Nevada, The Most Interesting Senate Race You Haven't Heard About? : The NPR Politics Podcast Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, the first Latina U.S. senator, is in an extremely close race against Republican Adam Laxalt, Nevada's former Attorney General. Flagging enthusiasm and shrinking support among the state's Latino voters could cost Cortez Masto reelection — and cost Democrats control of the chamber.

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, poltical correspondent Susan Davis, and political reporter Barbara Sprunt.

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Nevada, The Most Interesting Senate Race You Haven't Heard About?

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DENISE AGOSTO: Hi. This is Denise Agosto in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Last week, I taught my first class about disinformation at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. I'm here for the semester as a Fulbright scholar from my home school, Drexel University in Philadelphia.


Ah - shout-out to you, Sue.

AGOSTO: This podcast was recorded at...

KHALID: 1:46 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, November 2, 2022.

AGOSTO: Things may have changed by the time you hear it. OK. Here's the show.


KHALID: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: I'm Barbara Sprunt. I cover politics.

KHALID: And today on the show, we're going to talk about Nevada. In the final days of this election year, there is probably no state that is more competitive between Republicans and Democrats than the state of Nevada. Republican candidates are running competitively against Democratic incumbents, like Governor Steve Sisolak. He's facing a challenge from Sheriff Joe Lombardo. And then in the Senate contest, Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez Masto is facing a tough fight against former Attorney General Adam Laxalt. Three House Democrats are also in competitive races, and a number of state offices are all up for grabs.

Sue, it seems like after 2020 there was a sense, it seems perhaps incorrectly, that Nevada was a blue state, but Democrats now seem to be in real peril. So explain to us what's going on. You just got back from Nevada.

DAVIS: Nevada is absolutely a purple state that Democrats have had a good run in in recent years, but the state still remains very competitive. And I think it's one of the most fascinating states that we haven't talked about enough...


DAVIS: ...In 2022 for a confluence of reasons.

KHALID: Tell me more.

SPRUNT: On the issue set, the economy has been hugely important this election. And Nevada is unique in this climate. It is one of the most working-class states in the country. It has really high rates of union membership, and it's a really diverse state. It looks - it's more reflective of the country as a whole. It's got high populations of Latinos, of Asian American voters, and it's a growing state, right? It's one of the boom states. And then you also have this people, this demographic mix, which both parties are in this sort of competition for this kind of voter. It's a great cauldron of American politics. And in this moment right now, it was fascinating to go talk to voters because they've been hit really hard by the economy. You know, there's still a pandemic hangover a bit in the state of Nevada.

KHALID: Tourism fell off, I imagine.

DAVIS: Absolutely. It's the biggest driver of the economy in the state. The Strip famously shut down during the pandemic. There was all these people out of work. Now the city is recovering and is booming once again. But people haven't forgotten. And you have Republicans who look at the state and see a lot of these key demographics and feel like they have room to grow. And I think going into Election Day, Republicans probably feel the most confident that not only are they going to win Nevada, but they're going to win up and down the ballot.

KHALID: Gosh. Well, I mean, that would be huge, I mean, especially because I do think that there is often this language - right? - this assumption that Latinos, Asian voters, African American voters tend to vote for Democratic candidates. And we have seen that hold up to be true in Nevada.

DAVIS: Sure. And I still think it's probably a safe bet to say the Democrats are going to win a majority of Latinos in Nevada in 2022. Donald Trump won 35% of Latinos in 2020, for example; he lost the state by two points. When you talk to Republicans, no one's out there saying we have to win a majority. They just have to make some inroads. You know, if a candidate like Adam Laxalt can win 40% of the Latino vote, I think his campaign thinks they can win the state on that. So small, incremental growth among these subset of voters can actually translate to victory, especially if you know anything about Nevada. Statewide competitive races are regularly decided by half a percentage - 0.1, 0.2. This is not a landslide kind of state. These are all dogfights till the very end.

KHALID: And Nevada is a good example of a state where Republicans have said that they are investing in reaching out to different minority communities. And, Barbara, I wanted to get a sense from you of how that outreach has been going.

SPRUNT: I would say they say it's going well (laughter). And certainly what Sue has just been talking about kind of bears that out. Since 2020, the Republican National Committee actually opened community centers in key states for this exact reason, to do more outreach, to make some inroads with these communities. The AAPI community is the fastest-growing...

DAVIS: Yeah.

SPRUNT: ...Demographic in the country. They know that.

KHALID: So Asian Americans, yeah.

SPRUNT: Yeah. Republicans know that. I think Democrats know that as well. But traditionally, as Sue said, Democrats have sort of relied more heavily on assuming that that's part of their base. And Republicans are, you know, kind of putting money where their mouth is (laughter), and they've opened up these community outreach centers - California, Texas, Washington, Georgia, and, of course, Nevada.

KHALID: So what is it about this year that makes Republicans feel like they can make inroads with different minority communities, you know, let's say, particularly with Latino voters, which, you know, you said the Laxalt campaign...

DAVIS: Sure.

KHALID: ...Expects that they'll be able to make some inroads.

DAVIS: I mean, most of the Latinos in the state of Nevada would be considered working-class voters, right? So right there you have the economy as the issue, and voters are really feeling it. I mean...

KHALID: Oh, yes.

DAVIS: ...Housing costs in Clark County, which is where most people in Nevada live, are exploding.

KHALID: That's the Las Vegas area.

DAVIS: It's the Las Vegas area - super expensive. People can barely afford to get by. And gas prices are really high right now. They have the third-highest gas prices in the country. I mean, it is just day-to-day life is harder there for working-class people. And Republican campaigns have almost exclusively focused on this idea, saying, look, your life got harder under Joe Biden and Catherine Cortez Masto. Vote them out. Vote us in. And they've kind of almost laser focused on that message. I would say Republicans have also focused a bit on crime. That's also been really salient in the Las Vegas area. But I don't think that they think that they have to make much more of a compelling case than that.

KHALID: And what's the Democratic counter-message?

DAVIS: Democrats obviously also focus on the economy. I think they have focused a lot on things like in the Inflation Reduction Act that...


DAVIS: ...Sort of a signature achievement of Biden and Democrats, things like - things in there to lower the cost of prescription drugs or things that will also provide relief. But frankly, those aren't things that people are necessarily seeing and feeling in real time, even if they might get the benefit long term.

I also think that there is this cultural element to politics that we have to talk about when we talk about Latino voters. I think that the Democratic Party is more culturally left or has moved more culturally left. And the Republican Party sees an opportunity here, particularly with Latino voters, who can be more socially conservative. I talked to Ruy Teixeira, who is a liberal scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and he made that exact point.

RUY TEIXEIRA: Well, they're just not that liberal. I mean, the Democratic Party has become a much more culturally liberal party, pretty much down the line - race, gender, crime, immigration, you know, what's taught in the schools - you name it - you know, patriotism. I mean, Hispanics are overwhelmingly working-class, patriotic, upwardly mobile, community-oriented, you know, constituency that just wants a better life for themselves and their children.

DAVIS: Now, the one asterisk I would put on this that I think is worth noting is that, when you look at polling, it's more acute with men than with women. I think Republicans' message and appeal has - if you look at the movement to see who you're more likely to vote for, Latino men have been much more responsive to this than, necessarily, Latino women. There is a real gender divide.

SPRUNT: With the gender divide, too, I mean, it's so tough to, you know, pull out exactly which particular threads play into this. But the numbers that we've been seeing come out of voter registration in states since the Dobbs decision indicate that there's a lot of young women registering to vote post-Dobbs, you know, the implication being for supporting abortion rights. And so there could also be some factor of the message on the economy appealing a lot more to young men.

DAVIS: Yeah.

SPRUNT: You know, perhaps the flip side of that coin is that abortion is pulling the young women towards that particular issue.

DAVIS: And I felt that in my reporting. You know, I met several Latino women who said that they were first-time voters and that they were drawn to vote over the issue of abortion. And I talked to Democratic campaign strategists who said, look; we get it. These are going to be tight campaigns. But if we're winning by half a point, one point, we do actually think it will be the impact of abortion, that very point, that, like, if we win, actually abortion might have been the reason that saved a lot of these campaigns.

KHALID: All right. Well, let's take a quick break, and we'll have more on Nevada in a moment.

And we're back. You know, Sue, Nevada is a really strong union state. The Culinary Workers Union, in particular, is a powerhouse. I mean, it represents so many workers who are employed in the casino and the hotel industry in Vegas. So walk us through what the Culinary Workers Union is doing this year in terms of organizing and trying to get voters out.

DAVIS: I spent some time with organizers there. They say that they are running the biggest ground operation that's ever been run in the state of Nevada. They say they'll knock on a million doors in the state before Election Day. What they are really focused on here - Democrats focus more on getting people to vote before Election Day than on Election Day. A lot of the Culinary Union effort is to make sure that people either in-person vote or mail in their ballots.

I should say, it's really easy to vote in Nevada. They have same-day registration. They start early voting three or four weeks out from Election Day. If you want to cast a ballot there, it's not that hard.

And I think that the union, structurally, is a huge advantage for the Democratic Party. It's well-established. They are very good at making sure not only that their workers know who to vote for, but get to the polls and have time to get there. They can take paid shifts to make sure (laughter) that they vote. I mean, and I think that if Democrats are able to pull out some victories in these races, that sort of established structural organization in the state is going to play a huge role here.

One of the caveats I would put in here is I did talk to one Republican strategist where I asked about this. Like, look, the Republican Party just doesn't have a counter to...

KHALID: Or the same kind of structure.


DAVIS: ...Organization. And he made the point that - and I think this is true, and we've seen this in a lot of union politics - is that union leadership and union rank and file don't always feel the same way. So, sure, the union leaders might rally their workers, make sure they get there, but Republicans have some level of confidence that some number of these workers in the privacy of their ballot or in the voting booth will still vote Republican.

KHALID: They also had an organizational ringleader who could corral all the Democrats, you know, line them up and make sure that they show up and make sure that they vote for the Democratic candidates. And that was the former Senator Harry Reid, who passed away last year. I get the sense from just conversations we've had, Sue, that the party itself has fractured because Harry Reid is no longer there.

DAVIS: Yeah. And the party has fractured. I mean, the state Democratic Party, there is a - there's tensions there between - I'm going to shorthand it - but sort of the Bernie Sanders' wing and the establishment wing. There's a strong activist streak there that doesn't necessarily jive with establishment politics. A lot of the Harry Reid alumni have started a secondary organization to try to fill that void, but they don't have Harry Reid, right? Like, they don't have the guy that brought everybody to the table that could be both a peacemaker and had both the carrot and the stick, right? How much of an impact is that going to have? I can't tell you. But again, like, when you're talking about a state where races can be decided by hundreds or thousands of votes, I think every little structural thing matters. And I think if you ask most Democrats, they still wish Harry Reid was here (laughter). Like, it probably has some impact. How measurable that is, I'm not sure I can answer definitively.

SPRUNT: So, I mean, we're obviously zoomed in in this conversation about Nevada. But if we're zooming out, do you see this as sort of a proxy for how the Latino vote nationally is going to change in the country or is changing in the country?

DAVIS: Yeah, I absolutely do. I think this is why there's been so much focus on Nevada this year. It's not just about what happens in this cycle. Nevada will be very critical to the balance of power in the Senate and in the Congress. But look. Like, if Republicans win bigger numbers of Latinos here, I think it's going to send a big beacon to the rest of the party of, like, this is how we win; this voting bloc matters. I mean, there's a dozen states where Latinos make up at least 10% of the voting population, which means they can be very decisive in elections. They're the growing population. It's the largest vote share growing in this country. Like, it's being seen as sort of a laboratory for what messages resonate with Latinos, how winnable this voting bloc is.

And in the reverse, if Republicans can't carry Nevada, if Democrats win all these races in this environment because Latinos stuck with the party, I think that's going to tell us a lot about this voting group as well. I mean, this is one of these shifting, non-monolithic groups of people that both parties are trying to figure out. I think Democrats have probably taken them a little bit for granted, and I think Republicans have maybe not paid enough attention. And what happens in Nevada in 2022, I think we're going to see a line drawn to 2024. And, Barbara, I know you've been reporting on this, but, like, Democrats want to keep Nevada in the conversation. And there's...

SPRUNT: Yes (laughter).

DAVIS: ...Parts of the Democratic Party that thinks that the party needs to be focusing on Nevada for these very reasons.

SPRUNT: Yes. That's right. I mean, Sue and I went to Nevada earlier this year, and we talked to mostly AAPI voters. I talked to some Latino voters as well. And I feel like one big, like, throughline in the conversations that I had with people was, like, the days of it being novel to court this vote are over. Like, you know, there will no longer be, like, the headlines in a midterm year or certainly not in a presidential year of, like, you know, Republicans are now courting the AAPI vote or Republicans are now seeing, like, the value of reaching out to the Latino community. Like, that's here to stay. And now it just depends on, you know, which party has better success for them.

KHALID: All right. Well, let's leave it there for today. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

SPRUNT: I'm Barbara Sprunt. I also cover politics.

KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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