LAS VEGAS — In a volatile midterm election where Democrats have unexpectedly taken the lead in crucial battleground states, Republicans have found a glimmer of hope in their quest to seize control of the Senate.
Eight weeks before Election Day, they’re within striking distance of capturing the seat long held by the late Democratic titan Harry Reid before Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto won it in 2016.
Cortez Masto may be the most endangered Democratic incumbent in this cycle, even though her party hasn’t lost a Senate race here in a decade. While Democrats still project confidence, polls show a dead heat despite massive spending by Cortez Masto and an early assault of negative ads designed to tarnish rival Adam Laxalt.
“This is definitely our best opportunity at any point in the last 14 years,” said Jeremy Hughes, a Republican consultant who has worked on many Nevada races.
Hughes cited GOP gains in voter registration, a trend of Hispanic voters drifting away from Democrats and rising prices of gas and food as the key forces propelling Republicans.
In an interview, Cortez Masto, who eked out her first Senate victory here by 2.4 points in 2016, acknowledged she had her work cut out for her if she wants to keep her seat.
“Nevada’s races are always competitive,” she told NBC News. “I’m not going to take anything for granted — and you can’t.”
No issue permeates this working class state like the economy, according to polling and interviews with stakeholders in both parties. Covid lockdowns had an outsized effect in this state, which relies heavily on service industry workers. While the economy is rebounding, working class voters are still hurting — the cost of housing remains high and employees complain of low wages. A recent bipartisan survey found that three-quarters of Nevada voters say the country is “headed in the wrong direction” and 65% are “very or somewhat worried” about their own financial situation.
“People are getting hammered with inflation and the cost of gas and food and housing,” said Ted Pappageorge, secretary-treasurer for the influential Culinary Union, which represents some 60,000 workers in Las Vegas and Reno — 60% of whom are Latino — working in the state’s service industry, including in casinos.
“Is it going to be competitive, down to the wire? Absolutely,” said Pappageorge, who backs Democrats. “But all the doom and gloom about a red wave, we don’t really buy into that. We’re optimistic about this election, but it’s going to take a lot of hard work.”
In a written statement, Laxalt told NBC News: “The momentum behind our campaign is growing every day because Nevadans want change and they know I’m the only candidate in this race who can deliver it.”
‘Making day-to-day life unaffordable’
Laxalt’s campaign sees economic pain as its ticket to victory, centering its strategy on portraying the incumbent as a puppet for President Joe Biden and endorsing huge spending bills.
“Sen. Cortez Masto has been a disaster for our economy and Nevadans want change,” Laxalt spokesperson Brian Freimuth said in a statement. “Her rubber-stamp support for Biden’s big spending proposals saddled our state with 15.4 percent inflation, costing each Nevada family $10,000 this year.”
In response, Cortez Masto lit into Laxalt as a self-serving politician who isn’t interested in helping the state. “While I’ve been working for Nevadans, my opponent’s been working for longtime D.C. lobbyists at a D.C. law firm that represents big oil companies ripping off our families. He supports Big Pharma,” she said.
Cortez Masto said she has worked to combat rising costs by voting for the Inflation Reduction Act, delivered by Democrats, which allows Medicare to negotiate drug prices with the industry and boosts funding to subsidize health insurance premiums.
As an incumbent, she compiled a formidable war chest and coasted to renomination while Laxalt, the former state attorney general and scion of a political dynasty, had to get through a primary.
From June 15 to Aug. 25, Democratic interests backing Cortez Masto spent $20.4 million over the same weeks that GOP interests backing Laxalt spent a total of $12.2 million, according to AdImpact, an ad tracking firm. Still, she has struggled to consolidate a lead.
Cortez Masto led Laxalt by 4 points (a margin that shrunk to 1 point in a head-to-head matchup) in a bipartisan poll conducted Aug. 16-24 by Fabrizio Ward and Impact Research.
The survey had another ominous sign for Cortez Masto, finding the nation’s first Latina senator and other Nevada Democrats losing ground among Latinos, a crucial part of the party’s past victories.
Cortez Masto said Latino voters care about the same issues as the larger electorate, such as “keeping their family safe, finding good paying jobs and health care,” and she vowed to “continue to do outreach both in English and Spanish to our Latino community.”
Laxalt is walking a tightrope between fervent backers of former President Donald Trump and more moderate Republicans. His strategy is to keep close control of his message, avoiding national and local media other than conservative outlets like Newsmax and Fox News. (His campaign declined a request for an interview.) He has sought to downplay topics that divide his party, like abortion restrictions and his vociferous support for Trump’s push to challenge the 2020 election result.
Laxalt “has led the efforts to overturn the 2020 election for our previously defeated president Trump and he defended the insurrections at the Capitol,” Cortez Masto said. “I know he is laser focused on restricting women’s right to choose as well. There’s a clear contrast between the two of us.”
Freimuth said in response that "Adam doesn’t support a national abortion ban," and accused Cortez Masto of seeking to "lie" about his record out of "desperation."
In a recent op-ed, Laxalt called it “a falsehood that I would support a federal ban on abortion as a U.S. senator” even as he vowed to “support and defend life at all stages.” Laxalt also endorsed a referendum banning abortion after 13 weeks of pregnancy: “I said that I would, and I stand by that view,” he wrote.
Asked if she favors any restrictions on legal abortion, Cortez Masto told NBC News: “I support Nevada’s law.” The state law permits abortion for up to 24 weeks of pregnancy.
The paths to victory
Nevada Republican strategists say the formula for a Laxalt victory is to dominate the state’s vast rural areas, win bellwether Washoe County and keep his deficit within single digits in Clark County, home to the heavily populated and Democratic-leaning Vegas area.
Conversely, Cortez Masto’s main goal is to drive up turnout and deliver a big win in the middle class areas around the glitzy hotels and high-rolling casinos of Sin City. A mid-August Suffolk University poll showed her leading by 15 points in Clark County, a margin that would put her in a strong position to win a second term.
Some question Laxalt's reluctance to talk to the news media. “I would not advise that,” said a Nevada Republican source, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. “I think you gotta get outside the Newsmax and ultra-right media.”
Still, the source acknowledged Laxalt must be “doing something right” given how competitive the race is. Laxalt has avoided the litany of gaffes and errors of hopefuls in other battleground states who recently prompted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to publicly fret about “candidate quality” affecting his party's odds.
Laxalt has sought to improve his image with a series of biographical ads that lay out his family’s history, his past struggles with addiction, his being raised by a single mother and that he’s a father with young children. It is aimed at countering scathing ads from Cortez Masto that dredge up his juvenile past and depict him as the spoiled son of powerful figures who cashed in on his connections.
Cortez Masto has picked her moments to buck her party. She broke with Biden on his recent executive action to grant limited student loan forgiveness. She played a key role in eliminating a vaping tax from Democrats’ party-line bill, calling it regressive.
The race could come down to whether the incumbent can continue to outperform Biden, whose approval is 18 points under water here in the Fabrizio-Impact poll. By contrast, Cortez Masto’s job approval rating is 5 points in the red. Her “favorable” rating was 3 points in negative territory, while Laxalt was 8 points in negative territory.
Asked if she wants Biden to visit and campaign for her, Cortez Masto said she is “focused on getting things done right now in Nevada” and addressing her state's needs.
“The POTUS is always welcome in my state, but my focus right now is on Nevada, first and foremost,” she said.