LAS VEGAS — Nevada has long been a bellwether in national elections. The caricature of a casino on every block and a slot machine in every grocery store has given way to the reality of a diverse state with growing minority populations and a widening urban-rural divide that is a microcosm of America.
The truth is — and never could it be more resonant than this year — for Democrats, as goes Nevada, so goes the nation. Nevada has a closely fought contest for governor, with the Democratic incumbent, Steve Sisolak, facing Joe Lombardo, sheriff of the most populous county. And its congressional races could help determine partisan control of both chambers: In three of its four House races and in the contest for U.S. Senate, Democratic incumbents are in tight battles.
For Democrats, Nevada holds promise and peril. It is truly a purple state, and Democrats are hoping to hold together a tenuous multiracial coalition and keep at bay a Republican Party determined to flip the state red.
The pressure is particularly acute for Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez Masto. Across the country, from Georgia to Pennsylvania to Arizona, Senate races are neck and neck, and Nevada is no different; a very slight Democratic advantage has given way to pretty much a dead heat. If this seat gives Senate control to the Republicans, it could change the direction of the country on major public policy issues, including abortion, and most obviously, on confirming judges.
Ms. Cortez Masto faces Adam Laxalt, a former state attorney general who is embraced by both Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell and is the son and grandson of Republican senators. The challenges for Ms. Cortez Masto reflect struggles for Democrats across the country — worries over inflation and the economy, a distinct urban-rural split among the electorate, an opponent who has endorsed Mr. Trump’s baseless claims of a stolen election and, especially for the first Latina elected to the Senate, a need for robust support from Hispanic voters.
She has emphasized the achievements of Democrats in Congress — especially the infrastructure bill, the CHIPS Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, and their impact on manufacturing and other jobs. And she has also focused on abortion as part of her outreach to Latino voters, since a majority of Hispanics in the state support abortion rights.
Ms. Cortez Masto might as well be running in three states in one: Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, represented about 70 percent of the vote in the 2020 presidential elect (Joe Biden won it by just under nine points); Washoe County, which includes Reno, has just under 20 percent (Mr. Biden won here by 4.5 points); and 15 rural counties, many of which Mr. Trump won with over 70 percent of the vote.
She will benefit from an electoral machine built by Harry Reid, the longtime senator who died last year, that Democrats in the rest of the country have looked at with envy. For years, that machine has reliably registered voters and then turned them out. The question this year is if it will be enough to overcome significant economic and electoral headwinds.
Adam Jentleson, who worked closely with Mr. Reid, wrote last year that the Nevada Democratic machine “focused on the tough work of building coalitions between organized labor and progressive groups and invested in the nuts and bolts of politics, like voter registration.”
In 2016, Mr. Reid’s operation helped Ms. Cortez Masto win by 2.5 points. It is a model for Democratic state operations: It has helped produce Democratic victories in cycles since 2008 (with 2014 an outlier red wave year) for presidential as well as most midterm elections, when the national party often struggles to get its full coalition to the polls.
The turnout next month will be a critical test of how that machine operates in the first elections since its founder’s death. Mr. Reid was a unique figure. His ability to raise money for candidates kept the machine humming.
Since Mr. Reid’s death, the Nevada model — the Reid machine in coordination with the Democratic Party — has shown some cracks. The Reid machine, now in the hands of Ms. Cortez Masto and Governor Sisolak, and the party have clashed over money and policy direction on everything from support for Israel to primary endorsements. Young activists, keen on pulling the party to the left, have taken up positions in the party itself, alienating Reid operatives.
What this likely means for Ms. Cortez Masto and other Democrats in Nevada is that they cannot expect to have the kind of overwhelming fund-raising advantage that they have been used to.
That is not the only concern for Democrats. Despite her heritage, Ms. Cortez Masto is fighting to maintain a grip on a majority of Latino voters, who will account for 15 percent to 20 percent of the general electorate.
Ms. Cortez Masto had never worn her ethnicity on her sleeve, but she has been emphasizing it in this race. Her campaign has significantly ramped up its Latino voter contact efforts, hiring a Spanish-speaking press secretary, holding events in the community and announcing during Hispanic Heritage Month that 200 Latino leaders had endorsed her.
Ms. Cortez Masto’s personal story, as a pioneering Latina legislator, is a ubiquitous element of her pitch. In her ads, she has emphasized her family, including a grandfather from Mexico — Mexican immigrants make up a majority of the Latino population in the state.
She will also depend on another turnout machine: the Culinary Workers Union, which is at least half Hispanic and represents tens of thousands of casino employees. The union is expected to knock on over one million doors for this election, about twice as many as it did in 2020.
Since the Dobbs decision overturning Roe, Ms. Cortez Masto has been relentlessly using abortion to attack Mr. Laxalt, who supports an abortion ban after 13 weeks of pregnancy. Still, like many Democrats in purple states, she remains vulnerable. In a recent poll, Ms. Cortez Masto led Mr. Laxalt by 19 points among Hispanics, but nearly a third of that demographic was undecided. When she won in 2016, she was estimated to have won over 60 percent of Hispanics, which is well above where she is polling right now.
Nevada observers on both sides of the aisle say she is running the best campaign in the state. Her ads are sharp, her social media presence ubiquitous and her campaign disciplined. Ms. Cortez Masto, who has long prided herself on being a workhorse, has shown an indomitability that would have impressed Mr. Reid. She also has adopted her mentor’s fund-raising prowess, having much more cash on hand than Mr. Laxalt.
Most years, she would be considered a favorite. But this year, nearly all of the numbers in Nevada tilt toward the Republicans. President Biden’s approval ratings here are just over 40 percent. Unemployment is still high relative to the rest of the country, and inflation continues to take a bite out of paychecks. And a Democratic registration advantage has eroded as nonpartisan registration has expanded.
Republicans now see the Nevada Senate race as one of their best shots at gaining control of the Senate, with Ms. Cortez Masto vulnerable. If she prevails, her campaign could provide a blueprint for Democrats elsewhere, especially in the Mountain West and Southwest, on the way to 2024.
Nevada, once again, could be the neon beacon for the country.