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CNN  — 

On Saturday, Judith Whitmer won an election to be the next chair of the Nevada Democratic Party. She did so with the strong support of the liberal wing of the party aligned with Vermont democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders and the backing of the local chapter pf the Democratic Socialists of America.

The result led to the immediate resignation of the current state party staff – all of which were aligned with the establishment wing of the party long represented by former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

To understand what happened and what the democratic socialist takeover means for the 2022 Senate and governor’s races in the state – as well as Nevada’s hope to be the first-in-the-nation vote come 2024 – I reached out to the one and only Jon Ralston, founder of the Nevada Independent and the single best political reporter in the state.

Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.

Cillizza: What exactly happened here?

Ralston: So this was an election for state chairman, which is conducted by the few hundred people on what is known as the central committee. These are hardcore activists and party faithful.

In this case, Judith Whitmer, who runs the largest county party in Clark (Las Vegas), was running on a progressive slate. But the elected officials, including US Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who is up this cycle, knew she was not as reliable as a good party soldier, and that she was supported by Bernie Sanders backers. Electeds want someone they can count on to help them win.

So they took a shot and recruited the only person who would have had a chance in what are always messy internal conflicts and tapped Tick Segerblom to run against her. Segerblom, a former legislator and now on the powerful Clark County Commission, has been a huge Bernie supporter for years and may be the most liberal elected official in Nevada history. He had all the elected endorsements and party insiders pushing him. If anyone could beat Whitmer, he could. He didn’t. He lost by 30 votes out of about 450 cast.

Cillizza: Was this a surprise? Or had it been a long time coming?

Ralston: Not a surprise.

The establishment candidates rarely win these battles in either party. The activists feel beholden to no one and often are hostile to their own elected officials. It sounds nuts, but go to a central committee sometime and experience the yearlong celebration of Festivus.

Whitmer was always the favorite. This was a long time coming, though. Sanders has had a foothold in Nevada since 2016. He lost the caucus to Hillary Clinton, but then his supporters took over county parties and were primed to take over the state convention and reverse the caucus result – don’t ask, it’s a crazy system – but they botched it and the convention had to be shut down by hotel security after the Bernie troops nearly rioted.

This was a victory for the establishment and the vaunted [former Sen. Harry] Reid Machine, which saw Bernie as a weaker candidate than Clinton. But the Sanders supporters are ferocious and dedicated and they were better organized in 2020, and there was not the same enthusiasm for Joe Biden. Sanders crushed Biden 2-to-1 in the caucus here and that helped the Bernie folks populate the central committee.

So the establishment/Reid machine knew it was an uphill struggle even with Segerblom, and they and the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] made sure money was funneled out of the party ($450,000) before the vote in case they lost. Then, all of the staff resigned right afterward, and the Reid folks have vowed to set up a separate entity because they have no faith in the party to do what they have done successfully for more than a decade: Launder (legally) money through the party to pay for voter programs.

Cillizza: How much should we read into this in terms of the fight for control of the broader Democratic party nationally?

Ralston: There is no question in the world of [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and Bernie [Sanders] that the progressive wing is feeling its oats and demanding more from the party leaders. They want “Medicare for All,” a $15 minimum wage, etc.

But the real danger for the Democrats – here and nationally – is the mirror image of what it is for the Republicans: They can win primaries, but they will have a much tougher time in general elections. In Nevada, the electorate prefers moderates – be they Democrats or Republicans, and the machine knows that. It’s why the establishment wanted Biden over Bernie – electability, or at least that was the argument.

In Nevada, this so-called revolution was against an establishment that has won four straight presidential races, elected two Democratic senators, three of our House members, all but one of the state’s six constitutional officers and both houses of the Legislature. But these folks who took over – and this goes for some of them nationally, too – want to push the party to the left and, as is often the case, enforce purity tests. They have always, though idealism and/or arrogance, believed they believe what most people believe, which is dissonant with what results have often shown.

Cillizza: Nevada is a swing state – with a big Senate race in 2022, a governor’s race in 2022 and then the 2024 presidential. Does what’s happened jeopardize Democratic chances in any of these future contests?

Ralston: It could. But too early to tell. The party machine will set up an entity as a workaround to the party, but this will be cumbersome and garner attention. I assume it will work because these folks know what they are doing. But it is far from optimal, and I am sure the Republicans are loving it.

It’s much simpler to have a party, not two potentially competing, even warring organs. It also could embolden lefties to run in primaries against the incumbents, which would not be helpful to the Democrats. But the Democrats have the benefit of two incumbents who have access to fundraising and the Republicans have no candidates yet and a very weak bench.

As for 2024, candidates matter. And 2022 wills set the table for ’24 – if the Republicans can win the governor’s mansion, totally different ballgame. Cliche alert: Time will tell.

Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “The big winner of this shakeup is __________.” Now, explain.

Ralston: The big winner is progressives in the short run. They are the David to the Reid Machine’s Goliath.

But this may be a Pyrrhic victory – if they can’t put together a functioning party and they have no money. If they can find a Sugar Bernie and organize on the ground, they may win some primaries against incumbents. But will that cost them in the general?

The big winner in the long run is the Republicans. They have long suffered with a dysfunctional apparatus run by a caricature of a party thug. Now they can watch as the other side suffers. Can they exploit it and win some major elections? Seven statewide offices are up in 2022, including governor and US Senate. If they can’t do it this time…

You didn’t ask, but the big loser could be Nevada’s bid to be the first-in-the-nation primary. We are going to switch from a caucus and push for being first. But if you are the powers that be in the Democratic National Committee and you saw this happen, how confident would you be?

We matter now, but that is in jeopardy.