Democrats brace for tough election year in Nevada

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Democrats are clinging on to Nevada’s senior Senate seat and governor’s mansion heading into the midterm elections as early signs point to a bare-knuckle brawl in the two marquee contests.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) and Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) are running to keep their seats in a state that Democrats have won statewide consistently since 2016 but by stubbornly narrow margins. Democrats say that despite their success there, Nevada is a bona fide swing state and that an all-out effort is needed by the party to defend the two lawmakers, particularly as polls show tight contests in a cycle that is already expected to favor the GOP.

“It’s a state where we consistently over the past few cycles have had a narrow edge, but it’s a really closely divided state, and it’s gonna take a lot of work to come out on top in these big races,” said one Democratic strategist who has worked extensively in Nevada.

Cortez Masto, who won her seat in 2016, is likely facing off against former state attorney general and 2018 GOP gubernatorial nominee Adam Laxalt, who is running in a primary field against other challengers with significantly lower profiles. And Sisolak, another first-termer, is expected to run against either former Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) or Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo (R).

Both races are anticipated to be tight given Nevada’s proven status as a battleground. Both Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Cortez Masto won there in 2016 by about 2.5 points, and Sisolak fended off Laxalt by just 4 points in 2018, when Democrats enjoyed a wave election cycle. President Biden beat former President Trump there by about 2.5 points in November.

In a poll conducted by Democratic pollster Mark Mellman and released earlier this month by The Nevada Independent, Cortez Masto has just a 4-point lead over Laxalt, while Sisolak leads Heller by 2 points, within the survey’s margin of error, and is virtually tied with Lombardo.

Meanwhile, an internal poll conducted last month by the Laxalt campaign shows Laxalt with a 2-point edge over Cortez Masto.

“What that poll shows is that against the two leading candidates, it’s essentially a toss-up, and he’s the governor. So that’s not what you want to see even, though it might be expected,” Jon Ralston, editor of The Nevada Independent, said of Sisolak’s showing in the Mellman poll. “Same is true with Catherine Cortez Masto … that race is also close.”

The polling results come amid preparations for a cycle that is already expected to favor Republicans, given that the party out of the White House typically performs well in the first midterms of a new administration.

Plunging approval ratings for the White House are expected to energize Republicans, at least early in the midterm cycle, and are expected to impact candidates across the country, including Cortez Masto and Sisolak.

It’s still unclear if Biden can right the ship in Washington, but frustrations over a slew of issues, including the coronavirus, the withdrawal from Afghanistan and a sluggish economic recovery, have Republicans chomping at the bit to send voters to the polls.

“I think you just see nationally, for the first time in a long time, Republicans have a little bit of a tailwind. Who knows how long it’ll last, but I don’t see it getting better for Democrats,” said one GOP strategist working in Nevada. “I kind of thought through the summer, ‘Well, will this one hold and will the administration start making some maybe wiser moves?’ and it just doesn’t seem to be going that way.”

Those dynamics have Democrats preparing to rev up the sprawling party network set up by former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

The Democratic machine in the state has proven to be a fearsome weapon to tap into activist networks and identify and register key voters, ultimately helping to charge turnout.

Ralston said Democrats would likely use that infrastructure “to track candidates, to register voters, to pummel candidates with ads after they get them on tape saying something very stupid.”

“This is a tried-and-true technique,” he said.

The machine is, like in past cycles, expected to focus on Clark and Washoe Counties, the homes of Las Vegas and Reno, respectively. Observers say that Cortez Masto and Sisolak should look to win Clark, a Democratic redoubt, by about 10 points, and look for a narrow edge in Washoe, an erstwhile swing county that has tilted blue in recent cycles.

Republicans are expected to handily take Nevada’s remaining 15 counties, which are deep red but sparsely populated, though Clark and Washoe combine to make up about nearly 90 percent of the population. In a positive sign for Democrats, Biden nearly hit the 10-point threshold in Clark last year while winning Washoe by about 4.5 points.

“Clark County is just massive in terms of the firewall that Democrats need to build there. If you do well in Clark and turn out our voters, then you can effectively make it very, very difficult for Republicans to make it up anywhere else,” the Democratic strategist with experience in Nevada said.

The effort is also expected to look to drive up Hispanic turnout, which will be key to offsetting votes from GOP-leaning white voters without college degrees, another large demographic in Nevada.

Divides inside the state raised eyebrows after national party organs set up a separate coordinated campaign effort from the state party after it was taken over by a field of democratic socialists, but operatives are confident the machine will still be wielded effectively.

“I’m not concerned about that in the slightest for the simple reason that the resources are all going to be there, because the resources are always there. Whether they’re flowing through the coordinated campaign’s account or whether they’re flowing through labor allies or outside partners, I have no concerns whatsoever about the resources being there,” said Peter Koltak, who helped run Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) presidential operation in Nevada last year and has worked on various ballot initiatives in the state.

Democrats also have some structural advantages, including an edge of nearly 100,000 in voter registration over Republicans. And in a state that also boasts over 560,000 voters registered as “nonpartisan,” the party is also eager to go after a GOP that has veered to the right.

Laxalt has already warned he could preemptively sue “to try to tighten up the election,” a nod to Trump’s conspiracy theories about election fraud, and has a pattern of underperforming other Republicans on the ticket. Heller campaigned for the former president and has declined to definitively say he lost.

“The Republicans in the state are messy, they’re divided, they don’t have clear leadership. And frankly, they have flawed candidates who, because they’re so tethered to this Trump base, are going to have to run extremely far to the right. And they’re going to be going up against two relatively centrist candidates who have a history of winning,” Koltak said.

Republicans say the issue is not enough to sink their candidates, but observers say a close alliance with Trump on top of a registration deficit and a lack of substantial election infrastructure could put the GOP on its back foot.

“I think in a purple state where Democrats still have a 4 percent registration advantage and have an actual voter turnout machine while the Republican Party has been incredibly inept through the years here, you run too far to the right in the Republican primary here, you’re going to have a very, very difficult time winning a general election,” Ralston said.

Tags Adam Laxalt Bernie Sanders Catherine Cortez Masto Dean Heller Donald Trump Election 2022 Harry Reid Hillary Clinton Joe Biden midterms Nevada Steve Sisolak
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