early and often

If Democrats Can’t Save Catherine Cortez Masto, What Hope Do They Have?

Senator Catherine Cortez Masto makes her way to a Senate Democratic luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on September 28, 2022. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

In a midterm environment that has felt as charged as any in modern times — with a Trumpified GOP threatening to dominate Congress and erode whatever democratic norms remain — there is no shortage of high-profile Senate campaigns. The upper chamber is currently divided evenly, with Vice-President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote giving Democrats a majority, but a narrow shift could put Republicans in control. The situation has made celebrities out of men like John Fetterman, Blake Masters, and, bizarrely enough, has brought TV doctor Mehmet Oz and the incoherent and scandal-plagued Herschel Walker to the brink of great power and consequence.

But beyond the immediate political chaos, there’s a race that may quietly determine the future of the Democratic Party and, in turn, what happens in the United States for years to come. If the Democrats can’t save Catherine Cortez Masto, the Nevada senator and protégé of the late Senate majority leader Harry Reid, they could be staring down a Republican majority that frustrates all of Joe Biden’s remaining legislative ambitions and forecloses his ability to appoint federal judges. Her defeat may also say something disconcerting about the health of the Democratic coalition itself: If an increasingly diverse and working-class state slips away from them, what hope is there?

Cortez Masto, who filled Reid’s seat, has been trailing her Republican opponent, Adam Laxalt, as national headwinds buffet her campaign. Laxalt, a former state attorney general, is a favorite of both Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell — a perfect fusion for a GOP that needs both Trump’s base and McConnell’s ability to marshal millions to effectively compete. Laxalt is no Oz, Walker, or Don Bolduc, the former general who emerged from the fringe of New Hampshire politics to capture the nomination there. He is the son and grandson of U.S. senators. At the same time, he was one of the Republicans trumpeting the baseless claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election.

The downfall of Roe v. Wade in June offered Democrats a singular opportunity to argue for why electing them actually matters, yet there are also numerous factors working against them that Cortez Masto, who is very much reflective of the median center-left Democrat in Washington, must overcome. The president’s party almost always loses seats in a midterm year. Worries over persistently high inflation remain. Wages in Nevada have not kept up with surging home prices. Though Las Vegas has rebounded from the depths of the pandemic, the tourism-based economy has struggled with a lack of international travel and business conferences that were routine several years ago. Biden, despite a recent bump in his approval ratings, is still not very popular.

Laxalt has lashed Cortez Masto for high gas prices and the migrant crisis at the southern border. He celebrated the overturning of Roe in June. And he has a voter-registration advantage: Republicans and nonpartisans make up nearly 60 percent of the electorate. When Democrats do win in Nevada, their victories tend to be razor thin.

Cortez Masto is trying to save herself with a disciplined playbook: boasting of big wins in Congress, like the new federal cash for the manufacture of semiconductor chips and the portions of the Inflation Reduction Act that limited the cost of prescription drugs. She is focusing aggressively on safeguarding abortion rights in a state where a libertarian-tinged message around bodily choice might resonate. Latino voters may account for as much as 20 percent of the electorate in Nevada, and Cortez Masto has been emphasizing her heritage far more than she has in the past, running ads about her Mexican grandfather and pouring resources into aggressive Latino outreach. Democrats have been accused of taking the Latino vote for granted in the 2020 election, allowing Trump to run up significant gains in Spanish-speaking counties, yet Cortez Masto’s campaign is well aware of the perils of losing their margins with Latinos. She’s been pounding the airwaves for much of the race and enjoys a significant fundraising advantage. But alarmingly for Democrats, this hasn’t translated into a polling lead.

The Nevada Senate race can be seen as a test of whether Democrats can find a way to halt GOP gains with Latinos and compete somehow in the rural reaches of the country; Biden won Las Vegas but was crushed in the state’s sparsely populated counties. It is also a referendum on whether the statewide Democratic machine Reid built can truly outlive him. Reid was credited with overseeing a highly effective apparatus that forged coalitions between progressive groups and organized labor while homing in on voter registration, consistently turning out the new Democrats that joined the rolls. Whether a strong get-out-the-vote effort can overcome countervailing national trends is one of the great questions of the cycle.

Another, within Nevada, is Democratic unity itself. After Senator Bernie Sanders defeated Biden in the 2020 Nevada caucuses, allies of the Vermont leftist successfully took over the state Democratic Party, beating back the Reid allies who had run the party in coordination with his own political organization. The Reid machine, now overseen by Cortez Masto and Steve Sisolak, the Democratic governor, has clashed with the state party over money, policy direction, and voter data. How much the infighting hurts Democrats at the margins remains to be seen, but the vacuum Reid left behind when he died in 2021 is clear enough. There is no single power broker to threaten and cajole the unruly political factions of Nevada any longer.

At stake, too, is not merely the Senate. Sisolak, the governor, could lose his reelection bid. Three of Nevada’s four House seats are held by Democrats. All could potentially fall to Republicans. Democrats wouldn’t be doomed in the state — a presidential year may offer a return to power for some — but it would be the sort of grievous blow Reid labored to prevent for decades. He certainly longed for more than one term for the woman occupying his storied Senate seat.

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If Democrats Can’t Save Cortez Masto What Hope Do They Have?