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The sleeper county that could decide the Senate

In the final days of the close Nevada Senate race, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and GOP challenger Adam Laxalt have set their sights on Washoe — the state's second-largest county.
Photos of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Adam Laxalt with blue and red gradients.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Adam Laxalt.NBC News; Getty Images

RENO, Nev.On a gusty, gray afternoon last weekend, Laura Picanco dispensed gas into her SUV, then firmly returned the nozzle to the pump. 

“This is ridiculous!” she fumed, tilting her head around the pump to talk to the person on the other side. “I don’t know how people do it.” At $5.61 a gallon, she filled only three-fourths of her tank, shelling out $108. 

It was the first day of early voting in Nevada, and Picanco, angered with Democrats and President Joe Biden for the rising gas costs, vowed to make a trip to the ballot box and vote Republican.

“Gas prices were steady until — I hate to say it — Biden took office,” she said. 

Here in Washoe County, it’s difficult to find someone who isn’t complaining about the cost of groceries or gas. Residents of this northwestern Nevada swing county, the home of Reno and the second-largest county in the state, with a population of about 500,000, have seen some of the highest gas prices in the country at the same time they’re battling rising inflation and a dearth of affordable housing. 

Voters tend to take their anger out on the party and the politicians in power. In that sense, as well as in Washoe’s geographical, political and demographic makeup, the county is a microcosm of a national political landscape that favors Republicans heading into next month’s midterm elections. The question here, and across the country, is just how much painful economic conditions will work against Democratic candidates, especially incumbents like Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, whose close contest against Republican Adam Laxalt could decide the balance of power in the Senate.

In a hyperpolarized state, in a hyperpolarized country, Washoe is a rarity in being neither red nor blue. There are similar numbers of active registered Republicans (100,000) and Democrats (95,000), according to the county registrar

About 82,000 more Washoe residents are registered as nonpartisan, making them a coveted prize for campaigns clawing it out for the county with the second-largest pot of votes outside of reliably blue Clark County. 

All of those factors make Washoe County the ultimate battleground for Cortez Masto and Laxalt. A decisive Washoe win would almost certainly mean a decisive statewide win. 

“They’re fighting for every inch,” said Greg Ferraro, a veteran Reno-based GOP consultant. “How Washoe goes is how Nevada goes.” 

The candidates are well aware of the stakes. Both campaigns say that in the final 11 days, they’re swamping Washoe County with TV ads, canvassers and events. 

Cortez Masto, who launched her re-election campaign from Reno in March, has held dozens of appearances since then, with a dozen more expected before Nov. 8, according to her campaign. Cortez Masto’s camp has specifically designed her events to feature GOP supporters who support her stance that Roe v. Wade should have remained the law of the land and who agree with her that Republicans on the whole have embraced dangerous rhetoric surrounding the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. At a recent event in the backyard of a self-described fifth-generation Republican, Cortez Masto argued that voters should rebuke her GOP opponent at the ballot box for his role in promoting falsehoods about the 2020 election.

Cortez Masto’s attention to Republicans is a signal to the county’s unaffiliated voters that she’s a moderate who can work in a bipartisan way. She has argued in recent weeks that Laxalt is the extreme one.

“There should be consequences for people who undermine our democracy, who peddle the ‘big lie’ and conspiracy theories,” she said.

Laxalt has sought to appeal to that cross-section of voters by saying he’s the candidate for change in an economic environment drastically in need. 

“I’m here to tell you that people are fed up,” he said at a recent Reno rally. “This is the most upset electorate we’ve ever experienced in our lifetime.”

Laxalt is ramping up his Washoe activity with what his campaign has described as personal interactions. He has “dozens of neighborhood events scheduled for backyards, restaurants and community gathering centers” before Nov. 8, a spokesman said. Laxalt also recently held a get-out-the-vote rally in Reno with national Republican leaders.  

John Ashbrook, a Laxalt strategist, highlighted Laxalt’s roots as he described the next round of campaigning.  

“Not only is Washoe a vital county for this Senate race, but it’s where Adam was born and lives with his family today,” Ashbrook said.  

The state’s most powerful union is also poised to be a major player in the county. The Culinary Union, which represents 60,000 workers and supports Cortez Masto and Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, says that statewide, it is executing its largest ground operation ever. It’s already on a path to visit more than 1 million doors, according to the union — about twice as many as it did in the 2020 general election, in which Biden narrowly carried the state. (The union wouldn’t disclose the size of its field operation in Washoe specifically, citing competitive reasons.)

The alchemy of a Nevada victory

There’s a traditional formula for political parties in Nevada. For Democrats, the core of the calculus is driving up margins in Clark County, the home of Las Vegas and the largest county in the state, while trying to limit their losses in the rural counties. For Republicans, the reverse is true; they try to run up the score in 15 deep red rural counties while limiting their losses in Clark County. 

Then there’s the 17th and final county — Washoe. 

“Washoe is even more important this time than previous elections,” said Mike Noble, whose nonpartisan firm OH Predictive Insights has regularly polled Nevada this year. 

Noble said that Laxalt has the red counties and that while he’ll try to keep down the margins in Clark County, it is reliably blue. That makes Washoe even more critical. 

“If Nevada is the ‘We Matter’ state, arguably Washoe is the ‘We Matter’ county. It’s the bellwether,” he said.

On top of the pure geographical boundaries, Hispanics are growing into an influential voting bloc, expected to make up 1 in 5 midterm voters statewide. That’s significant in Washoe, where Hispanics are nearly 25% of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Losing the county could pose the biggest risk to Cortez Masto, who must persuade Washoe voters to re-elect her even though its residents are some of the hardest-hit in the country when it comes to inflation, grocery bills and gas prices.  

Pollsters and analysts here say that this time they see signs that the rural counties are preparing to have strong showings on Election Day. With the same analysts and pollsters predicting low voter turnout in Clark County, it puts even more of an onus on Cortez Masto to win in Washoe. 

“Cortez Masto should look to win Washoe County by a reasonable margin, or it would be an indicator of weakness across the state,” said Will Adler, a Washoe County-based political strategist. “Without a significant win in Washoe County, she has very few paths of winning Nevada.” 

Washoe County eluded Cortez Masto and Laxalt in their most recent statewide races. In 2016, Cortez Masto lost it by just over 1,000 votes. She ended up winning the state, but her performance in Washoe nearly mirrored the razor-thin margin of victory that handed her her first six-year term in the Senate. 

Ad wars

Just outside Reno, in Sparks, Rochelle Olsen, 80, stood at her screen door and complained about the price of rotisserie chicken, which was $4 just weeks ago. On her latest trip to the local WinCo grocery hours earlier that day, she found it had leaped to $6. 

That, however, didn’t mean she supported Laxalt. 

“Oh no, he’s a slime,” she said. “I just think he’s creepy.”

Olsen couldn’t quite pinpoint why she felt that way, except for hearing his voice on TV. 

It was perhaps a signal that the millions of dollars in negative advertising have set in. In Washoe, both sides have dumped buckets of cash onto the airwaves and into digital advertising. In the Reno advertising market from the June primary to what is booked through the Nov. 8 election, Cortez Masto and allies are expected to have spent $14.5 million. In the same period, Laxalt and allies are scheduled to have spent $11.6 million in the Reno market, according to AdImpact, an ad tracking firm. 

Republicans are betting their message on gas prices and inflation will ultimately bring Washoe’s coveted swing voters their way. In a drive through the county over several days last week, gas prices across different retailers were consistently above $5.50 a gallon. Democrats have made an economic pitch while also hammering Republicans on abortion rights and attempts to undermine the last election.

“The Democrats keep harping on that item here,” Bruce Parks, the Washoe County Republican chair, said of the abortion issue. “They want to distract you from other issues, like, oh, I don’t know, gasoline being $6 a gallon here in Washoe.” 

But Cortez Masto said in an interview she was confident voters had many issues on their minds.

“As I talk to Nevadans, including in Washoe County, it’s a combination of things — it’s not just the kitchen table issues,” she said. “It’s Roe versus Wade and the repeal of it that is going to impact so many women in a pro-choice state. … Nevadans feel strongly about those issues.”

CORRECTION (Oct. 28, 2022, 9:16 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the last name of a strategist for the GOP candidate Adam Laxalt. He is John Ashbrook, not Holbrook.