Democrats chase votes in Nevada's rural outposts, far beyond Las Vegas' glamour

Along pothole-pocked Route 160, campaign signs for Hillary Clinton appear every few miles, erected among gravel and weeds beneath towering billboards for fireworks and R.V. resorts.

Such support for a Democrat is unusual in this community known for its deep conservatism, where residents sometimes shop at Wal-Mart with pistols holstered to their hips.

“Talking politics – especially if you’re a Democrat – ain’t wise out here,” Cliff Arnold, chairman of the Nye County Democratic Party, said as he sipped coffee on a recent morning at the Pahrump Nugget, a dank casino frequented by retirees who sit in cushioned seats and play 5-cent slot machines most weekdays. “But we’re here and so are the candidates.”

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The presidential campaigns of Clinton and her rival for the Democratic nomination, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, have filtered out far beyond Las Vegas’ glitzy casino core to woo rural voters who will carry an outsized influence in Saturday’s Nevada caucuses because of the way the party allocates precinct delegates.

Though Democrats are sparse in these pockets of the state, rural counties are allotted more delegates than their population would be granted under a system of proportional representation. While 8% of Nevada Democrats live in rural areas, they account for 12% of caucus delegates and can be a fruitful target for candidates willing to traverse parched swaths of desert dotted by Joshua trees in search of support.

Candidates can't take any part of the Nevada for granted, said Rebecca Lambe, a senior strategist to Sen. Harry Reid, the state’s top Democrat, who is neutral in the contest.

“In a tight race, the delegates up for grabs in the rural areas will matter,” Lambe said.

The Clinton campaign knows it firsthand.

In 2008, while Clinton won the popular vote in Nevada, she lost the delegate battle to Sen. Barack Obama, whose support in rural counties gave him the edge – a fact, said Emmy Ruiz, Clinton’s state director, the campaign is seeking to reverse in Saturday’s caucuses.

“For us, it’s really important to have a presence all over the state,” said Ruiz. “We have a campaign that is reflective of all Nevadans. Las Vegas is certainly really important to us … but in the caucus process it’s important to build a statewide operation.”

After a double-digit loss to Sanders in New Hampshire, Clinton’s most obvious defense here to stave off her challenger is to win the support of Latino and black voters in Clark County -- home to Las Vegas and Henderson, the two most populous cities in Nevada. But her campaign has also been working to gather support in rural counties since she announced her candidacy last spring.

Ruiz and other Clinton staffers went on a 1,200-mile “listening tour” of rural counties last summer, and Clinton’s team has opened field offices, held meet-and-greets at diners and dispatched top-name supporters including Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who trekked to rural northern Nevada this week.

Clinton herself traveled Monday to Elko, a tiny gold-mining community in northeast Nevada with fewer than 5,000 registered Democrats. She addressed, among other things, guns and federal land rights; the U.S. government own 85% of Nevada’s land.

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“Clinton is listening to us,” said William Blythe, 44, who works odd jobs as an electrician, but since November has volunteered full-time for Clinton here in Pahrump, a town of 36,000 about 60 miles west of Las Vegas. A chain-smoking, cowboy-boot-wearing Democrat, Blythe believes Clinton is most qualified to help continue job growth, which has improved under the Obama administration.

“She has the chops to help get us jobs and work with Congress to get this minimum wage raised,” said Blythe as he took a drag from his cigarette while standing outside the campaign’s paltry local office. “Don’t get me wrong, Sanders is good – better than the Republicans – but he’s just saying stuff that is unrealistic. Free college? Who will pay for it? Nothing is free.”

Sanders only recently deployed staff to corners of Nevada – his campaign opened an office in Pahrump last month – but has beefed up its efforts, flying in staffers who worked in Iowa and New Hampshire and dispatching them to rural outposts. Campaign signs supporting him appear sporadically through town.

In Nye County, unemployment hovers around 8%, more than the state average of 6.4%, and Sanders’ aides see his message of income inequality resonating in rural Nevada.

“We’re doing significant outreach and time and again, the No. 1 issue we’re hearing about is the economy,” said Joan Kato, Sanders’ state director. “People have concerns.”

Lynn Warner, a retired clinical neuropsychologist, traveled from San Diego in mid-January to volunteer for Sanders in Pahrump. She estimates walking more than 10 miles each day along gravel roads, knocking on doors of houses, some of which sit on more than an acre of land.

“People need jobs here. They want that gap between rich and poor to close,” said Warner, relaying Sanders’ message.

In interviews here, Democrats said the economy, access to better healthcare and higher wages are of importance. But for some, like Mary Kay Plesha and her husband, Gene, both retired, who moved from Las Vegas to Pahrump last year for a slower pace, the decision in Saturday’s caucuses comes down to likability of the two candidates.

“He’s quirky and is a true progressive,” Mary Kay said on a recent afternoon as she ticked off traits she liked about Sanders. “But she [Clinton] is a woman and, I have to admit, I do want a woman president in my lifetime.”

“Too much baggage,” Gene interjected, noting the controversy that has dogged Clinton’s campaign over her use of private email to conduct government business while secretary of State. “Bernie is the safer choice. Plus, I just think he really cares about people.”

kurtis.lee@latimes.com 

Follow @kurtisalee for political news

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