You know who matters in the 2018 midterms? Donald Trump! But not just Donald Trump. Control of the Senate rests in part on what voters think of the president of the United States, but it will also be determined by local disputes and regional quirks—demographics and issues, but also myth-making and self-conception. In this series of articles—this is the fourth—Politico Magazine asked an expert on a state with a crucial statewide race to explain what matters there that doesn’t matter anywhere else.
When Catherine Cortez Masto became the first Latina elected to the United States Senate, some of Nevada’s political class called her “the senator from Clark County.” Her victory map from November 2016 looked like a cupful of water at the tip of an upturned gas can. Clark was the only county Cortez Masto won. It’s home to the Las Vegas Valley, 2.2 million people, and 70 percent of the state’s electorate. By running up the score in Clark, she did enough to overcome losses in rural counties and a narrow defeat in Washoe County, which encompasses Reno.
Story Continued Below
During the 2016 presidential election, down-ticket Republicans in other battleground states benefited from Donald Trump’s wildfire success on issues like trade and immigration. In the diverse city of Las Vegas, Trump’s rhetoric didn’t play so well. Hillary Clinton won Nevada. Harry Reid’s Senate seat went to his chosen successor. Democrats took over the state Legislature. And progressive ballot measures on gun control and recreational marijuana succeeded.
The Democrats’ sweeping victory in Nevada proved to be an outlier nationally, and it may be remembered as a local anomaly, too. The race was tight. Cortez Masto, a former state attorney general, defeated Republican congressman Joe Heck by 2.4 percentage points, which is about how close incumbent Republican Senator Dean Heller and his challenger, Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen, are in the latest midterm polls.
Heller is the only Senate Republican up for reelection in a state Clinton won in 2016. But the Silver State is still purple. And it takes more than a strong performance in Las Vegas for a Democrat to win Nevada.
It’s already been a strange year in Nevada’s desert. Brothel owner Dennis Hof, star of the HBO series Cathouse, was poised to join the state Assembly by branding himself “The Trump of Pahrump,” and then died in his sleep after an Oct. 15 birthday rally attended by Joe Arpaio, Grover Norquist, and porn star Ron Jeremy. Hof will remain on the ballot. He is expected to achieve his political dream posthumously, which would force the county to appoint a Republican replacement.
Hof defeated a three-term incumbent in a GOP primary. Whatever aversion voters had to sending a self-identified pimp to the legislature in 2016, when Hof ran as a Libertarian, seemed to evaporate in the sparsely populated desert enclaves after another reality-star businessman took office. Although 87 percent of Nevada voters live in Clark and Washoe counties, rural enthusiasm for Trump’s agenda can offset Republican losses in Las Vegas if the race is close.
And, as Hof’s candidacy suggests, Nevada takes pride in its “live and let live” ethos. But campaigns offer competing visions for what that ethos means as political arguments move from rugged mining towns to rural brothels to Sin City.
Two years into Trump’s presidency, it’s almost unseemly how perfect a microcosm the Las Vegas Strip is of American politics. Trump has his name on the skyline. His friend Steve Wynn, the resort mogul, served as the Republican National Committee finance chair until he resigned in January amid sexual harassment and assault allegations. The most active Republican donor in the country, billionaire Sheldon Adelson, owns the palatial Venetian resort. And then you have the hotel maids, bartenders, cooks, bellhops and cocktail waitresses who make up the Culinary Union, perhaps the most potent force for Nevada Democrats to galvanize voters each election cycle.
“The army on the ground is fueled by labor,” says Megan Jones, a political consultant and former Harry Reid adviser. “The unions know how to knock on doors and have conversations with voters on issues they care about and translate that into action. But Nevada in general is a transient place. Walking door-to-door is not always as easy as it is in places like Iowa. We have to do a lot of layering in communication—that means TV, mail, radio, phone calls, texts and canvassing door to door.”
“You go into every race knowing it’s going to be a 2-point deal one way or the other,” says Jeremy Hughes, a Republican campaign strategist. “It’s hard to get noticed, I think due to it being a 24/7 place with lots going on. You have to do a lot of work. Washoe County is going to be a shoe-leather deal, Vegas you got to be on TV, then the rural areas are where Republicans can rack up votes.”
Heller hopes to rekindle the mystique he showed in 2012, when Nevada split its ticket between the Republican moderate and then President Barack Obama. In 2016, Heller said he was “100 percent against Clinton, 99 percent against Trump.” He needs Trump’s base, though, and the president has said that despite early differences, the two men “love each other” now.
After Heller blocked efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which many Nevadans rely on, Trump asked whether he “wants to remain a senator” at a televised luncheon in 2017. Then Heller voted for the “skinny repeal,” a shift Democrats have used to label him “Senator Spineless.” Libertarians, voters concerned about gun rights and federal land use, evangelical Christians, Mormons, and the business community are his bedrock support.
Rosen is a former computer programmer and a first-term congresswoman whose district includes Henderson, a critical swing suburb of Las Vegas. Yet her polling with the Democratic base is underwhelming. Cortez Masto had support from 69 percent of Hispanics in October of 2016, while Rosen is at 52 percent. Women favor her by 1 percent. She may need “The Reid Machine,” the coalition of union members, their families, and former campaign aides to Harry Reid who are actively canvassing in Reno and Las Vegas, to outdo itself.
“In 2008, Obama brought in a digital guru, and through the dark magic of voter targeting had a record win,” says Steve Sibelius, a longtime Nevada political analyst, referring to a Democrat-over-Republican advantage in voter registration. There are 1.56 million registered voters in the state, and Democrats now hold a 75,000-person advantage.
“Reid had the infrastructure, and Obama poured the nitrous oxide into the engine, and they really supercharged that thing,” Sibelius says. “The question now becomes, with some of that Reid infrastructure still there, is it going to perform as well? We saw in 2016 Hillary Clinton won the state—it performed somewhat well—but is it going to energize the base this time around?”
Veterans issues have dominated ads from Heller, who hopes to win over the state’s 225,000 retired service members. The Air Force Thunderbirds and the Navy’s elite fighter pilot program, Top Gun, use the mountainous desert terrain for combat exercises and as a bomb range. Drone missions are piloted out of Clark County. The active-duty population is only about 10,000 members, but military veterans often retire to Nevada whether it’s their final posting or not. “Retirees in general like to move to Southern Nevada for the climate, health concerns, and the region’s affordability,” says Sibelius. Rosen is courting seniors by vowing to protect Medicare, Medicaid and the Obamacare provisions regarding pre-existing conditions.
Then there’s the question of Latino turnout. Fernando Romero, president of Hispanics in Politics, still remembers the hug he received from Harry Reid in 2010, the midterm year Democrats took a “shellacking,” as Obama put it. The polls had Reid tied with Tea Party challenger Sharron Angle, but he defeated her by almost 6 percentage points.
“When he embraced me, he said, ‘Thank you. It was the Latino vote that really got me going,’” Romero says. “Harry basically lived in the Latino community when he was running for reelection. And of course he was for comprehensive immigration reform. It wasn’t just the fact that Harry was eating a tamale in my mama’s house; he was literally out there fighting for immigration reform, and right now, whether people want to admit it or not, that is the primary thing.”
Hispanics are 26 percent of the Nevada electorate, too significant a bloc for either candidate to ignore. Heller has assembled a group of 254 Latino activists, many of them pastors and business leaders, who identity as Juntos con Heller, “Together with Heller.” One recent poll showed him with 40 percent support from likely Hispanic voters, more than double Heck’s showing in 2016.
An endorsement from the most popular politician in the state, outgoing Republican governor Brian Sandoval, may have boosted Heller’s standing. Sandoval championed clean energy initiatives and raised taxes to fund public schools while also vetoing gun control bills and pushing for corporate tax incentives, all of which earned him kudos as a freethinker.
Romero said the Juntos con Heller events have been poorly attended, though, and that Super PAC ads conflating Rosen’s support for immigrants with MS-13 gang violence will turn off Latinos. “We’re not stupid. We see what’s going on. It’s the same movement that Sharron Angle used, so it’s going to backfire on them the same way.”
The race may come down to the margin in “The Biggest Little City in the World”—Reno and its suburbs. Cortez Masto lost Washoe County, but by falling within 2 percentage points there, she kept intact the statewide lead she built in Clark County. This might explain why Heller has spent significant money claiming Rosen is in thrall to the ultimate Washoe County and Interior West boogeyman: California.
“That plays to the libertarian strand in Nevada,” says David Fott, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “It’s the fact that California is overwhelmingly Democratic, hostile to libertarianism, with high taxes, high cost of living, what some people have left California to escape.”