Democrats predicted that abortion would be Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s saving grace.
But inside the crowded union halls of Nevada, the sun-scorched desert towns and the bustling Las Vegas strip, there are signs that the furor over the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down abortion rights may not be enough to overcome the intensifying economic concerns.
That leaves Cortez Masto as the most vulnerable Senate Democrat in the final month of a volatile midterm election year. Her predicament is the starkest example of the challenge facing Democrats nationally as they try to capitalize on anger over the abortion decision while Republicans focus on crime and stubborn inflation. If Cortez Masto can’t turn things around, the GOP will be on track to win the one seat it needs to retake the Senate and smooth out the final two years of President Joe Biden’s term.
In an interview, Cortez Masto sidestepped questions about her fragile political position. He acknowledged that “there is more work to be done” for the economy in a labor state where gas remains above $5.40 a gallon, the unemployment rate is higher than the national average and casino spending has not kept pace with inflation.
“I know our families, the issues that are important to them are the kitchen table issues,” he said, citing the recent passage by the Democratic-controlled Congress of the so-called Anti-Inflation Act, which reduced the cost of some recipes. drugs and expanded health care coverage, among other Democratic priorities.
“But I also know, talking to our families, that the repeal of Roe v. Wade is having an impact,” he said. “We are a pro-choice state, proudly. That’s why so many are outraged by the repeal.”
Democrats insist Nevada remains a purple state, despite being led by a Democratic governor, two Democratic senators and a Democratic-controlled legislature. Former President Donald Trump lost the state by less than 34,000 votes in 2020. And on Nov. 8, polls show the GOP could carry several statewide offices.
Veteran Democratic strategist James Carville fears his party’s excessive focus on abortion isn’t working.
“Many of these counselors believe that if all we do is set up abortion sites that they will win for us. I don’t think so,” said Carville, a vocal ally of Cortez Masto who has sent dozens of fundraising emails on her behalf. “It’s a good topic. But if you’re just sitting there and they’re bashing you for crime and bashing you for the cost of living, you’ve got to be more aggressive than shouting abortion with every other word.”
Cortez Masto is facing Republican Adam Laxalt, a former state attorney general, failed 2018 gubernatorial candidate and grandson of a former Nevada governor and U.S. senator. The 44-year-old Republican has avoided talking about his opposition to abortion in the final weeks of the election as his campaign tries to avoid off-script moments.
Laxalt’s campaign declined to make him available for this story. And he refused to participate in any of the state’s traditional debates, although he unsuccessfully called on Cortez Masto to agree to at least two more meetings. Late last week, organizers canceled what would have been the only Spanish-language debate due to Laxalt’s refusal to attend.
Laxalt spent the weekend campaigning with Trump, who Laxalt has leaned on to revive his political career.
Laxalt co-chaired Trump’s 2020 state campaign and spearheaded legal challenges to the vote-counting process. Earlier in the year, he began raising fears of voter fraud in the 2022 midterm elections as well.
With polls now showing he could beat Cortez Masto, Laxalt avoided the issue of voter fraud as he addressed thousands of Trump supporters gathered Saturday at the edge of a desert airfield. Speaking an hour before Trump called 2020 a “rigged, dirty and rigged election” on the same stage, Laxalt focused on the state’s economic woes and Cortez Masto’s support for Biden.
“He won’t mention the two words: ‘Joe Biden.’ Will Joe Biden come to Nevada soon? I’m still waiting for that invitation,” Laxalt said, speaking from a podium bearing Trump’s name.
In the interview, Cortez Masto did not say whether she wanted the Democratic president to visit the state on her behalf.
“The president is always welcome in the state of Nevada. But really, my goal here is to make sure I’m addressing the needs of the people of Nevada,” he said, adding that it was no surprise that Trump was in the state for Laxalt’s campaign.
Laxalt “was the face of the big lie about President Trump in the state,” Cortez Masto said. “In my view, he is siding with the rebels and not the people of Nevada.”
Vulnerable Democratic senators in Arizona, Georgia and New Hampshire are also fighting to overcome Biden’s weak position, which is roughly equal to Trump’s in the 2018 midterm elections, when the GOP lost 40 House seats. The party that occupies the White House almost always suffers heavy losses in the president’s first midterm elections.
But there are reasons to believe that Cortez Masto’s situation is more dire than that of her colleagues elsewhere.
Nevada’s electorate is overwhelmingly working class compared to voters in other battleground states, leaving the state’s 3 million residents more vulnerable to economic setbacks. Just 25.5 percent of the state graduated from college, compared to 35 percent nationally, according to the Census Bureau.
Nevada has among the highest gas prices in the nation at an average of $5.44, nearly 40 percent higher than the U.S. average, according to AAA. Higher gas prices have also translated into fewer drivers passing through Nevada from California to Las Vegas. Gaming revenue hasn’t kept up with annual inflation either. Gaming revenue in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, rose just 2.9 percent in August from a year earlier.
Gas prices may get worse before they get better. The Biden administration suffered a major setback last week when OPEC oil producers announced a major production cut.
At the same time, Laxalt has avoided some of the pitfalls that have undermined high-profile GOP Senate candidates in other key states.
In New Hampshire, Republican groups canceled millions of dollars in television ads designed to benefit GOP candidate Don Bolduc in recent days, reflecting a growing sense that Bolduc’s hardline conservative positions will make it difficult to defeat Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan.
Republicans have also pulled some cash from Arizona, despite Sen. Mark Kelly’s apparent vulnerability in a state that Biden carried less than 1% in 2020. And in Georgia, Republican Senate candidate Herchel Walker’s prospects have been clouded by the allegations that he paid for a girlfriend’s abortion.
Laxalt, by contrast, has tried to cast himself as a Republican gentleman with longtime ties to the state, despite Democrats’ best efforts to emphasize his loyalty to Trump. That may be quite a good thing in a difficult political environment for Democrats, as questions loom over the strength of the Democrats’ message on abortion.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, in Las Vegas late last week to promote the GOP ticket, said Democrats have “oversaturated” their message on abortion.
“Voters are starting to go back to the things they wake up and think about every day: Can I fill my car with gas? Can I pay for groceries? How are my children?’ he said. “And those are the issues that I think are really going to win, and that’s where Adam is focused.”
Nevada Republicans also note that abortion — at least in the state — has been settled because of a 1990 referendum that codified access to abortion up to 24 weeks into state law.
Yusette Solomon, a researcher for the state’s powerful pro-Democrat kitchen workers union, said she doesn’t hear much about abortion when she talks to constituents. Instead, the 47-year-old hotel utilities porter said, the state’s financial challenges remain an ongoing concern.
“It’s hard for everybody,” he said. “It’s the supermarket. It’s gas. Inflation is something we have to deal with. Everyone feels it.”
Solomon lost his Las Vegas hotel job for about two years due to the pandemic. He survived only by driving for Uber.
However, he is optimistic about Cortez Masto’s chances.
“I’m sure the Democrats will win. This is a blue state. We will continue to be a blue state,” Solomon said. “Every election is difficult.”
Associated Press writer Josh Boak in Washington contributed to this report.
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