Democrats are on defense in several Senate races amid a challenging political environment this year, and one of their toughest contests might be in Nevada.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who made history in 2016 when she was elected as the first Latina senator, faces strong headwinds in a purple state that has trended blue in recent elections. Republican operatives feel confident about their chances of ousting the incumbent senator, citing growing inflation, high gas prices, and gains among Hispanic voters in parts of the Southwest.
Several polls have found Cortez Masto trailing both her potential GOP challengers, who will face off against each other in the state’s primary in June. Adam Laxalt, the former Nevada attorney general-turned-Big Lie booster who is expected to win the nomination, led Cortez Masto by three points in a Suffolk University poll released Tuesday. The survey found a high level of undecided voters, suggesting the Democratic senator has her work cut out for her.
“Our chances of defending the Senate just dropped dramatically,” Cortez Masto wrote in a dire-sounding fundraising email on Tuesday. “I’m no stranger to a tough race — but this is going to be the closest Senate race of the year.”
The stakes for Democrats in Nevada are high. Holding on to Cortez Masto’s seat would bolster their chances of retaining control of the Senate, which currently stands at 50-50. Losing her seat would very likely give Republicans the majority again, causing all sorts of problems for Biden in the latter half of his first presidential term.
Cortez Masto has been a reliable centrist Democratic vote, backing the bulk of Biden’s domestic agenda. But like other vulnerable Democrats up for reelection this year, the senator recently sought to put some distance between herself and the Biden administration over its decision to end Title 42, a pandemic restriction enacted during the Trump administration that effectively blocked migrants from entering the U.S. Cortez Masto is urging the Biden administration not to repeal Title 42 until it has a broader plan in place to address the influx of migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Cortez Masto also joined other vulnerable Democrats in voting with Republicans last month to repeal the CDC’s COVID-19 mask requirement for public transit. Although the vote failed, it revealed growing unease among Democrats as being seen favoring additional COVID-19 restrictions at a time when much of the public is ready to move on.
But the troubling economic picture and Biden’s poor approval ratings threaten to cost Democrats control of the Senate despite this kind of maneuvering. Cortez Masto, like other Democratic lawmakers, has suggested passing legislation to address rising costs, including gas and health care. It’s not clear whether that message is breaking through with voters, especially when the passage of any such measures may be months away at the earliest.
There’s also some question over Democratic performance among Hispanic voters. Republicans saw higher voter turnout and surprising gains in heavily Hispanic areas in Texas earlier this year, a trend that, if replicated in other parts of the Southwest, could mean even bigger Democratic losses.
Still, Democrats’ chances in Nevada could hinge on the kind of nominee Republicans select in June. Laxalt is a conservative who has been endorsed by Donald Trump, who remains an unpopular figure in the state. Laxalt in some ways has gone even further than Trump in spouting bogus election conspiracies. He refuses to acknowledge Biden was legitimately elected president, and he’s already saying he might challenge the outcome of his own race if he loses. Laxalt also won’t commit to certifying the results of the next presidential election in 2024.
Even as he talks up voter fraud, Laxalt has sought to reassure Republican voters that their votes will count this year. The overtly cynical message from him and other Republicans seems to be that only urban Democratic areas experience voter fraud, whereas rural GOP counties are perfectly safe from it.
Laxalt could face challenges, too. He lost his campaign for governor in 2018 following reports of ethics violations, so there are questions about his appeal to Nevada voters. Democrats are also planning to spotlight his opposition to the bipartisan infrastructure law Congress passed last year, as well as his anti-abortion views as the Supreme Court readies to rule on the future of Roe v. Wade.
“Catherine knows what it takes to win tight races,” Josh Marcus Blank, a spokesman for Cortez Masto campaign, said in a statement. “Nevadans rejected Adam Laxalt in 2018 because he has a history of corruption and scandal. While Catherine fights for the people of Nevada, Laxalt’s only ever looking out for himself.”
The Nevada Senate race is rated as a “toss-up,” according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. It’s a fitting rating in a state Biden won by only 2 points in the 2020 presidential election.
Last week, Cortez Masto reported hauling in more than $4.4 million in the first quarter of the year, the largest sum raised by any U.S. Senate candidate in Nevada through the 2022 midterm cycle so far.