By Julia Manchester, The Hill, March 19, 2023
Democrats are gearing up for another hard-fought Senate race in Nevada next cycle after the state narrowly decided who would control the upper chamber in the midterms.
Last year, Democrats were able to retain Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s (D-Nev.) seat by less than a point but lost the governor’s mansion after former Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo ousted incumbent Gov. Steve Sisolak (D).
Republicans say that the state’s shifting demographics and electorate are making the state friendlier to the GOP, particularly in the Senate, where incumbent Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) is facing reelection in 2024.
“She’s extremely vulnerable,” said Jeremy Hughes, a GOP strategist who has worked on a number of Nevada races. “An incumbent in their first reelection always is.”
Senate Republicans have already started to target Rosen, along with other vulnerable Democrats, ahead of 2024. The National Republican Senatorial Committee rolled out an ad campaign hitting Rosen along with five other incumbent Democrats over Social Security and Medicare.
A poll released last month by the Nevada Independent and OH Predictive Insights showed Rosen with a 37 percent favorability rating and a 40 percent unfavorable rating. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race as “lean Democratic.”
Rosen was part of a blue wave of Democrats to win their midterm races in 2018, when the then-congresswoman ousted incumbent Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) by 5 points.
And 2018 was a considerably good year for Democrats across the board and somewhat of an outlier in Nevada. In 2016, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won the state by 2.4 points, while Cortez Masto won her Senate race by the same margin.
In recent years, Democrats have had to contend with narrower margins in the state. In 2020, President Biden defeated then-President Trump by roughly 2.4 points. Two years later, Lombardo defeated Sisolak by just over 1.5 points, while Republican Senate candidate and former Attorney General Adam Laxalt lost to Cortez Masto by less than a point.
The narrowing margins in Nevada can be attributed to a number of factors, including its changing demographics. Latino voters make up roughly 30 percent of the state’s population, while Asians make up about 9 percent of the population and Pacific Islanders make up nearly 1 percent, according to the Census Bureau.
“The data that we’re seeing on support levels from Latinos is that Catherine Cortez Masto tracked almost exactly on the same support levels from Latinos that President Biden tracked in 2020,” said Melissa Morales, the founder and executive director of Somos Votantes, a Democratic-leaning group aimed at engaging Latino voters.
While Democrats won these groups in 2022, Republicans are continuing to target these demographics going into 2024. As of September last year, the Republican National Committee had opened nearly 40 community centers in Black, Latino and Asian Pacific Islander communities.
The continued strategy from Republicans has Democrats on alert going into the next cycle.
“They’re consistently trying to make inroads with those demographics and it’s a concerted effort year after year,” said one Nevada Democratic operative.
On top of that, the state’s transient and growing population is adding to some Democratic anxiety over these groups.
“They’re starting to see as those communities get bigger and more engaged in politics, you’re going to see less monolithic voting,” said David Damore, the chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas.
However, Damore cautioned that Republicans have not yet necessarily made enough progress with these groups to swing them in a general election.
“[Republicans] have done a little better job and moved the needle a little bit here, but not enough to get the margins they need,” he said. “They need to get those under 60 percent and they’re not there yet.”
The transient nature of the state could also impact Rosen, who critics say lacks a political brand. However, this could be due in part to the newcomers in the state who are unfamiliar with Nevada politics.
“It is a state where candidates have to consistently introduce themselves to their own constituents,” the Democratic Nevada operative said. “That’s part of the challenge of running in Nevada.”
Republicans are also eager to tie Rosen to President Biden, pointing to his low approval ratings. The same Nevada Independent/OH Predictive Insights poll showed Biden with a 40 percent approval rating and a 55 percent disapproval rating.
Biden visited Las Vegas on Tuesday, attending a Democratic National Committee fundraiser and announcing a plan to lower prescription drug prices at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
The Nevada Democratic operative said kitchen table issues, like lowering prescription drug prices, would play into Rosen’s messaging. Additionally, the operative said Democrats, like Rosen, will likely go on the offense on abortion access.
“The threat of a nationwide abortion ban is going to be very real if Republicans sweep in 2024,” the operative said, referring to the scenario of the GOP winning the House, Senate and White House.
Of course, there is also the effect that former President Trump could have in the race if he wins the GOP nomination next year. The Nevada Independent/OH Predictive Insights poll showed the former president with 42 percent support.
“If it were Trump to be our nominee, then once again, it’s going to be a vote to spite Trump. Kind of like the first go around, it wasn’t that Joe Biden was this wonderful politician that everyone was excited about. It was in spite of Trump,” said Amy Tarkanian, former chair of the Nevada GOP.
But the Republican bench to challenge Rosen is still in its formative stages. Various Nevada Republicans have been floated to take on the incumbent Democrat, including Army veteran and former Senate candidate Sam Brown, who lost to Laxalt in 2022. Former congressional candidate April Becker, who lost her challenge against Democratic Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nev.), has also been floated. Republicans have also pointed to state Sen. Minority Leader Heidi Seevers Gansert (R), along with retired boxer and lawyer Joey Gilbert, who lost in the state’s GOP gubernatorial primary last year.
However, the issue many of these candidates have, with the exception of Gansert, is that they have recently lost statewide.
“If we’re going to be looking at some of these other possible candidates who didn’t succeed this last election and they’re going to attempt to run for U.S. Senate, I don’t see how that’s going to be a winning strategy for us,” Tarkanian said.
The Nevada Independent/OH Predictive Insights survey showed Rosen polling better than many of the floated GOP challengers, including Brown, who came in with a 25 percent favorability rating, and Becker, who has a 26 percent favorability rating.
Most Republicans and Democrats acknowledge that it’s too early to make any specific calls on the race over a year out and without a firm field of GOP candidates.
“These conversations are already happening,” Morales said. “But I think the strategy in Nevada has always been not to take anything for granted.”