The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As economic worry grows, Democrats face weary Vegas voters

Culinary Workers Union member Maria Orozco hands voter information to a resident as she canvasses at an apartment complex in Las Vegas on June 8. Nevada holds its primary elections on June 14. (David Becker for The Washington Post)
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LAS VEGAS — Yuniel Acosta spent several minutes pleading with Manuel Ayala.

“Do it for your kids. Rent is going up. Prices are up. Support your kids. Do it for your community and vote Democrat,” said Acosta, a canvasser here for the influential Culinary Workers Union.

Ayala, a 57-year-old father, wasn’t buying it. But he wasn’t interested in supporting Republicans, either. Instead, he wasn’t sure he would vote at all.

“Politicians just do whatever they want. Why vote when you know the president and those around him won’t be any different from those before them, regardless of party?” he said in an interview outside his North Las Vegas home.

Democrats are trying to convince voters that their response to the pandemic paved the way for a more stable economy, particularly in a tourism-dependent city such as Las Vegas. But the message that Democrats are the party most capable of revitalizing the economy is a tough sell as inflation continues to rise under their watch. The Bureau of Labor Statistics announced Friday that inflation jumped a historic 8.6 percent last month from a year earlier as gas prices reached nearly $5 a gallon nationwide, a trend that most Americans expect will worsen.

Midterm elections also historically serve as a referendum on whichever party occupies the White House, with the margin of loss loosely projected by a president’s approval rating.

“They suck. Midterms suck,” Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) said bluntly ahead of Tuesday’s Nevada primary.

Lack of motivation to vote also is common during midterm elections, compared to presidential years. In a warning sign for Democrats, a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are more certain than Democrats that they will vote in November.

“I do believe there’s a level of exhaustion and uncertainty about the future, and that, to me, is what you’re seeing a lot of in Biden’s approval ratings,” said Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nev.), whose district stretches from western Vegas to the southern tip of the state. “This guy promised us that covid was going to be gone. Bottom line is you can’t control a virus; you can only control the response to it.”

Redistricting made Horsford’s and Lee’s districts slightly more Democratic, but both still face tough odds in a year that independent analysts say favors Republicans. And Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), who has served in the House on and off for over a decade, lost a double-digit advantage in redistricting, now occupying a district that includes the more conservative-leaning neighborhoods of Henderson and Boulder City.

All three Las Vegas-area representatives are in what the Cook Political Report with Amy Walter considers toss-up races — contests so competitive it is hard to predict which party most voters will choose.

Joe Biden won Lee’s district by 6.7 percentage points, with margins of more than eight points in the Horsford and Titus seats. But the apathy of voters, some of whom fault Democrats for not controlling inflation, endangers the slim Democratic control of the House.

“I get people are turned off right now. It’s been hard between the pandemic, the recession that followed, the war in Ukraine, the cost of living — this is what the average person is focused on. They’re not top of mind and thinking, ‘Oh, I got to go vote,’” said Horsford, who represents North Las Vegas.

To get people to the polls, Democrats are telling anxious voters that they spearheaded the employment recovery over the past year. In March, the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted that Nevada had experienced the largest one-year employment growth rate of all states, with an increase of 9.1 percent. The unemployment rate was 5 percent in April, a decrease of almost 25 percentage points from the peak of the pandemic two years ago.

“One of the things I think we have to get better at between now and the general election is talking about what we’ve done,” said Donna West, a former Clark County, Nev., Democratic Party chairwoman. “I know it’s going to be an uphill fight, but we have to get better on what we provided.”

At several events across Las Vegas, House Democrats pointed to the roughly $2 trillion American Rescue Plan that the party passed without GOP support as the reason for the quick recovery. Republican members and strategists have spent the past year countering that the Democratic-passed recovery bill is a contributor to inflation.

Acknowledging the burden of inflation, Democrats argue that they are still the party with the policies to lower the prices that the government can control. House Democrats have passed stand-alone bills aimed at easing the financial burden of rising housing and child-care costs, as well as lowering the cost of insulin. Those proposals, however, have not been taken up by an evenly split Senate.

“To me, it’s: Look at the record on who’s actually worked, who’s churned out these bills and who’s gotten things across the finish line, really in light of the great opposition by Republicans,” Lee said in an interview.

Whether that message is resonating outside of Democratic circles isn’t yet clear.

Anna Diggs, a kitchen worker at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino, says that when she is knocking on doors as a canvasser, she meets people who blame Democrats for inflation “all the time.” A culinary union member for 32 years, she has sensed a split among colleagues, even within the union, over which way they will vote in November.

That’s an encouraging sign for Republicans, who feel extremely confident that they will win back Democratic-held seats, including the Nevada governorship and a majority in both chambers of Congress.

Scott Raymer, 58, a finance company president, remembers that Las Vegas’s recovery from the 2008 financial crisis took over a decade. A Republican who lives in the Summerlin neighborhood in Lee’s district, Raymer said the feeling is reminiscent of the days before the 2008 recession, signaling that “it’s time for a clean sweep.”

“I think the whole kind of way covid was handled irritated a lot of people here, especially with all the casinos and stuff and how tight it was. I think the way [Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak] handled the situation wasn’t good,” he said.

Several Republican campaign strategists think the state’s economy, so interlinked with the tourism and hospitality industries, which are still lagging because of the global pandemic, will suffer even more if consumers stop spending on big trips to the Las Vegas Strip.

Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, echoed the point in an interview. He said that judging by how much money is being spent on ads in the Las Vegas media market by political committees aligned with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Democrats are worried about losing the three Las Vegas-area House seats.

“Well, why don’t you ask Nancy? ... That’s where she put the most of her money,” he said. “They clearly see [the three seats] as swings.”

Democrats are answering recession speculation by trying to remind voters that Republicans have chosen to cut taxes for corporations rather than for the middle class, as exemplified by the 2017 Trump tax cuts — a point Acosta says is the reason he is a registered Democrat and knocking on doors for candidates endorsed by the Culinary Workers Union.

“I’m a Democrat because I believe Republicans really work to enrich the rich and the Democrats fight for the middle class, people like me. I’m not a millionaire. I’m middle-class and try to make ends meet,” he said.

But not all Hispanic voters, who make up almost 30 percent of the Nevada electorate, are enthusiastic Democrats like Acosta.

Chris Romano, a Mexican American who has worked in Las Vegas Latino political circles, attended the monthly Hispanics in Politics breakfast at Doña Maria Tamales this month and concluded that Horsford and Lee “falta la sazón” — they lack the “spice” to motivate the Hispanic community.

Romano said that many Hispanics he knows are so “disenchanted” by the economic situation and Democrats’ inability to keep promises that they either are turning to Republicans or will not vote this year. Romano, who is an independent but planning to vote Republican this year, said that although he believes Donald Trump as president was “too brusque” and “caused damage,” people will remember how the economy thrived under his administration.

“The Democrats, this time around, have disappointed us. I think they’re going too far left,” he said. “We all remember we were better off under [Trump]. There was money flowing in the street. People seemed happier. People had hope. People felt strong and safer.”

But it’s not a sure bet for Republicans, either.

Zoila Sanchez, who organizes the Hispanics in Politics event, has sensed that those who are open to the GOP have recoiled after being reminded how the Republican Party often responds after a mass shooting. Las Vegas remains the scene of the largest mass shooting in the United States: the 2017 attack in which a man firing from a hotel window killed 60 people and injured more than 400 attending a music festival.

Democratic candidates have heard concerns from voters, especially suburban mothers, since the shooting in Uvalde, Tex., last month and the leak of a Supreme Court draft opinion showing the possible imminent reversal of the 1973 court decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion across the country.

“We’re hearing a lot about Roe on the doors, we’re hearing a lot about abortion on the doors. Clearly, where we stand is with the voters, the majority that support legal access, and now we’re asking about whether kids are safe in school,” said West, the former county chairwoman who has been leading canvasses ahead of the primary. “I think it shows for all the bravado we’re seeing from the Republican Party, they clearly know they’re in trouble with the voters on a number of issues.”

But the problem for Aliece Empey, who is self-employed, is Democrats’ failure to deliver on several promises after being given the chance to change the country’s direction after Trump. Outside a Target store in Hendersonville, Empey, 25, noted that bottles of shampoo now cost the same as the hourly minimum wage.

“I feel like, as always, there’s a lot promised and a lot cut short. I think the situation [Biden] had in front of him was really difficult. He still has time. I feel like I’m a more optimistic person, but it would be good for him to keep some promises,” she said.

Rep. Titus, who is reintroducing herself to voters in this part of town, said that the voter anxiety in Vegas is tied to lessons from the 2008 recession and housing crisis. Voters are discouraged and fear the worst is still to come.

“Even though we’re the fastest-recovering community, people are concerned, because they want to be sure that the recovery touches everybody, not just people at the top, and also, that it lasts. I think they just kind of don’t believe it, and they’re worried about what the future will hold,” she said.

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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