As Nevada lags behind in 2020 visits, Silver State Democrats warn about ignoring the state

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid speaks at a campaign rally on October 23, 2016, in North Las Vegas, Nevada.

Las Vegas, Nevada (CNN)Democrats running for President in 2020 are racking up the miles in early nominating states, crisscrossing the plains of Iowa, blanketing New Hampshire's iconic small towns and rallying voters from the low country to the blue ridge mountains of South Carolina.

So far, however, Nevada -- the state that will vote third in the Democratic primary process after Iowa and New Hampshire -- has been largely left behind.
According to data collected by CNN, the 14 candidates running for the Democratic nomination in 2020 have made 13 trips to Nevada since the 2018 midterms, a number that dramatically trails behind Iowa, a state that has received 49 trips, New Hampshire with its 46 trips and South Carolina, which has had 26 visits since November 2018.
Even Texas, a state that is not part of the first four nominating states, has received more visits than Nevada with 23 visits, according to CNN's data.
    While the trend has yet to wildly alarm Nevada Democrats -- it's early and Nevada is a haul from the East Coast, many said -- interviews with a dozen Nevada operatives, elected officials and organizers found a series of warnings for candidates who think they can overlook the state or introduce themselves late in the game.
    "If people think they are can ignore Nevada, they are making a big mistake," former senator Harry Reid said in an interview with CNN. "If someone can do well in Nevada, it is indicative they can do well around the country."
    Nevada is the first state in the nomination process with a sizable number of non-white voters, namely Latinos and members of the Asian American and Pacific Islands community. According to the Pew Research Center, 28% of Nevada's population is Latino, making it the fifth largest Hispanic state wide population nationally. And the so-called AAPI community in Nevada is growing, according to the 2016 National Asian American Survey, showing a 21% jump between 2008 to 2012.
    Reid, who remains the most influential Democrat in the state after he retired from the Senate in 2017, said he has been generally satisfied with the attention Nevada has received -- a series of 2020 Democrats have visited the former Senate Democratic leader on their trips to the Silver State -- but the former senator added that he always believes candidates could spend more time connecting with people here. Reid was a key force behind Nevada's caucuses moving to an earlier slot on the primary calendar ahead of the 2008 presidential election.
    "No one, even people who are well known in Nevada like Sen. (Joe) Biden and Sen. (Bernie) Sanders, no one can take the state for granted," Reid said. "Nevada is very diverse in many different ways. The population centers of our country are moving East, and people better be concerned about west of the Mississippi because the power block is no longer in the East. ... People better be aware of Nevada."
    Campaigns have stocked up on top staffers who have roots in the state. Faiz Shakir, a former senior adviser to Reid, is running Bernie Sanders' campaign. Emmy Ruiz and Anatole Jenkins, two top organizers for Sen. Kamala Harris' 2020 campaign, have deep experience organizing in Nevada. Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro had tapped Natalie Montelongo, who was an organizer for the Clinton campaign in East Las Vegas in 2016, as his political director. And Sen. Elizabeth Warren's communications team includes Kristen Orthman, a former top Reid staffer, and Brendan Summers, who previously worked as the executive director of the Nevada Assembly Democratic Caucus.
    Still, a series of Nevada Democrats consistently gave three reasons candidates appear to be paying less attention to the Silver State this year: the distance from East Coast headquarters, the feeling among some candidates that it is Iowa or bust and the belief that some western candidates, namely California's Harris, already have a lock on the state.
    To date, Sens. Harris, Sanders, Warren, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as Castro, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and author Marianne Williamson have all made trips to the state since the 2018 midterms.


    When Jorge Neri, Hillary Clinton's Nevada caucus director in 2016, was looking for surrogates to travel to the state to stump for the eventual Democratic nominee, he found a repeated excuse to say no: It takes too long.
    Neri said surrogates, especially those from the Northeast, bristled at the idea of devoting so much travel time to come to Nevada when they could easily be in New Hampshire, Iowa or South Carolina. At times, Neri said, this included Clinton herself, who wasn't in the state as much as her caucus director would have liked.
    "It just comes down to the distance," he said. "Usually you set up a West Coast fundraising trip and you tag on a Nevada stop."
    Neri, though, credits Nevada with helping Clinton move past Sanders' strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire in 2016. Using distance as an excuse is not only lazy, it could also hurt candidates in 2020, he said.
    "You can't have 15 candidates in just Iowa. At some point, there has to be a rotation ... as folks start raising more money and start really thinking what their West coast operations is going to be," Neri said. "If you are trying to run a program for Latinos across the country, where are you going to start testing some of your message? If you want to test messages for the Asian American Pacific Islander community, are you going to do that in New Hampshire or Iowa?"
    Even Reid acknowledged that distance is a factor.
    "Nevada is a long way from DC," he said, noting that he often made the trip. "Iowa is not, New Hampshire is not, South Carolina is not. It is a two-day deal to come to Nevada, counting the three-hour time difference. No matter what you do, it doesn't work well."

    Iowa or bust:

    The field of Democrats is massive and growing, leading some campaigns to believe that they have to perform in Iowa -- home to the nation's first nominating contest -- in order to have any viability going forward.
    That is candidates like former Rep. John Delaney visit every county in Iowa once during his already nearly two years of campaigning. Or why Sen. Amy Klobuchar of neighboring Minnesota has made four trips to the Hawkeye State (and has another schedule), but has yet to visit Nevada.
    In the eyes of Nevada operatives, this strategy won't work partially because the power brokers in control of the party's massive Democratic infrastructure -- which over the last two decades has slowly turned the state blue -- are highly unlikely to help a candidate whose strategy in the Western state is to seize on momentum from earlier contests.
    Those operatives point to both 2008 and 2016. Hillary Clinton lost Iowa in 2008 and New Hampshire in 2016, but went on to win more of the popular vote each year in Nevada.
    "Our caucus will be the only early test of viability in the general election," said William McCurdy II, chair of the Nevada Democratic State Party.
    One of those key power brokers is the Culinary Union Local 226, a force in Nevada politics whose organizing abilities have helped deliver the state for Democrats for years.
    "You can't separate winning elections in Nevada from the Culinary Union," said Ty Matsdorf, a Democratic operative who worked for President Barack Obama's 2012 campaign in Nevada and later worked for Reid. "They are a huge part of the cavalry that helps candidates get across the finish line and key ingredient for why Nevada is blue."
    Bethany Khan, a top organizer and spokeswoman with the union, told CNN in an interview that while they will work on behalf of Democrats in the state in 2020, earning the union's support will come from not just talking about union rights from afar -- it will come from candidates actually working with the union in the state.
    "We want to see more than just name checking labor in your speeches," Khan said. "Are you going to be on the picket line? Will you pick up the phone and call Station Casinos about not negotiating? ... When you are president, will you come back and make sure you are joining workers in the fight on the streets?"

    The neighbor discount:

    Every operative CNN spoke with said Nevada is here for the taking, arguing that the perception that the state is heavily tilted to Harris, who represents California, is wrong.
    "It's wide open," said Rep. Steven Horsford, a Democrat who represents Nevada's 4th congressional district. "Despite the attention paid to Iowa and New Hampshire, Nevada reflects the growing diversity of the Democratic Party and the broader electorate."
    He added: "I will be very blunt: Candidates who ignore Nevada do so at their peril."
    Harris' hiring of Ruiz, who worked as Clinton's Nevada state director in 2016, was a signal that she was taking the state seriously, but conversations with politically active culinary union members showed that even those plugged into the process are far from backing one candidate.
    "I have not heard nothing very well yet," said Mario Vargas, a 49-year old housekeeping worker at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.
    "But I want to hear good things, positive things, honesty about what is going to happen to immigrant people. People are trapped at this time because they don't really know what is going on."
    For him -- a person who took advantage of a union benefit and took a leave of absence around the 2018 election to work on political organizing at the culinary union -- it's "too early" to consider who he'll support in