage here on Wednesday and he’s been sucking the oxygen away from the other candidates who aren’t Bernie Sanders. That’s a problem for others if they want to get momentum,” Ralston says.

Lieberman says the different campaigns are “mostly doing good field work” in the state, and that their presence is “well felt” in residential areas in Las Vegas. But winning Nevada – both at the caucus stage and in November’s general election – usually also requires gaining the support of influential unions in the state, especially the union that represents workers in Las Vegas’ tourism industry.

As for Jewish voters, Lieberman says “most of them have the same priorities as other voters in the Democratic Party. There are many, of course, who care about Israel. Another thing I’ve been hearing a lot about from people is the 2020 census: we need more politicians to talk about it. Nevada’s representation in Congress grew after the 2010 census – we want to make sure we don’t lose that, and that perhaps we even grow after the census is completed. But that will only happen if the count is fair and accurate.”

‘Very heated very quickly’

Rabbi Yocheved Mintz of Congregation P’nai Tikvah in Las Vegas tells Haaretz that in many Jewish communities, people are actually trying to avoid political discussions because of the growing tensions surrounding the subject at the moment. “It gets very heated very quickly sometimes,” she says. “Before 2016, it was easier to have discussions about political issues in the community. Now, a lot of people want to avoid it altogether.”

Mintz has lived in Nevada for decades and watched its Jewish community expand over the years. “You have a lot of people who moved here from other parts of the country,” she says. “I think until two decades ago you could count the number of Jews in Nevada, but you couldn’t necessarily talk about a Jewish community. Today it’s definitely a community, which is a good thing.”

Anti-Semitism is a growing source of concern within the community, she says. “We have seen an uptick in incidents recently, and Jewish institutions are investing more in security, just like in other parts of the country,” Mintz explains. “We have grants for security that are available from the state, and we have a very good chapter of the Anti-Defamation League that is working on these issues.”

Sen. Jacky Rosen (Democrat of Nevada) arriving at the Capitol during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, Washington, January 23, 2020.Credit: Julio Cortez/AP

Lieberman says Jacky Rosen’s victory in the 2018 Senate race had some “added value” for the Jewish community, since it was the first time a Jewish woman had been elected to represent Nevada in the Senate. He also mentions former Congresswoman Shelley Berkley, who represented Nevada’s 1st Congressional District in the House of Representatives for more than a decade and is also Jewish.

No matter what happens on Saturday, Nevada will remain an important state for the duration of the 2020 presidential election. Clinton only took the state by some 27,000 votes in 2016 and Trump is hoping to flip it in November.

Ralston tells Haaretz that “the Democrats are very confident here. They are registering more voters than Republicans and had big wins in 2018. The last time a Republican presidential candidate won Nevada was in 2004, when George W. Bush ran for reelection.”

But he adds that one source of hope for the state’s Republicans is the “Sanders surge.” Ralston says “many Republicans here definitely think that if Bernie will be the nominee, Nevada will be in play in 2020. I think it’s too early to make such a determination. It’s possible, but I’m not completely convinced.”

In other states, most notably South Carolina, Republican activists have called for party members to take this analysis a step further and vote for Sanders in the Democratic primary on February 29. (The state has an open primary system, which means any registered voter can cast their ballot in either party’s primary, but not both – and the Republicans are not holding one this year.)

Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden listening to an attendee after speaking at a campaign event in the Chinatown neighborhood of Las Vegas, February 18, 2020.Credit: Patrick Semansky/AP

Ralston says he isn’t seeing such a scenario in Nevada (where Republicans would have to change their party affiliation to vote), adding that the Adelson-owned Las Vegas Review-Journal – which has a clear right-wing editorial slant – is not supporting the socialist Vermont senator. “I’m sure they [the newspaper] will do their thing when the general election comes,” he says. “But right now, I haven’t noticed that they’re getting involved on the Democratic side.”