2022 midterms

Nevada Democrats Could Lose It All in 2022

Nevada Democratic senator Catherine Cortez Masto. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

From one perspective, Democrats have a positive Senate landscape for 2022. They are defending only 14 seats, compared with 20 for Republicans. None are in states Donald Trump carried in 2020, while Republicans are defending three seats in states carried by Joe Biden. Yet three Democratic seats are in states Biden carried by an eyelash (Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada), which means, in the event of a Republican “wave” election, they could be extremely vulnerable. A lot of attention is being paid to Nevada, in part because Democrats are vulnerable to top-to-bottom ballot losses and in part because the state provides yet another example of the latest big freakout for the Donkey Party: growing problems with Latino voters.

The peculiar vulnerability of Nevada Democrats is the product of a risky redistricting gambit made by the Democratic-controlled state legislature and approved by Democratic governor Steve Sisolak, who, like U.S. senator Catherine Cortez Masto, is up for reelection this year. Nathaniel Rakich explains in a FiveThirtyEight chat:

When Democrats set out to redraw Nevada’s four congressional districts, they could have virtually guaranteed that Nevada would elect at least two Democratic representatives by drawing two safely blue seats. But they decided to roll the dice and draw three less secure Democratic seats instead.

In most elections under the new map, we’d expect Democrats to win all three seats around Las Vegas, while Republicans would win only the 2nd District in rural northern Nevada. But in a “red wave” election, the map could severely backfire on Democrats: It would just take a 5-percentage-point Republican overperformance for the GOP to hit the jackpot and win all four of Nevada’s House seats.

A five-point “overperformance” is well within the realm of possibility in a midterm wave election. And that type of breeze at the pachyderm’s back could sweep away both Cortez Masto and Sisolak.

Worse yet, Nevada Democrats have gradually been losing vote share in recent elections even as they continued to win, despite a diversification of the electorate that, in theory, should have helped them, as FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten explains:

The problem for Democrats who rely on Hispanic voters is that then-President Donald Trump did better with Hispanics nationally in 2020 than any Republican since Bush in 2004. The trend among Hispanics away from the Democratic Party has continued during the Biden administration

Only White voters in Wisconsin (65%) are more likely to lack a college degree than White voters in Nevada (64%) among the states that were decided by 5 points or less in the 2020 presidential election.

Nevada was the only swing state that was in the top three when looking at the percentage of Hispanic voters and of White voters without a college degree.

So two Democratic problems are coinciding in Nevada, and as Ruy Teixeira points out, Democrats are losing working-class votes in Nevada particularly among Hispanic and even Black voters. As Teixeira has been arguing, the white-working-class crisis all Democrats know about is becoming a working-class crisis more generally:

Democrats have generally comforted themselves that their poor performance among the working class was purely a matter of white working-class voters, who they presumed were motivated by retrograde racial and cultural attitudes. But since 2012, nonwhite working-class voters have shifted away from the Democrats by 18 margin points, with a particularly sharp shift in the last election and particularly among Hispanics. This gives Democrats’ nonchalance about their losing record among working-class voters a bit of a whistling-past-the-graveyard quality.

That’s an especially disturbing trend in Nevada. Yes, 2012 was an unusually good year for Democratic working-class prospects, but Barack Obama isn’t walking through the door to help reclaim these votes anytime soon.

Neither is the legendary Nevada Democratic kingpin Harry Reid, Cortez Masto’s predecessor and mentor, who died last December. Reid is credited with putting together a powerful labor-based get-out-the-vote operation that won many a close election (including Cortez Masto’s in 2016 and his own last election in 2010). Today, long-simmering conflicts between progressive and centrist Democrats (dating back to a wild battle between supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in 2016) still fester.

The usual split among Republicans between hard-core MAGA fans who support Trump’s 2020 stolen-election fables and more staid GOP politicians who want to look ahead exists in Nevada too. In fact, one of Trump’s closest Nevada allies, former attorney general (and unsuccessful 2018 gubernatorial candidate) Adam Laxalt, is expected to win the June primary to face Cortez Masto (though Trump-skeptic rival and combat veteran Sam Brown is giving him a challenge). As the grandson of a renowned Nevada senator and governor and the son of a New Mexico senator, Laxalt may have higher name ID than the incumbent, who has been criticized by some observers for keeping too low a profile.

Polls are showing Cortez Masto leading Laxalt among registered voters while trailing among likely voters, probably a reflection of depressed Democratic enthusiasm at this stage in the 2022 cycle. The most recent poll the incumbent was leading, however, showed her well below 50 percent; President Biden’s job-approval ratings in the state have been regularly underwater as well. Objective conditions in Nevada aren’t positive for incumbents, either, as a recent New York Times analysis noted:

Scars from the coronavirus pandemic are still visible here. Housing prices skyrocketed, with rents rising faster than almost anywhere else in the country. Roughly 10,000 casino workers remain out of work. Gas prices, now more than $5 a gallon, are higher than in every other state except California.

Democrats need a turnaround to hang on to their power in Nevada, while Democrats need Nevada nationally to hang on to their slim odds of holding the House and their better (but fragile) odds of holding the Senate. If they lose it all in Nevada, it will likely be a terrible midterm overall.

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Nevada Democrats Could Lose It All in 2022