A win and a bust in Vegas

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Ana, who works at a Las Vegas casino, and Leah, who has come from New Orleans, work on getting out the Democratic vote

This is the other Las Vegas. Take the turning off US95 where you see the iHOP sign and keep going past the Olive Garden until you are surrounded by unglitzy bungalows, their front yards filled with yellow, desert rocks (golden if you must) that don’t need watering.

It is the closest thing you’ll find to the city’s suburbia, home to the armies of waiters, cleaners, valets, croupiers, security guards, cooks and bar tenders that keep the fun running 24/7 on the neon-lit party strip downtown.

Ana, a casino porter, is my guide. She adjusts her red union cap and pauses before ringing the next doorbell. Her spiel can be a hard thing to sell here.

“Usually these people don’t want to hear it,” she says. “So sometimes what I tell them is that I can that you are blessed, but you know what… I think its important for us to care about our community, the people who have low wages, can’t afford healthcare, decent meals.”

It is the Saturday before the midterms. And Ana is one of the 300 canvassers sent out by Nevada’s most powerful political force, the Culinary Union Local 226, to make sure registered Democrats will vote.

After three months on doorsteps, nothing fazes her. Not the man who says he can’t vote because he’s a felon (“Maybe next time”), barking dogs (“I’ll leave the leaflets just here”) or the shouts to go away (“Not everyone wants to talk”).

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Casino workers (mostly – although there’s an international arms dealer at the back there) at the voting centre for the Las Vegas strip

Three days later, the results came in. In a mixed night for both sides the Nevada Senate race was one of the biggest bright spots for Democrats. Jacky Rosen, who built a reputation for quiet efficiency in her two years in the House, defeated the incumbent Republican, Dean Heller, whose tactics of talking up Trump seemed to have won him a bump in eve of election polls.

And in so doing, it suggests a path to a broader victory for Democrats who still seem to be struggling to define who they are – other than as the resistance to Trump.

I spent the week here, watching the work of the culinary union, the bad-tempered television adverts, the last-minute celebrity visitors (Jimmy Kimmel and Eric Trump) and then monitoring the results as they came in at the Republican watch party (at the South Point Casino, some way down the main drag, prompting derision from a union friend – “it’s like they are hiding away.”)

Here’s what the Democrats did right:

1) Their message of health care, minimum wage, social security was carefully tailored on the doorstep to match the needs of working voters in Las Vegas.

2) That was possible because of the huge organisation at their disposal. Along with Ana – who had been working six-day weeks since August – there were volunteers from out of state, swelling the effort to 350 union workers knocking doors on the day. It was slick and well directed, and just one part of the Democratic machine.

3) Nevada was winnable. It featured a Republican incumbent in a state that Hillary won in 2016. So while the party poured millions into a telegenic but unwinnable campaign for Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Nevada was a top target and benefited from a surge in resources, flying canvassers and national attention.

4) Trump’s final immigration push did not resonate here. This is not the Rust Belt where foreigners are blamed for taking scarce jobs. Las Vegas still runs on migrant workers and even in rurual counties, that break for Trump, immigration is not the same issue as it is in say Pennsylvania.

5) This is where the Democrats demographic advantage shines through. Minorities and the young hold the advantage in Las Vegas, the city which dominates the Republican counties around. It was Nevada this time, but other sun states – such as Texas – will follow.

The outcome of all of this was immediately visible on election day. Polling centres uniformly busy. Minimum wait times ran at 20 minutes. The busiest of all was the one closest to the strip, where buses laid on by the big casinos dropped Hispanic maids in brown dresses, chefs in whites and slender dancers looking bleary eyed in the daylight. Wait times here hit the hour mark, and upwards, but did not deter voters who held scraps of card, whatever they could find, over their faces to protect themselves from the strong desert sun.

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Burgers on the pass at Gordon’s

It is all a reminder of where real power lies. The Trump name may shine out across the strip from the top of a hotel. The likes of casino magnate Sheldon Alderson may give billions to conservative causes. But they can’t do much when labour gets organised.

Nowhere are the power dynamics, mores and charms of modern America made more visible than Las Vegas – where high rollers throw down hundreds at one end of the strip, while Mexican immigrants hand out flyers for prostitutes (legal) and nickel slots buzz happily at the other.

It is a cheap city with expensive promises. Or a bankrupt one with a chequebook. Where you have to pay $20 for wifi in $300 hotel rooms and $5 for bad coffee at giant glittering entertainment complexes mortgaged to the top of their 60th floor (actually the 45th).

It is exactly the sort of place where you’d expect the humble burger to be dressed up into something more, all doused in star dust.

Which is how I come to be sitting at Gordon Ramsay’s burger place, down towards the seedier part of the strip by a casino that features a “pleasure pit” – which I’ll leave to your imagination.

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The Hell’s Kitchen Burger

I have been here long enough to know that the name means nothing. Ramsay is not likely to be cooking the burgers. Indeed the presence of “Dubliner cheese” on the UK Burger suggested he hadn’t even looked at the menu. Had he done a Trump and just flogged his name, brandified his career to a chain decorated with Union Flags and selling bottle openers at $22 a pop?

The Hell’s Kitchen Burger was utterly unmemorable. A thick slice of avocado overpowered the burger – which was grey in both colour and flavour. The aioli was missing in action. And the fries were the sort of chewy texture that keeps you going back for more if only to try to work out how they could have gone so badly wrong.

Still, when you are in this most American of cities, but most inauthentic of places, I guess that’s what you get when you seek out an Englishman’s* idea of a burger.

* As his geographically challenged menu might have it.

 

 

 

 

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