GovernorJim Gibbons (R)
SenatorsHarry Reid (D)
John Ensign (R)
Las Vegas is unlike any other place on Earth. As your plane descends for a landing, you see a pyramid rising from the desert; just across the street from the Sphinx-like lion are New York City-style skyscrapers. Nearby are a fair-sized Eiffel Tower, the gondolas of Venice, and a flaming pirate ship. These surrealistic monuments, and miles of spreading subdivisions, are set in one of North America’s most forbidding landscapes, a bowl-shaped desert valley rimmed by barren peaks. “Geologically, Nevada is a gigantic, post-oceanic ditch between the Rockies and the Sierras, filled with rough, secondary mountain ranges that stack and twine across the naked landscape like ranks of FEMA house trailers in a storage lot,” writes Las Vegas art critic Dave Hickey. The first settlers came to mine silver and gold, starting with the Comstock Lode in 1859, which produced $500 million worth of silver in the next 20 years. Abraham Lincoln’s Republicans made Nevada a state in 1864 even though it did not meet the population requirement, because the GOP thought it might need three more electoral votes. But for years Nevada was not a viable state; by the early 20th century, its population had shrunk, and in the early 1930s there were only 91,000 Nevadans. The state government was about to go bankrupt, so Nevada decided to roll the dice: It reduced its residency requirement for divorce to six weeks and legalized gambling. Catering to what most Americans considered sin—casinos, pawnshops, divorce mills, quick-wedding chapels, even legal brothels—turned out to be good business. Nevada has been America’s fastest-growing state for two decades. Its population doubled, from 1.2 million to 2.7 million, from 1990 to 2007.
Las Vegas, a mere dot on the map when gambling was legalized, is the center of a metropolitan area of 1.8 million people. Reno, known as “the biggest little city in the world,” now has, together with Lake Tahoe and the capital of Carson City, 506,000 people. Gaming—the Nevada word for gambling—generates most of this growth: Las Vegas had 150,000 hotel rooms in 2007, with 40,000 more scheduled to be built by 2010, requiring 100,000 new workers. Las Vegas’ tourists spend more than $33 billion a year and Reno’s about $4 billion, and not just in casinos and hotels but also in increasingly upscale restaurants and shopping malls. They come from all over the United States and from foreign countries, especially Japan. Though at least one form of gambling is now available in 48 states, Las Vegas has made itself a destination; it has more than twice as much convention exhibit space as the No. 2 city, Chicago. This is definitely a service economy: Of the more than 1 million people employed, nearly 90% provide services rather than goods. The 6.75% gambling receipts tax has generated enough revenue to make it unnecessary for Nevada to impose income, corporate, or inheritance taxes. The cost of living is low, housing is relatively inexpensive, and a newcomer doesn’t stand out in the crowd. Some 5,000 people were moving in every month before the global financial crisis hit in 2008.
From mining to gambling, Nevada has been a second-chance state, a place for outcasts to succeed and misfits to rebound. Like Alaska, it is one of the few states with more men than women. At 14%, Nevada has the highest percentage of divorced residents in the nation. Only 23% of Nevadans were born in the state, the lowest of any state; in Stateline, on Lake Tahoe, just 5% were born in Nevada. The state has been an avenue of success for ethnic groups who faced roadblocks elsewhere. The four owners of the Comstock Lode—MacKay, Fair, Flood, and O’Brien—were Irishmen. The first big hotel on the Las Vegas strip, the Flamingo, was built in 1946 by Jewish gangster Bugsy Siegel, who was later gunned down in his Beverly Hills home. Most of the big casinos were owned by mobsters until industrialist Howard Hughes—a different kind of outcast—bought them up in the late 1960s. Since 1990, Latinos have moved here in large numbers, attracted by the strong job market. Nevada’s minority population in 2007 was 24% Hispanic, 7% black, and 6% Asian. Some 4% of Nevadans told the 2000 census takers that they were of multiple races, the fourth highest percentage of any state. Nevadans tend to be nonreligious and not highly educated: About 34% belonged to a church in 2000, a proportion lower than any other state except Oregon and Washington. Only 17% of adults in Las Vegas and Clark County had college degrees, one of the lowest percentages for any big metropolitan area.
By 2007, Nevada was feeling the heat from the recession. That year, taxable revenue declined nearly 10% and the unemployment rate rose above the national average. In 2008, things got worse. Gambling collections were down 23% in May, hotel occupancy was falling, thousands of construction workers were laid off, the Tropicana was headed into bankruptcy, and Starbucks closed 10% of its Las Vegas outlets. Casino stocks took a nosedive in late 2008, and much of the fortunes of casino magnates Kirk Kerkorian and Sheldon Adelson vanished. Real estate values, which were rising rapidly as late as 2005, crashed, and subdivisions built farther and farther out in the desert seemed empty. Nevada ranked No. 1 among the states in foreclosures, with rates running close to 100 per 1,000 households. Speculators with adjustable-rate mortgage loans and Hispanic construction workers with subprime mortgages suddenly found themselves far under water in the desert. Las Vegas, with all of its glitter and growth, found itself at the epicenter of the financial crisis that struck America in the fall of 2008.
All of this poses the greatest challenge that Las Vegas and Nevada have faced in years. As gambling has spread across the nation, Las Vegas has changed its focus, from Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, to family-friendly destination, to “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” It has promoted lavish shopping malls and hosted giant conventions (although neither of the major political parties has shown an interest). The city has even experimented with museums: The Guggenheim Heritage Museum in the Venetian closed in 2008, but the Neon Museum was scheduled to open in La Concha Motel in 2009 and the Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement (locals call it the mob museum) in the old federal courthouse was to debut in 2010.
There are other businesses in Nevada besides gambling and other places besides Las Vegas (although 71% of Nevadans live in Clark County). The state’s low taxes have made it a regional distribution and credit card operations center, and it has attracted warehouses and factories from California. There is still some mining, mostly in gold, which has been booming since the Clinton administration’s mining regulations were scrapped and the price of gold rose. Nevada also mines the less glamorous diatomaceous earth, used for swimming pool filters and cat litter. And a lot of older Californians cash out their expensive homes and retire to low-tax Nevada. A Wild West atmosphere endures in the “cow counties” beyond Las Vegas and Reno. Half of the 37,000 wild horses that roam the American West can be found in Nevada.
2008 Presidential Vote
Politically, Nevada was closely divided in the four presidential elections from 1992 to 2004, but in 2008 it went strongly Democratic, which is its historic preference. For years, this sparsely populated desert sent politically shrewd Democrats to Washington and kept them there to protect the interests of a state heavily dependent on the federal government. The most powerful were Key Pittman, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who backed Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s foreign policy only after Roosevelt agreed to buy absurdly large amounts of Nevada’s silver; and Sen. Pat McCarran, author of the repressive McCarran Act, who shamelessly pushed aid for Reno and Las Vegas (the airport there is named for him) and became suddenly solicitous of civil liberties when mobsters and casino owners were called to testify before the Kefauver committee investigating racketeering. In the 1980s, Nevada swung heavily Republican. In the 1990s, it twice voted narrowly for Democrat Bill Clinton, partly because he promised to stop the proposed nuclear-waste repository in Yucca Mountain, some 90 miles from Las Vegas. In 2000 and 2004, it was a target state again, narrowly carried both times by George W. Bush, who arguably would have done better here had he taken the same pledge to oppose the repository; instead, he was agnostic. In 2006, Nevada again seemed closely divided, electing Republican Jim Gibbons as governor and re-electing Republican Sen. John Ensign.
But it changed in 2008 for three reasons. One was presidential politics. The Democratic National Committee, under heavy pressure from Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, named Nevada as one of its four states allowed to hold early contests, along with Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Reid argued that largely white Iowa and New Hampshire were not typical of an increasingly diverse nation and that Nevada——with its mix of Hispanics, blacks, and Asians—was. (In South Carolina, the fourth early state, most of the Democratic primary voters are black.) Labor leaders pointed out that Nevada, unlike the three other states, has a large number of union members: The Nevada casinos are the only growth industry in the nation where most employees are union members. Other Democrats argued, presciently as it turned out, that Nevada was one of several Western states trending Democratic. So the Democrats held a caucus on January 19, just 16 days after the Iowa caucuses. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama both organized in the state; Clinton came out the winner, in the metrics Democrats use, 51%-45%, her only caucus victory all year.
Democrats did not quit organizing after the caucus, which is the second reason for their surge. In October 2006, Nevada had 494,000 registered Democrats and 482,000 registered Republicans. But in this fastest-growing state, there were plenty of new residents to be signed up, and Democrats got them. The Democratic registration advantage rose to 523,000 to 479,000 by January 2008, and by October 2008, it was a whopping 624,000 to 513,000.
Boosting your lead in registered voters from 12,000 to 111,000 is a great organizational achievement, but the effort was greatly aided by the third reason for Nevada’s Democratic trend: the state’s sudden and thudding economic slowdown. Nevada’s new Hispanic voters, many dependent on the construction and casino industries, found themselves laid off and their subprime mortgages under water. Those who had gambled on Nevada’s economy continuing to boom found they had made very bad bets, with the effects more visible here than in many other states before September’s financial crisis. The Obama campaign was instrumental in getting more than half of the state’s voters to cast their ballots early. And they tended to vote a straight party ticket: Republican Rep. Jon Porter was defeated in the Las Vegas suburbs, while Democrats captured the state Senate for the first time in 18 years and widened their majority in the state House to 28-14. The fact that Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons was unpopular and under investigation (he was exonerated after the election) didn’t help his party.
Obama won 76% of the Hispanic vote (15% of the electorate), 94% of the black vote, and lost the white vote by only 51%-47%. Voters under 30 cast 67% of their ballots for Obama, and voters 30 to 44 were almost equally supportive, 60%. Voters in union households, nearly a quarter of the electorate, backed him 62%. Obama carried Las Vegas’s Clark County by a solid 59%-40% and also won Reno’s Washoe County 55%-43%, a real feat because it has voted Republican for years. John McCain carried the cow counties 58%-38%, but that did not even make it close statewide.
The election left the state’s congressional delegation with a Democratic majority. Their seats are all a bit unsteady, if only because Nevada has so many new voters. Democrat Reid and Republican Ensign have noted that nearly half of the voters in their Senate re-election contests weren’t Nevada residents when they won six years before. Reid and Ensign have had a kind of nonaggression pact ever since Reid beat Ensign, then a congressman, by only 428 votes in 1998. Reid’s partisan stances as Senate majority leader may have caused his job rating to fall in 2007, but his clout may enable him to win as easily in 2010 as he did in 2004.
Some observers say that Nevada has a third party that always wins—the gambling party— that is closely allied with the Culinary Union, which has seen its membership increase to 60,000. Las Vegas gambling interests have backed every recent governor, from Democrat Bob Miller, who first won in 1990, to Republicans Kenny Guinn and Gibbons, who won in 1998 and 2006, respectively. Reid has been close to the gambling industry over a political career that goes back to the 1960s. His colleague Ensign’s stepfather was chairman of the company that owns the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino until 2005.
One issue that has long preoccupied Nevada is the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository. The federal government took responsibility for the country’s nuclear waste in 1982, and the Yucca Mountain site was chosen by Congress in 1987, when the Nevada delegation was unusually weak: Reid was in his first year in the Senate and Republican Chic Hecht seemed to be facing sure defeat in 1988. The plan is to bury the waste deep within the mountain, 1,300 feet above the water table, in reinforced steel containers in a 1,400-acre maze with 100 miles of storage tunnels. Many Nevadans argue that rainwater will flush the radioactive material out of the repository and into the water table. More recently, Yucca Mountain opponents have charged that the site is geologically flawed and within an earthquake zone, and that transportation of nuclear waste across the country would be hazardous, especially after September 11. President Clinton promised to veto a temporary site, but veto-proof majorities in the House approved such a site in Nevada. Sens. Richard Bryan and Reid lobbied furiously to get enough votes to prevent a veto override in the Senate and succeeded in 1995, 1997, and 2000. In 2000, candidate George W. Bush pledged not to place a temporary storage site in the state. But he refrained from promising to veto a permanent repository, saying that his decision would be based on “sound science and not politics.” In February 2002, President Bush, on the recommendation of Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, designated Yucca Mountain as the permanent site. The law provided for a veto by the governor, which could be overridden by majorities in both chambers of Congress. In April 2002, with great ceremony, Gov. Guinn issued his veto. In May 2002, the House cast a large majority for Yucca Mountain. In the Senate, Reid and Ensign lobbied hard for votes, but in July 2002 the designation was affirmed 60-39. Many Nevadans cheered when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in July 2004 that the Environmental Protection Agency’s health and safety standards were insufficient. But the court also upheld the selection of the site and said that the standards could be changed. The permanent site is not slated to open until 2012, and additional regulatory proceedings and lawsuits could alter the schedule. The Nevada delegation in Congress has vowed not to work for concessions on the repository’s construction but to fight it every step of the way. With the Democratic victory in November 2006, Reid became majority leader and promised that any legislation advancing Yucca Mountain would never get to the Senate floor.
|111th Congress: 2 D, 1 R|
Nevada gained a second congressional district in the 1980 census and a third district in the 2000 census. It is expected to gain a fourth district in the 2010 census. Redistricting was easy in the 1980s and 1990s. The 1st District was the inner part of Clark County, politically marginal and won by both parties in the 1990s; the 2nd District was the rest of the state, heavily Republican.
It was a little more difficult in 2001, with a third district and control of redistricting split between a Republican governor and state Senate and a Democratic Assembly. Clark County, with 69% of the population, was entitled to two of the seats and a small part of the third. For a time, Republicans argued that two or all three of the districts should combine part of Clark County with part of the rest of the state, but that idea was dropped in the June 2001 special legislative session. Eventually, agreement was reached on a plan: The city of Las Vegas proper would make up the 1st District; a 2nd District would comprise all of the remaining counties plus much of outer Clark County; and a Y-shaped 3rd District would have much of the Las Vegas suburbs. The 1st District was safe for Democrat Shelley Berkley, the 2nd was safe for Republican Jim Gibbons, and the 3rd was drawn to be evenly split in party registration; it cast narrow pluralities for Al Gore in 2000 and Bush in 2004 but went solidly for Obama in 2008. Republican Jon Porter won it in 2002, 2004, and 2006, and Democrat Dina Titus won it in 2008.
Democrats currently have a small majority in the state Senate and a 2-1 ratio in the state House; Republican Gibbons is governor. Party control of redistricting depends on whether this balance is maintained. It seems unlikely that Democrats will lose their House majority, so they will have at least some say, and they could control the proceedings if Gibbons is defeated in 2010 and Republicans do not gain seats in the state Senate.