The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Nevada, a Democratic senator tries to fend off GOP momentum on the economy

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) meets with supporters after speaking on abortion rights during a July 1 event in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP)

RENO, Nevada — Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto framed herself as a bulwark against a national abortion ban, gathering sympathetic Republican women in a friend’s backyard here to warn that her opponent could cast the decisive vote.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the Republicans in the Senate right now — that some of them are writing a draft legislation to further restrict abortion in this country,” Cortez Masto said at the campaign event this month. About a dozen health-care workers and allies from the GOP stood behind her, some holding signs that read “BANS OFF OUR BODIES.” She added, “Nevada is the seat that’s going to stop that.”

It’s a potent message, some argue, in a swing state that guaranteed abortion access by overwhelming popular vote more than 30 years ago.

GOP strategists say they are not worried, however. Speaking the next day in Las Vegas, Republican Senate nominee Adam Laxalt sent the same message Republicans have been hammering nationally: Gas prices are soaring, he said, and the party in power is responsible.

“We need someone that will actually stand up for Nevada when the Biden administration takes us away from energy independence, gives us all-time high gas, all these things we’re dealing with every single day,” said Laxalt, a former state attorney general who lost a bid for governor four years ago.

With large numbers of working-class voters, a fragile tourist ecosystem and some of the highest inflation rates in the country, Nevada will be a stark test of Democrats’ efforts to counter the GOP’s overriding economic message, especially among Latino voters. Nearly a fifth of Nevadans who cast ballots in 2020 were Hispanic or Latino, and Republicans are hoping to further cut into Democrats’ advantage with that group. The contest pits Cortez Masto, the first Latina elected to the Senate, against Laxalt, who comes from a prominent political family. Control of the 50-50 Senate is at stake.

Like other Democratic incumbents facing tough reelection fights, Cortez Masto is criticizing “Big Oil,” distancing herself from President Biden and trying to highlight other issues — among them, abortion and former president Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent.

Laxalt promoted baseless claims of widespread voter fraud as co-chair of Trump’s reelection campaign in Nevada, and as a Senate candidate he has continued to question whether Biden won the state. Trump endorsed him as a leader who “fought valiantly against the Election Fraud.” But Laxalt is focusing on other topics as the general election nears; Trump, the VIP guest at his July 8 event in Las Vegas, was the only person to mention the 2020 election from the stage.

Laxalt celebrated the fall of Roe v. Wade and has lamented Nevada’s wide support for abortion access. But he says the issue is “settled law” in his state, echoing other Nevada Republicans who see a losing battle for their party. His campaign declined to say whether he would support abortion restrictions at the federal level.

Pollsters and operatives across parties agree: Economic issues are top of mind for most voters.

“If the race came down to just persuasion of the undecideds, I think that scale would tip heavily towards Laxalt, just based on who the undecideds are and what they believe about President Biden,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, who has been tracking voters’ views in Nevada.

But “if the race hinges on turnout and GOTV based on important flash-point issues like abortion … then that could favor” Cortez Masto,” he added, referring to campaign get-out-the-vote efforts.

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Inflation levels have been rising at their fastest pace in 40 years, stoking fears that the Federal Reserve’s actions to bring down prices could trigger a recession. The consumer price index last month was more than 9 percent higher than a year ago. And experts said economic downturns generally hit harder in Nevada, where the coronavirus pandemic and business shutdowns were especially devastating to the tourism industry.

Those economic anxieties, combined with low approval ratings for Biden, have put Democrats like Cortez Masto on the defensive. The word “inflation” does not appear on the senator’s campaign website. Asked what she thinks of the White House’s efforts to address people’s economic woes, Cortez Masto neither praised nor criticized, and focused on Republicans. She does not answer questions about whether she supports Biden for reelection, telling reporters that she is focused on her state.

Laxalt’s platform promises to boost supply chains and “restore fiscal sanity by stopping the spending spree.” In a statement to The Washington Post, Laxalt called Nevada “ground zero” for “Bideninflation.” Biden and Cortez Masto’s “decision to pump trillions of dollars into an already overheated economy has created a massive demand imbalance, sending prices for everyday goods through the roof,” he said.

Republicans opposed to last year’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which included child tax credit expansions and stimulus checks, had warned that it would increase inflation. Experts say the checks drove up prices, though they debate how much.

Cortez Masto promotes the 2021 aid package as part of her efforts to help workers during the pandemic and get funding that contributed to Nevada’s recovery of jobs it had lost. At a Las Vegas event with Teamsters union members, she said she would work to bring down prices — touting her support for legislation to cap the costs of insulin, negotiate prescription drug prices and scrutinize “Big Oil companies that are price-gouging our families.”

“I’m looking for people to work with, not an opponent who’s going to diagnose [the problem] and use it for political gain,” Cortez Masto told reporters after her event in Reno.

Democrats’ registration advantage over Republicans in Nevada shot up around the 2008 election cycle, when Barack Obama won the state decisively, but has waned in recent years. In June, the registration gap was less than four percentage points — down from nearly six percentage points the same month in 2018 and almost eight points in 2014.

GOP strategist Jeremy Hughes said the registration shift should sound “alarm bells” for Democrats. Biden won Nevada by about two percentage points in 2020, the same margin by which Cortez Masto won her Senate race in 2016.

“The political winds are very favorable to us,” said T.W. Arrighi, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who called Nevada a top pickup opportunity.

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Cortez Masto has invested heavily in outreach to Nevada’s many Latino voters, a demographic that Biden won by 26 percentage points in the state in 2020. Her campaign started running Spanish-language ads in March and this month drew hundreds of people to a community center gym for a Friday night party with blasting music and tables for Latin American countries and Mexican states. The senator joined those on the dance floor.

Megan Jones, a Nevada operative working with the Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC, said Republicans “are always playing catch-up” with the Latino community. But Republican operatives argued that they can make further inroads this cycle after Trump gained support with Latino voters from 2016 to 2020. Inflation was the most commonly cited top concern in a nationwide Axios-Ipsos poll of Hispanic and Latino adults this March, a significant shift from late last year, when the leading response was covid-19.

Staff and volunteers with Operación ¡Vamos!, a national Republican Latino voter initiative, have been knocking on doors to survey people about their biggest worries — often inflation, staffers say — and drop off pamphlets describing the GOP’s support for “religious liberties,” “family values” and the “entrepreneurial spirit.”

Walking around a Las Vegas mall with his wife and daughter, 53-year-old Roy Padilla said he was not sure whom he would vote for in the Senate race, even though he previously canvassed for Cortez Masto. He thinks the Biden administration could do more to address the country’s problems.

“If Laxalt has a good story behind what he’s trying to do — I mean, what we’re trying to do is build up this economy,” said Padilla, who works security at a casino resort.

Jazmine Johnson, 26, said she does not blame a particular party for the inflation that has raised her grocery bills and led her boyfriend to drive less. Selling skin-care products at the mall, she professed little interest in politics — then brought up abortion unprompted.

Some leaders want to “punish the women who want an abortion even though there’s no heartbeat, there’s no brain, it’s just literally a cell,” she said. Asked if she knew that Nevada law protects the procedure, she responded: “For now.” She said she would probably vote for Cortez Masto because of her position on abortion.

Cortez Masto has also sought to draw attention to Laxalt’s role in Trump allies’ efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss. Many strategists are skeptical that the topic will register among voters preoccupied with kitchen table issues, but it’s been a turnoff for some Republicans, such as Nathan Robertson, a mayor in rural Nevada.

Robertson said he has been listening with horror to the House committee hearings on a pro-Trump mob’s storming of the U.S. Capitol and was dismayed at Laxalt’s embrace of Trump’s grievances. He also likes that Cortez Masto opposed taxes on the mining industry and helped with infrastructure funding. Late last month he endorsed her.

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