Nevada’s Nail-Biter Senate Race May Come Down to Hispanics

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LAS VEGAS—Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto greeted the crowd at the Latino-owned restaurant’s kitchen and welcomed them. A DJ played hits in the nearby shopping center, five miles from the Las Vegas Strip. With fried fish piled high in guests’ bowls for the grand opening of a new restaurant, and a who’s-who of the de facto Latino chamber of commerce in attendance, the Senator strode in, seemingly knowing most of the people there.

“Latinos, it’s what we do. We open businesses,” Nevada’s first female Senator, and the only Latina ever elected to the Senate, told the crowd, clearly in her element. “We’re part of the community. We’re entrepreneurs. We want to make sure our families are strong, our children have opportunities, everyone in our neighborhood—we’re all in this together.”

Cortez Massto then spent over an hour with her supporters, taking photographs that showed them getting to know Senator Barack Obama in a way rarely seen. She was called by them Catherineto her face La SenadoraTo anyone that will listen. They were able to appreciate the value of her community connections and to understand the seriousness of her bid for reelection. It is expected to be one of the most contested in the fall. The match-up against Republican Adam Laxalt is seen as a two-point race at best—and one that could decide if the Democrats hold their narrow majority in the Senate.

“She knows us,” says Noemi Quintero, a niece of labor icon Cesar Chavez who calls Cortez Masto a friend. “I believe in her. I’ll be with her until the end.”

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Hispanic voters will play an important role in determining whether Democrats are the ones to suffer a major defeat this fall. Strategists anticipate about 15% to 20% of the electorate to identify as Hispanic or Latino—and could be even bigger as both sides are working to register new voters. Emerson College polled last month and found that a solid third of Hispanic voters support Laxalt. For context: that’s about the same level of support Trump enjoyed in 2020, when Biden won Nevada by just two points overall.

“We are starting to define the elections of so many races,” says Daniel Garza, a longtime Republican operative who now leads the LIBRE Initiative, which does Hispanic and Latino outreach on behalf of the conservative Koch network. “It’s because we are now politically curious. Right now, is the time to double down.”

After Cortez Masto had opened the restaurant on the Strip’s east side, LIBRE, the Nevada volunteer network behind LIBRE, was serving jerk chickens and ribs to another local business just six miles away. LIBRE’s super-activists were meeting up to greet each other and nodding their heads as they spoke about economic opportunities and smaller government. They offered to buy a gift card for any prospective recruits.

“People are not engaging in politics any more because they’ve lost faith in the system,” says Rosemary Flores, a veteran activist in the Hispanic community who changed political jerseys during the Trump years. Flores, 57, is now whipping votes against Cortez Masto, arguing that it’s time for new representation. “She’s no longer the new face,” she says of Cortez Masto. “We gave her a chance and she didn’t take it.”

Nevada’s increasingly brown political landscape is a tricky one, strategists on both sides concede. Changes in demographics had been expected to make the state more competitive for Democrats, but there remains a conservative streak in the Latino community that has fueled a lot of the state’s growth. The state’s Western-inspired character is characterized by libertarian sentiments. One Latina strategist described it as the “last” American community that believes in the American Dream.

Democrats claim that despite headwinds they can still avoid despair. Their party dominates Governors’ offices and House and Senate delegations in the American Southwest. According to new polling by a pro-Biden super PAC, Democrats support Latinos as well as Republicans in 2018. And coming fresh off a turn as Senate Democrats’ campaign quarterback, Cortez Masto knows all of the best practices of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and its top fundraisers.

Then, there’s the Republican in the race. Laxalt succeeded Cortez Massto as attorney general. The crowd she addressed at her restaurant opening seemed well-informed about his mistakes. His embrace of The Big Lie won him ex-President Donald Trump’s endorsement but also scorn from centrists in this state. Laxalt’s fundraising hasn’t matched some of national strategists’ optimism; Cortez Masto has raised $29 million this cycle and has $9 million banked, while Laxalt has raised $7 million and is sitting on $2 million.

National Republicans have recently begun grousing about Laxalt’s campaign more openly, although they also know Cortez Masto is still vulnerable. Nevada, Arizona, and Georgia remain their best pick-up areas. Senior Democrats believe Georgia is safer, as Herschel Walker (the GOP nominee) seems to be prone to making mistakes.

Flores, an activist supporting Laxalt’s cause, is still clear-eyed about race. It is a state that she knows well. “They’re four steps ahead of us,” she says of the Democrats.

And Cortez Masto and her team aren’t ready to cede a single stride of that head start.

“At the end of the day, this is about all of our families,” Cortez Masto said, back at the new restaurant. Though refusing to name Laxalt by anything other than “my opponent,” she accused him of being insufficiently supportive of Latino businesses “That’s the challenge. That’s who we are up against. We must ensure that we all stand united in order to keep fighting for our common cause. And if we do, we get opportunities like this.”

While the entire pitch about Latino solidarity took only two minutes to complete, it was more than she could have written in 30 seconds. Cortez Massto’s quick comments were met with great love by the crowd, who quickly sent their friends the picture they took. La Senadora. As the signs between the tables indicated, this woman was indeed the one who made the effort to meet with the men that day. Una De Las Nuestras. We are one of them.

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