The state is looking like a bellwether again. That’s bad news for Democrats who won in 2016 and 2018.
by Carine Hajjar, The Wall Street Journal, October 21, 2022
Nevada is the quintessential political bellwether. Or is it? Of the 26 presidential elections between 1912 and 2012, the nationwide winner carried the Silver State 25 times. But lately, Democrats have been on a roll. In 2016 Hillary Clinton duplicated Gerald Ford’s 1976 feat, and Democrats control both U.S. Senate seats, three of the state’s four House seats, every statewide elected office except secretary of state, and both legislative houses in Carson City. “A coordinated campaign over the last how many years has turned Nevada blue,” Sen. Jacky Rosen, who defeated Republican Sen. Dean Heller in 2018, told NBC News in April.
But that could be about to change. Gov. Steve Sisolak and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto both trail their Republican challengers narrowly in most polls. All three Democratic House seats are competitive, and either legislative chamber could flip. If there’s a red wave next month, Democrats in this landlocked state could find themselves underwater.
It all depends on what happens in Clark County, home to Las Vegas, its suburbs and 72% of Nevada’s registered voters. Nevada—whose population is 30% Hispanic and 9% Asian—will also test how much the Republican Party’s working-class appeal crosses ethnic and racial lines.
“What direction do you think the country is going? Va bien o va mal?” Helder Toste of the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s Operation ¡Vamos! poses that question to voters as he canvases door to door in East Las Vegas. Most say mal. A mother sitting in her garage says she’s “trying to find the best prices and not spend too much.” Another voter says the country is going to hell, to paraphrase a Spanish obscenity. A few are indifferent, but no one says bien.
The mood was similar two days earlier when the Culinary Union, which represents 60,000 service workers in Las Vegas and Reno, canvassed for Democrats in the same area. Fifty-four percent of the union’s members are Hispanic. “What we’re seeing from our members, and from Latino voters at the doors, is not different from the average working-class voter,” says Ted Pappageorge, the union’s secretary-treasurer.
“Hispanic issues are American issues,” Mr. Toste says between houses, and he runs down the list: inflation, gasoline prices, jobs, crime, border security and failing schools. They’re Asian issues too. At the Republican National Committee’s newly opened Asian American Pacific Islander Community Center, voters gather to support April Becker, who is challenging Rep. Susie Lee, the state’s most vulnerable House incumbent.
“The deciding issue for voters is the economy, and the second is crime,” Ms. Becker tells me as her guests mingle. “We’ve got the second-highest gas prices in the county. . . . Everybody puts gas in their car, and they’re feeling it really hard.” The rankings change from day to day, but Nevada is near the top, at an average of $5.11 a gallon as of Friday, according to the American Automobile Association. Public transportation is scant even in Las Vegas, so Nevadans depend on their cars.
“The numbers are bad nationally, but as we point out every day on this campaign, they are so much worse here,” says Robert Uithoven, an adviser to Republican Senate nominee Adam Laxalt. A report from Republican members of Congress’s Joint Economic Committee finds that Nevada is one of only four states where prices have risen more than 15% since January 2021. The Census Bureau reports that 27.8% of Nevada renters saw increases of $250 or more between July 2021 and July 2022, more than in any other state save Florida and far above the national figure, 11.8%.
Hispanic and Asian issues are working-class issues, and tourism-dependent Nevada is a working-class state. As of 2017, leisure and hospitality accounted for 26% of employment statewide and 30% in Clark County. Casinos are back to pre-pandemic levels of visitor spending, but they returned with fewer employees. “There’s 10,000-plus workers in the leisure and hospitality industry that have yet to return to work,” says Brian Gordon of Applied Analysis, an economic-research firm. Mr. Sisolak imposed stringent Covid lockdowns and didn’t lift a formal state of emergency until May 2022.
Even so, the Culinary Union’s Mr. Pappageorge insists that Democratic incumbents have “earned our support”: “They were there for us with unemployment money, they were there for us with housing, like mortgage forbearance or help with rent.” But he acknowledges that only 80% of the union’s members are back at work: “There is a recovery that is happening with less workers.”
In the governor’s race, education is an issue too. Scholaroo, a scholarship database company, ranks Nevada the 49th most educated state, ahead of only Oklahoma. Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, says parents are “not seeing the education with their children getting any better,” and under Mr. Sisolak’s leadership there’s no “plan being provided to fix it.”
John Vellardita, executive director of the Clark County Education Association, doesn’t disagree: “We endorsed the guy that was going to help lead,” he says. “We’ve seen four years and we haven’t seen that.” His union didn’t issue an endorsement this year.
The Las Vegas Police Protective Association endorsed Messrs. Lombardo and Laxalt. “Before 2020, we pretty much always endorsed Democrats,” says Officer John Abel, the union’s director of government affairs. “All of the people we previously endorsed . . . we feel like [they] turned their backs on us.”
Democrats put on a brave face, but when confronted with their tight races, they plead purple. Rep. Steven Horsford is even in the polls with Republican challenger Sam Peters. “It’s going to be a competitive race,” the congressman says in an interview after a panel on gun violence. “There’s as much momentum on our side as there is on their side.”
“Nevada has always been a battleground state,” says state party chairman Judith Whitmer. “We don’t take anything for granted. . . . We’re working hard to make sure that we have every vote.” She says “the Inflation Reduction Act, the American Rescue Plan, the infrastructure bill and the Chips Act all have been huge, successful programs here in Nevada.” That refrain might get by elsewhere for Democrats, but in Nevada, where the nation’s economic issues are magnified—not to mention felt more acutely by working class voters—it doesn’t play.
Without traction on the economy, Democrats here, as elsewhere in the country, try to make the election about abortion. “That’s exactly what is on the ballot in this race,” Rep. Lee says. Gov. Sisolak’s and Sen. Cortez Masto’s campaigns didn’t respond to interview requests, but their campaign ads make the same case. Messrs. Lombardo and Laxalt both disavow any interest in imposing new restrictions. A 1990 statute protects abortion through 24 weeks of pregnancy. “It’s tired,” Mr. Laxalt says of the abortion issue. “Economy, gas, crime—these things are really, really important in people’s daily lives.”
Democrats also seek to make an issue of Donald Trump. As Rep. Horsford puts it, protecting “democracy” is “what’s on the ballot.” But the Trump card may prove a bust in Nevada. John Ashbrook, another adviser to the Laxalt campaign, says of the “Trump election stuff” that it “may register with partisan Democrats, but everybody else is more concerned about the economy.” Mr. Trump lost the state by only 2.4 points in both 2016 and 2020, and he improved his showing among Hispanics from 16% in 2016 to 25% in 2020, according to exit polls.
The statewide Republican candidates diverge in their approaches to the former president. “I don’t toe the line,” Mr. Laxalt says in an interview. “I support President Trump.” He has called the 2020 election “rigged” and said that Clark County’s election system has “major problems” and the one in Washoe County (which includes Reno) “can be a little squirrelly.”
Mr. Lombardo, by contrast, has equivocated. When asked at an Oct. 2 debate if Mr. Trump was a great president, he demurred: “I wouldn’t say great. I think he was a sound president.” Immediately after the debate, his campaign issued a statement: “By all measures, Donald J. Trump was a great President.” On Oct. 8, Mr. Lombardo appeared on stage with Mr. Trump at a rally in Minden, near Lake Tahoe, and called him “the greatest president.”
Whether they embrace him or not, President Biden may be a more polarizing figure here than his predecessor. He and Vice President Kamala Harris have been noticeably absent from Nevada Democrats’ campaigns. Barack Obama, however, plans to speak at a Nov. 1 Las Vegas rally with Mr. Sisolak and Ms. Cortez Masto.
The election will be close even if Republicans run the table. Mr. Ashbrook says that if Republicans were in charge during this economy, “people would be voting for the Democrats.” That matches my sense of the prevailing sentiment among voters, which was disillusionment, not necessarily anger at Democrats. The state remains closely divided, with Democrats having a 32.7% to 29.9% edge over Republicans in active registered voters, according to the secretary of state’s office. Both parties are outnumbered by the 37.4% of voters who are affiliated with neither major party, creating a fierce battle for the middle.
But the shift in Hispanic voters that started during Mr. Trump’s term appears to be continuing. A Suffolk University poll found Mr. Laxalt only 7 points behind Ms. Cortez Masto among Hispanics, with 42% to her 49%. That’s up from 30% in August, when Ms. Cortez Masto led by 18. (Mr. Laxalt noticeably drops his opponent’s Spanish maiden name when he refers to her.)
“A los Hispanos lo que nos interesa es la economía y la educación de nuestros hijos,” a woman tells me as we wait for Mr. Laxalt to speak at the RNC’s Hispanic Community Center. Translation: To Hispanics, what matters is the economy and the education of our children. If the Hispanic vote is up for grabs, Nevada will stay a bellwether.
Ms. Hajjar is the Journal’s Joseph Rago Memorial Fellow.