Nevada becomes early Senate battleground

Sen. Cortez Masto Catherine (D-Nev.)
Greg Nash

The two top outside groups dedicated to winning control of the Senate have settled on Nevada as an early battleground ahead of next year’s midterm elections, launching a first wave of television spots that are airing this week.

One Nation, the nonprofit wing of the American Crossroads political action committee that backs Republican Senate candidates, began airing advertisements last week critical of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and the Democratic reconciliation package.

“Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and Sen. Cortez Masto are pushing a multitrillion-dollar spending spree, after spending trillions already,” a narrator intones. “It’ll cost you, with the largest tax increase in decades.” 

Now the Senate Majority PAC, the chief Democratic outside group, will launch a new round of advertisements critical of Cortez Masto’s leading Republican rival, former Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R).

The Senate Majority PAC will spend about $764,000 on the advertisements, according to a media buyer watching the Nevada television market. The spot is critical of Laxalt’s positions on health care and the child tax credit.

“When COVID was crushing our economy, one leader went to work. Catherine Cortez Masto passed a common sense rescue plan for small businesses, tourism and schools,” the narrator says in the new ad. “But Adam Laxalt is standing in the way, opposing relief for Nevada’s economy.” 

The Silver State is once again in the epicenter of a national fight for control of the Senate, six years after Cortez Masto won her seat by a narrow 2.5 point margin over then-Rep. Joe Heck (R) and two years after then-Rep. Jacky Rosen (D) ousted Sen. Dean Heller (R) by 5 percentage points.

Democrats have made other gains too in a formerly red state; the party controls every statewide elected office except the Secretary of State’s office, and three of four congressional districts. Democratic presidential candidates have carried the state in every election since Barack Obama won the White House in 2008.

But the blue tint of its officeholders masks a purple hue that still colors Nevada. A poll conducted late last month by the Democratic pollster and The Hill columnist Mark Mellman for The Nevada Independent, a nonpartisan outlet, found Cortez Masto leading Laxalt by just a 46 percent to 41 percent margin, well within the poll’s margin of error. 

David Damore, chairman of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas’s political science department, said the poll showed many voters had yet to make up their minds about either of the two leading contenders.

“There is an opportunity for both parties, but especially for the [Democrats], to start defining the likely GOP Senate candidate early,” Damore said. “The Nevada electorate is anything but static. Big swings in turnout from cycle to cycle are not uncommon and there are lots of Californians moving to Las Vegas who know little about the state’s politics.”

Tremendous growth in Las Vegas, and robust growth in Washoe County, which includes Reno, means even incumbents must reintroduce themselves to what is effectively a new electorate every time they run for office. The decennial census counted just over 3.1 million Nevadans on April 1, 2020, up almost 200,000 from the last time Cortez Masto was on the ballot. 

Laxalt, who narrowly lost a bid for governor in 2018, faces a potentially competitive Republican primary against Sam Brown, a businessman and veteran of the war in Afghanistan who has already launched his own television advertising. His campaign said in a statement that the early Democratic advertising offers a hint of what the incumbent party sees a year before the midterms.

“Catherine Cortez Masto’s D.C. Democrat machine is sweating bullets about her re-election. They’re desperately throwing money at her race over a year before Election Day because they know her radical record of backing mass amnesty, tax hikes, and Bernie Sanders’s spending bill puts her at odds with the vast majority of Nevadans,” said John Burke, Laxalt’s spokesman, referring to the senator from Vermont. “They know Adam Laxalt is going to defeat her in 2022 and all the money in the world won’t save her.”

A spokesman for Nevada Democratic Victory, a breakaway group created after a nasty schism among state Democrats that set both Cortez Masto and Rosen against the newly elected chair of the state party, lambasted Laxalt for his ties to former President Donald Trump.

“Sen. Cortez Masto is one of the most effective leaders in the Senate, and Nevadans know she will always work to put them first. Meanwhile, Adam Laxalt is best known for spreading the Big Lie as Trump’s campaign char in Nevada and spent last week at the center of a federal corruption trial involving a Trump associate,” the spokesman, Andy Orellana, said in a statement. “The contrast in this race will be clear.”

Those Nevada voters who have been around long enough to experience several election cycles are accustomed to some of the priciest races in the nation. The two sides spent more than $40 million in 2018, when Rosen beat Heller, and $32 million in 2016, when Cortez Masto won her seat. 

Already this year, groups like the Business Roundtable and Club for Growth Action have been on cable and radio stations advertising against the Democratic agenda in Washington. Democratic groups like End Citizens United and the League of Conservation Voters are running advertising this week in the Las Vegas market, presaging another expensive battle ahead. 

Tags Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Catherine Cortez Masto Dean Heller Donald Trump Jacky Rosen Joe Heck

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