Nevada rematch pits rural voters against a booming Las Vegas
LAS VEGAS — Inside a bustling mall on a recent Saturday, volunteers working for the Nevada Democratic Party pester attendees at a job fair hosted by the Latin Chamber of Commerce to register to vote. Steven Horsford is working the crowd, smiling and laughing with the volunteers he recognizes.
A few miles away, in an office decorated with Republican campaign signs in an otherwise deserted strip mall, Cresent Hardy greets his own volunteers between calls they make to district residents using a script they read off tablets and laptops.
Hardy and Horsford have a few things in common: They both represented Nevada’s Fourth congressional district for a single term, swept into — and out of — office on reverse political tides. Both were born in the Las Vegas area — making them outliers in a district where more than half the population was born out of state — and they served together in the state Senate.
But the similarities end there. Their respective comeback bids — made possible when Rep. Ruben Kihuen (D) announced his retirement after charges of sexual harassment came to light — define a region that has changed dramatically in recent decades.
Nevada’s fourth district stretches over hundreds of square miles, from the glitzy lights of off-Strip resorts to the sparsely populated rural outposts of Ely, Hawthorne and Mesquite. The district’s congressman represents Lake Mead, Yucca Mountain, Cliven Bundy’s ranch and even Groom Lake, the military installation better known as Area 51.
Horsford is a product of the booming Las Vegas area, where the tourism economy has rebounded and trade and data-based industries are surging. North Las Vegas alone has seen its population grow five-fold since the 1990 Census, to an estimated quarter-million residents. Many of those new residents are Hispanic or African-American, like Horsford.
“North Las Vegas is revitalizing. They’re getting a lot of economic development out there, so it’s growing fast,” said David Damore, who chairs University of Nevada, Las Vegas’s political science department.
Hardy’s family, on the other hand, has been a part of rural Mesquite since his great-great grandfather helped settle the area. Most of the rural parts of the district have suffered as mining and ranching industries flag; only two of the district’s six counties outside Clark have gained population since 1990. The overwhelming majority of the population in rural counties is white, like Hardy.
And the two men have a very different perspective on President Trump’s tenure in office.
“Trump has got a lot of credit for jobs and the economy,” Hardy said in an interview. “I think the president is doing well on his policy side. I do have sometimes frustration with the way he speaks.”
Horsford, who lost to Hardy the first time they ran against each other in 2014, says voters bring up Trump’s behavior in office, and America’s fallen standing around the world.
“There’s a recognition that we need to elect a new Congress that will be a check and balance on this administration,” Horsford told The Hill. “What I hear about is people talking about the chaos, the confusion, the fact that particularly how we are viewed internationally, throughout the world, is a big concern.”
Most observers peg Horsford as the frontrunner. Hillary Clinton narrowly won the district, by about 2.5 percentage points, and even in the wave year of 2014 he only lost to Hardy by about 3,500 votes.
To reverse that disadvantage, Hardy plans to spend his time telling voters that Horsford left home after losing reelection, taking a job with a Nevada-based public relations firm and living part time in Northern Virginia. Hardy notes that he spent his time out of office building a hog barn, a metaphor for which he does not reach.
“When he got elected, he picked up his family and moved to D.C., or the Virginia area,” Hardy said of his rival. “After I lost my election, I stayed in Nevada.”
Horsford says he remains as much a part of the district as he ever was.
“This is my home. I was born and raised here, and I have been involved in this community throughout my entire life, including after I left Congress,” he said. “What Cresent Hardy should be answering for is why he supports raising the eligibility age for Social Security to 75,” as well as his support for Trump.
The urban-rural divide that characterizes both the district and the candidates running is also increasingly a political dividing line. Clinton won Clark County by 11 points in 2016, while Trump took at least two-thirds of the vote in all but one other county in the district. Trump turned out so many new voters that he came closer to winning Nevada than did either John McCain or Mitt Romney.
A lack of Democratic enthusiasm in the Las Vegas core cost Horsford his seat four years ago. Now, heightened enthusiasm even among low-propensity voters may well give him his seat back.
“Trump did a better job of getting out rural voters, so there is still some room to grow there. But it’s nothing in comparison to what the Democrats can do in that district,” UNLV’s Damore said. “I don’t think Democrats are going to make the same mistake they did four years ago.”
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