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The Democratic Senate majority hinges on Catherine Cortez Masto

If the Nevada senator loses — it’s extremely close — it would likely signal a disaster for Democrats.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto listens during an event discussing the DACA program on October 12 in Las Vegas. Cortez Masto faces Republican challenger Adam Laxalt in the November election.
John Locher/AP

LAS VEGAS — The first thing Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto wants you to understand is that Nevada elections are always close.

“Nevada is a purple state and it’s independent and it’s strong,” she told me in early October, in a union hall she’d just used for a campaign event. “I also know a lot of the polling gets Nevada wrong, so I really don’t utilize or worry about that.”

If she sounds defensive, that’s because the country’s first and only Latina senator is quite literally the Democrat most at risk of losing her Senate seat next month.

But she’s also right about Nevada’s politics: In 2016, she won her first election to the US Senate by 2 percentage points, or about 27,000 votes, during a year that saw Donald Trump win the presidency and congressional Republicans hang on to control of both houses of Congress. Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton won the state in their presidential races by a similar margin. A Republican held a Senate seat and the governor’s office as recently as 2019. And when a red wave swept through the country in the 2014 midterms, Republicans narrowly won unified control of Nevada’s state government.

Now, with a week until early voting begins in her state, most polls show a virtual tie between Cortez Masto and her Republican opponent, the Trump-endorsed former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt.

Cortez Masto started off with plenty of advantages: name recognition, a serious amount of campaign cash, the support of the state’s Democratic establishment, polling leads in hypothetical matchups against potential Republican challengers, and the recent history of three successful Democratic cycles before 2022. But the race tightened, and basically every poll in the home stretch of the campaign shows Laxalt’s support rising.

The stakes of her race are high. If Cortez Masto loses, it wouldn’t just mean that Congress loses the only woman senator of the country’s largest minority voting bloc. It would elevate yet another right-wing Republican: Laxalt is a full-throated Trump supporter who worked hard to discredit Biden’s 2020 electoral victory and continues to claim the election was rigged; he’s endorsed stronger restrictions on abortion; he’s previously attacked undocumented immigrants and Latinos in the state; and members of his own family have endorsed against him.

Adam Laxalt, the Nevada Republican candidate for US Senate, speaks during a campaign rally held by Donald Trump in Minden, Nevada, on October 8.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A Cortez Masto loss could also cost Democrats their Senate majority. And because she’s running ahead of most other Nevada Democrats, a loss could all but guarantee that Nevada Democrats up and down the ballot are swept out of power, including the state’s three imperiled Democratic House members.

Finally, it would suggest that even a well-funded, hardworking Democratic candidate running in 2022 could not overcome the political headwinds of an unpopular president and a toxic economic outlook. And it would suggest deep troubles with working-class and Latino voters for national Democrats running in 2024, when Nevada’s other Democratic senator is up for reelection and a Biden/Trump rematch seems possible: About 30 percent of the state is Latino; the overwhelming majority (77 percent) of the workforce is working-class.

As with any election, Democratic hopes hinge on turnout — but crucially for Cortez Masto, that means persuading Democratic and independent voters to think of her separately from Biden and national Democrats, while defending her record on the economy and crime.

“There’s no savior to help her,” Steve Sebelius, a longtime Nevada political journalist who’s followed Cortez Masto for years, told me. “Laxalt has Trump. Everybody knows Trump. But who does Cortez Masto have? She’s got her own self and her own record to run on. And that’s it.”

In the final weeks of the campaign, she’s redoubling her offensive — looking to longtime allies in the state and highlighting her heritage to lock down her base of support. But Election Day is looming, and time is running out.

The first Latina senator, and her rise to power

I first met up with Cortez Masto at Las Vegas High School in the east side of the city, where she was watching a rehearsal by the Mariachi Joya, a high school mariachi group that has won national commendations and was being awarded with a certificate of congressional recognition by their senator. Clad in bright red charro suits, the predominantly Mexican American student group performed four songs for Cortez Masto, who watched in a matching red pantsuit along with parents and teachers.

“It just brought back to me being a young girl, my grandfather playing [the guitar] to me and my sister,” she told me when I chatted with her later. “It just gives me chills because there’s a connection you have within the community. Every time I walk into a Latino house, I have that connection, because that’s how I grew up, with the smells, the culture, the food, the visuals of everything. That’s how my grandparents were. So I understand and feel it. So, yes, I’m always part of that community.”

She often talks about growing up eating big Sunday dinners with the Italian side of her family, and beans and tortillas with the Mexican side of her family. And she’s as Nevadan as they come. The grandfather who played the guitar to her, Edward, immigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, and moved his family to Las Vegas after some time in New Mexico. Her father, Manny, would grow up in Vegas, start working on the Vegas strip parking cars at the legendary Dunes Hotel and Casino, and meet her mother Joanna (a third-generation Italian American).

Manny eventually rose through Vegas politics to be an influential Clark County commissioner, the longtime head of the Vegas tourism board, and a close friend of Sen. Harry Reid, the national Democratic power broker who set up a political operation in the state that has boosted Democrats over the last two decades. It was Reid’s retirement that gave Cortez Masto a shot at the seat after serving two terms as the state’s attorney general, and as a federal prosecutor before then.

Then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, left, and Democratic Senate candidate Catherine Cortez Masto speak with President Barack Obama at a campaign event in North Las Vegas, Nevada, in October 2016.
Susan Walsh/AP

Her first Senate race saw her lean into her history for a variety of reasons: It was an election year featuring a heavily anti-immigrant, anti-Latino campaign by Donald Trump, so she played up her Italian and Mexican immigrant roots; she did not have Reid’s name recognition, so she introduced voters to her “big family”; and when her opponent, Rep. Joe Heck, tried to paint her as corrupt and weak on crime, she relied on her law enforcement connections to vouch for her work. This year, her race is about explaining herself — and her pitch has had to evolve, including how she talks about her life.

Every Nevada political observer I talked to told me the same thing about Cortez Masto: She’s a workhorse — happy to stay out of the national spotlight, negotiate behind the scenes, win concessions for her state, and focus on Nevada. That also makes her one of the more moderate members of the Senate, who has bucked her party and progressives on student loan cancellation, border policy, and crime. It’s that record she’s running on this time around.

“Now I get to show them all of the work that I’ve done over the last six years,” she said. “I’ve been talking to Nevadans about their struggles or their challenges during the last six years, bringing their voices to Washington, turning it into resources or legislation, and then coming back to my state to tell them we got it done, and here’s how you access those resources.”

A new pitch to voters has meant her understanding and expression of her Latino identity has evolved. Though she represents a state where a third of the population is Latino, and about a fifth of the state speaks Spanish primarily, she doesn’t speak the language. “I’m half Italian and I don’t speak Italian either,” she told me when I asked her about it. “It’s not even an issue. I grew up in this culture.”

This personal part of her pitch, of her family’s roots in the state and concern for its business community, is a crucial part of her effort to use Latino identity to simultaneously appeal to Latino voters and distinguish herself from Biden and national Democrats. Of course, simply relying on identity to lock up a certain kind of voter is never a sure bet. For Cortez Masto to win, she’ll need to run up a big margin with the state’s more than 400,000 eligible Latino voters — or at least deny Laxalt more than 30 percent of that vote.

Democratic pollsters, politicians, and strategists still disagree about just how much Latino voters around the country have shifted toward Republicans, but one thing is certain: They’re worried about the economy and don’t feel as motivated to vote as other demographic groups, though Latino Republicans seem more excited than Latino Democrats.

That poses a turnout problem for Cortez Masto; though the majority of Nevada’s Latino population skews younger and liberal, those most likely to vote are older, and very concerned with inflation, specifically rising housing and gas costs. Even if the majority of Latino voters don’t cast their ballots for a Republican, if Cortez Masto can’t get them to show up to vote, Republicans could end up flipping the seat.

Why Nevada’s Senate race is so different — and so similar — to others

As in just about every race this year, inflation, affordability, and the state of the economy are the top concerns for most voters in Nevada. Among women and Democrats, abortion ranks highly as well, and among independents and Republicans, crime, education, and immigration concerns round out the top concerns. Also, as in other states, Biden’s unpopularity and general dissatisfaction with the country’s direction are dragging down Democrats.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto speaks to supporters at a rally for abortion rights in Reno, Nevada, on May 14.
Ty O’Neil/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Laxalt has taken advantage of these dynamics to close the early polling lead Cortez Masto had — and has largely stayed out of the spotlight to avoid gaffes and sound bites that his Democratic opponent could use against him. He’s benefited from unified Trump-Republican support around him, and has rallied twice with the former president, once before the Nevada primary and a second time just last week. Laxalt, who lacks Trump’s charisma and speaking power, has also avoided the kinds of stains and controversies that have marred Republican candidates in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Georgia.

Abortion rights and the cost of living were the two issues that came up the most frequently when I joined members of the powerful Culinary Union, which is working to reelect Democrats, as they canvassed the city of Henderson, just southeast of Vegas proper. Most members of the union are Latino and are women — and all are the kind of working-class Nevadans that Democrats are trying to reach this year.

“I have two cousins, and I also have a 15-year-old at home, and I want to make sure she has all the rights to her body going forward in life,” Joleen Reyes, a canvasser who works at the Cosmopolitan hotel, said. “And of course, we’re working-class citizens and we need to make sure that the economy gets better for us: gas prices, food prices, everything.”

Going door to door, we met a middle-aged white woman named Patricia, who told us she was a Republican. “But I’m voting Democrat this time,” she said in a faux whisper. “Because — the big reason is for women. Because that’s just wrong. It’s my body, my personal business.”

Beyond these national issues, there are other Nevada-specific dynamics that complicate things. The state was one of the worst-hit by pandemic shutdowns, when the tourism and entertainment industries fizzled out. Its unemployment rate, at 4.4 percent in August, is one of the highest in the country. The state faces an affordable housing crisis, with the Las Vegas metro area struggling with the worst housing shortage in the country.

Tourism is still not back to pre-pandemic levels, Ted Pappageorge, the secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union, told me at the union’s headquarters just north of the Vegas Strip. Nearly all of the union’s 60,000 members, who work primarily for the casinos and hotels that power Nevada’s economy, were out of work during the worst of the pandemic; 50,000 are back to work now, but the stakes are still high.

“International travel, convention business, and business travel are not quite back. There’s still remote work and Zoom work. The fact of the matter is, our economy is coming back,” Pappageorge said. “But the question is, who’s going to lead in the future for Las Vegas and for Nevada? Who are the folks that are going to take us down the right path and fight for us?”

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto poses for selfies with members of the Culinary Workers Union in Las Vegas on October 8.
John Locher/AP

Pappageorge and Culinary Union members are emphatic that Cortez Masto, and incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, fit that billing, but plenty of voters are unsure. And another bleak inflation report confirming the skyrocketing cost of rent and food on Thursday may further unsettle undecided independents and working-class Democratic voters who aren’t sure they’ll even vote.

What Cortez Masto needs — and can’t get

While canvassing with the Culinary Workers Union, we ran into plenty of those sorts of undecided voters — not just undecided about a candidate, but undecided about voting at all. It’s this kind of weak enthusiasm that could spell doom in a few weeks, for Cortez Masto, but also for all the Democrats running down-ballot who need stronger than normal Democratic support to offset the advantage Republicans currently have among independent voters, who are more generally negative on Biden and national Democrats.

“If the Democratic base does not turn out, then she’s going to lose and there’s going to be Democratic hemorrhaging up and down the ticket,” Jon Ralston, a longtime Nevada political observer and CEO of the Nevada Independent, told me.

While Cortez Masto needs every Democratic vote she can get, she can’t count on Democrats alone for reelection. Registered Democrats only account for about a third of Nevada voters; 60 percent are either independents or Republicans. The population is highly transient, meaning political memory is short, polling is difficult, and voting rolls aren’t always up to date, so get-out-the-vote efforts are also tougher. Add to that new, untested, and highly gerrymandered House districts and there is a not-impossible scenario where Cortez Masto pulls ahead on Election Day, but Sisolak and endangered House Democrats in the Vegas area lose.

Ralston also noted that despite Laxalt’s attempts to brand Cortez Masto as a rubber stamp for Biden, she’s been walking the tightrope of running on her record but keeping an arm’s length from the president pretty well.

“Adam Laxalt is a terrible candidate for a variety of different reasons and Catherine Cortez Masto is running one of the best campaigns in Nevada, and she still may lose,” he said. “She’s been very disciplined. Her ads in general have been very, very good. They’ve stayed on message.”

That message came through in our conversation, when she mentioned “kitchen table issues” and “the economy” more times than “Roe” or “abortion.” Cortez Masto was one of the loudest voices sounding the alarm after the initial leak of the Supreme Court’s draft decision, telling me in May that she would center abortion rights and the potential risks the Court might pose to other rights in her messaging. But Nevada has already codified abortion rights through a referendum in 1990, and Republican candidates like Laxalt and gubernatorial candidate Joe Lombardo have tried to walk a fine line here, arguing that the matter is settled law and blunting some of the Democratic advantage on the issue.

That’s led Cortez Masto to a more nuanced message, one aimed at turning out Latino Democrats worried about abortion while also assuaging their concerns with Democratic handling of the economy. She’s using the frame of possible Republican infringement on individual rights to make that case to a broader audience: Many Nevada voters are fundamentally libertarian-minded, wanting to get ahead without the interference of government or politicians, so talking about the possibility of a national abortion ban, whether realistic or not, makes sense.

Sen. Cortez Masto speaks on abortion rights during an event in Las Vegas on July 1.
John Locher/AP

It’s a message she believes will resonate. But she could have been helped by a few things she doesn’t have: Reid’s political machine, which fractured somewhat after his death in 2021, at full strength; a popular Democratic president who could come and campaign on her behalf; and good last-minute economic news showing improving inflation.

Cortez Masto has none of those things, however, so is simply trying to reach as many voters as she can. National and Nevada Democrats are doing their part, funding TV buys in English and Spanish to get her economic message (lowering unemployment, raising the minimum wage, tougher scrutiny of oil and gas companies, and help for small businesses) in as many faces as they can. The Culinary Workers Union is leading face-to-face interactions, with a goal of speaking to over 1.1 million voters about Cortez Masto and Sisolak before November; they’ve already spoken to over 500,000.

“That’s our goal, in order to get to enough voters to stem this tide of history of the ruling party in power losing in the midterms,” Pappageorge said. “You’ve got to talk to more voters. And that’s what we plan to do. And that’s how we think we’re going to win.”

When I asked Cortez Masto about the stakes of her race, about the national implications of a loss here, of the inroads Republicans could make with Latinos, and the chance of election deniers winning up and down the ticket, she responded just like the conciliator she’s been described to be.

“My focus is on Nevada. I don’t really care about the national attention, honestly, and people in Nevada, they’re not really paying that kind of attention,” she said. “For Nevadans, it is the focus of what we can do together. And I strongly believe, as their representative in the US Senate, it’s about all of us succeeding together, that a rising tide does lift all boats, and nobody gets left behind. And that’s the conversations we are having and that’s what I know here in Nevada.”

Democrats should hope she’s right.