Of all of the places with tight midterm races this year, I think of Nevada as the place with all the storylines happening at once.
If you’re wondering how the economy will blow back on Democrats? Nevada’s got some of the highest gas prices in the country. If you’re wondering whether Latino voters will turn toward the GOP? Well, Latinos make up about 20 percent of the electorate here.
Or as Jon Ralston at the Nevada Independent puts it: Democrats are facing headwinds all around the country. But in Nevada, those headwinds are Category 5.
For years, Democrats have run up the score all over the state, propelled by a wildly successful Democratic political machine built by Harry Reid, the late Senate majority leader.
The question now: Is political change in Nevada overdue?
On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Jon Ralston of the Nevada Independent about why Nevada’s Senate race has political operatives holding their breath. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: To understand why so many politicos have got their eyes on Nevada this midterm cycle, I feel like you need to know a couple of things. I think you need to know the way Las Vegas voters can drive the whole state. And then you also need to know the way COVID scrambled Nevada economically, especially in Vegas. Can you explain those two things?
Jon Ralston: You’ve hit on two very important points. First of all, people may not realize this, but when it comes to elections, Nevada is essentially three different states. There’s Clark County, which is Las Vegas, which has 70 percent of the vote. So it’s a huge driver of what’s going to happen.
A huge thumb on the scale.
Yeah, and Democratic candidates have to do well in Clark County, which is the Democratic stronghold, so they can withstand losses, especially in the 15 rural counties that separate Las Vegas from Reno, which is Washoe County, which is the swing county. And so what happens in Clark County is determinative usually of what’s going to happen.
But to your second point, very early on in in the pandemic, the governor, Steve Sisolak, who is a Democrat, shut down the Las Vegas Strip, and that lasted for a few months. And we are still a one-trick pony here in Nevada. And what happens in that stretch of road determines the economy. So, the economy here was crushed by COVID. Now, it’s come back, and fairly strongly—the gaming companies are now setting records every month. But it has not come back for everybody. And so the Republicans have capitalized on that. They have blamed Steve Sisolak for businesses no longer existing or being crippled, for schools being shut too long. So it’s a real issue, especially in Clark County, which, by the way, has the fifth-largest school district in the country.
Let’s talk about how all of this is playing out in your Senate race. You’ve got this Democratic incumbent, Catherine Cortez Masto. Introduce me to her.
Catherine Cortez Masto is from a political family. Her dad was a very influential figure in local government here. He was the head of the Clark County Commission. She is a very reserved person. She is a much more of a workhorse than a show horse, sometimes to her detriment politically because she does not seek publicity when some Democrats think she should have. She was a two-term attorney general who always wanted to be a U.S. senator. And when Harry Reid retired in 2016, he handpicked her to be his successor. She won very narrowly—by about 2 or 2½ points—over a very high-quality Republican candidate, a congressman who had a military background and who probably only lost because he tried to have it both ways with Donald Trump toward the end. So, she is not that well known, which has allowed the Republicans to graft on to her everything that they want in terms of the negativity.
Defining yourself in Nevada is important because the population is transient. They come and they go. And so it behooves you to have a strong brand.
That’s absolutely right. There are actually hundreds of thousands of new voters since Catherine Cortez Masto first ran. And so because there are so many demographic changes and people leaving the state and people coming in to the state, it’s more difficult for politicians.
So, Masto is facing a challenge from Republican Adam Laxalt. Tell me about him. My understanding is that his last name is incredibly meaningful in Nevada.
It used to be. I’m not sure it is as much as it was in the time of his grandfather, Paul Laxalt, who was a legendary figure in Nevada as a governor and a U.S. senator in the ’70s and ’80s. Adam Laxalt is his grandson. And he is the product of a only recently disclosed affair with Pete Domenici, another Republican senator. He did not grow up here. He grew up in Washington, D.C., very quietly.
He was, like, a secret kid?
He was. Yeah, he absolutely was, until right before he decided to run for office, which is essentially why he moved back here. His mother disclosed the affair. And there was a lot of speculation, which makes a lot of sense, that she did that at that time to pave the way for his political career. So it would not become an issue in his race. And it never did, by the way.
And so he moved back here to run, and he ran for attorney general and won in a very, very big upset in 2014, during a year in which the Democrats failed to turn out. He won by just a few thousand votes against an up-and-coming Democratic star. He then ran for governor four years later and lost fairly decisively to the now-incumbent Democrat Steve Sisolak, and then immediately latched on to the Trump Organization and became the face of the Trump campaign in 2020 and essentially led the effort to spread the false rumors that there was widespread fraud. He is the face of the Big Lie in Nevada. But he has been embraced by both Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell. He’s gotten a ton of outside help because Mitch McConnell wants this seat so badly.
Would you characterize Adam Laxalt as a political extremist?
I would characterize him slightly differently. I think he’s essentially hollow and will say whatever he needs to say or is told to say by the Republican hierarchy. He cannot get past the Republican talking points. He doesn’t know nearly as much about this state as someone who is running for the U.S. Senate should know about this state. But he’s been able to get away with it because he essentially has been cocooned by his campaign. He has run for governor and he has run for U.S. Senate without ever having to debate his opponent.
Hold it, how?
They do the thing that “We’ll debate under X, Y, and Z circumstances,” and then they are shocked—shocked!—when their opponent won’t agree to their conditions. Now, by the way, I think Catherine Cortez Masto made a mistake in not agreeing to debate him in some of the venues that he wanted to, because I think he would have been exposed for being essentially unable to talk about substantive issues beyond saying that Joe Biden is bad and this is the radical woke leftist candidate that he is up against. There is a reason that he has been hidden, essentially for this entire campaign, from the media and from tough questions because they know that he will get himself into trouble, which he inevitably has.
What’s the biggest trouble he’s gotten into? What’s his biggest flub?
He has been caught saying things like Roe v. Wade was a joke. He has been caught saying things like, “I am going to sue to challenge this election to make it close.” It’s not that he’s not polished. I just don’t think he’s very bright. And that comes out in these interviews.
Part of what scares Nevada Democrats about Adam Laxalt is how he plans to win. Laxalt is only talking to people who agree with him—right-wing news sources. And that may be all he has to do. Back in 2014, when Laxalt won the attorney general’s race? He did it by energizing rural voters, and then he benefited from low turnout everywhere else. Democrats look at this midterm year and see a similar lack of enthusiasm from their core constituents.
That puts a ton of pressure on Las Vegas’ Democratic machine. It’s a machine that relies on the work of one institution in particular: the Culinary Union, which represents 60,000 hospitality workers from Vegas and Reno.
Listen, it is the most potent machine in Nevada, mostly because it has so many members and they have a very, very concerted registration program to get as many of their members registered as they can and then to turn them out. It has been an important component of the Democratic machine since Harry Reid remade the party in about 2006 or 2008 or so. The Culinary says this year that they’re doing more than they’ve ever done to turn out their voters. With mail ballots now being universal here in Nevada, they’re running a mostly mail campaign, and they have a captive audience. They can bring their members into the union hall and say, “Here is who we support. If you want, fill out your mail ballots here, and we can mail them for you. We can drop them off for you.”
Despite all of their boasts so far, there is no evidence yet of a massive turnout among Democrats in Clark County.
How has the union demonstrated its strength in the past? What’s a good example of when the machine’s working?
It is the Hispanic turnout machine, essentially, in Nevada. And the Hispanic turnout has been robust enough and so slanted in favor of Democrats that it has carried many candidates to victory or lengthened their margin of victory—going all the way back to Barack Obama in 2008. But Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden as well and several gubernatorial and U.S. Senate candidates.
It’s hard for me to believe that the union isn’t doing a ton of reach-out work right now. So when they go out and knock doors and get people to come to the union hall and talk to them about this Senate race in particular, what does that look like?
It does seem to be a very intense and focused and widespread effort. They say they’ve knocked on a million doors or something like that. And as I said to one of their reps recently, ”How many of those are getting slammed in your face?” The bottom line is there’s a lot of hostility toward the Democrats here in Clark County for some of the reasons that we’ve talked about. But the Culinary insists that its program is going to work. One of the reasons that Democrats did so well here in 2020 is because they were able to overwhelm the Republicans in mail ballots. They are winning mail ballots significantly this time, but the volume is way, way down.
You flagged that one way you can see a bit of desperation from Democrats is these mailers you saw. One of these mailers even threatened, “We will know if you don’t vote.” Tell me more about that.
There’s a couple of tactics that I’ve raised red flags about. And one of those is the one you just mentioned by America Votes, which is a national progressive group. And they’ve done this before, but they’re doing it both on TV and in mail now, where they’re essentially saying, we’re going to check after the election and see if you voted like your neighbors are voting, as if they’re going to out people for not voting. It’s a very obnoxious tactic.
But the Culinary, which we’ve been talking about, did something really, really disingenuous. They have been outspoken against Joe Lombardo, the Republican candidate for governor, who is the sheriff of Clark County. And they are really nasty about how he’s handled immigration issues. But they sent a mail piece to only Republican voters, pointing out that they endorsed Joe Lombardo when he ran for sheriff and essentially implied he is soft on immigration, designed to turn off Republican voters. That takes chutzpah to do something like that.
It sounds a lot like what Democrats were doing early on in primary season where they were trying to boost MAGA candidates by running these ads that were like, “Well, he’s really MAGA.” With the idea that you would see that as a voter who is Trump aligned and say, like, “Sign me up.” This is a tactic that keeps popping up.
That’s certainly right. And they certainly did that in this state. And they may be very sorry they did it because we have a real roster of horribles on the Republican side running for statewide office that the Democrats promoted: a complete conspiracy theorist who’s running for secretary of state, an almost unhinged attorney general candidate, and a candidate for state treasurer who has said all kinds of crazy stuff. She’s an election denier, and she is so unfamiliar with health care issues that she once said that cancer is a fungus that can be cured by injecting baking soda. So this is the roster of candidates that the Democrats promoted in the primary thinking may be easier to beat. And they may have to eat crow after the election.
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One of the things that’s interesting about some of the tactics that you’ve flagged is that they really put a focus on the fact that the Culinary Union, progressive groups—it seems like their big concern isn’t folks going over to the Republican side but folks simply not showing up.
Certainly they’re being plagued now by low turnout. Whether people are just upset and they don’t want to vote or disappointed in Joe Biden so far, whatever it is, they’re not turning out.
I can’t help but think how strange it would be if somehow Latino voter turnout was responsible for getting rid of this Latina senator. Is that something you’re hearing Democrats talk about?
Republicans are certainly very confident that’s going to occur. Catherine Cortez Masto’s team and the Democrats say that she’s doing fine with Hispanics and that she’s going to get 60 percent or more, which should be enough. But listen, the polling shows that Hispanics are shifting away from the Democratic Party or at least some Hispanics are. It doesn’t take a majority. Republicans don’t have to get a majority. But if they get over 40 percent, that’s a real warning sign for her and other Democrats.
Are any Democrats expressing regret about some of their tactics here of boosting the more extreme Republican candidates thinking that’ll make this an easy race for us.
I have not heard a peep of regret from anybody, at least not yet. And my guess is if indeed these candidates that they helped prop up win, they will say, “Well, they would have won those primaries anyhow,” which may or may not be true but will be weak tea after the election.