Nevada’s economic turmoil threatens a Democratic stronghold

LAS VEGAS — Scars from the coronavirus pandemic are still visible here. Real estate prices have skyrocketed, and rents have risen faster than almost anywhere else in the country. About 10,000 casino employees remain unemployed. Gas prices are now more than $5 a gallon, higher than any state except California.

Amid a flagging economy, the state Democrats that have stood as the national model for more than a decade — registering and voting for first-time voters — have come to epitomize the party’s troubles in the 2022 midterm elections.

Democrats have long relied on working-class and Latino voters to win Nevada, but the loyalty of both groups is now in question. Young voters who fueled Senator Bernie Sanders’ biggest win in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary remain skeptical of President Biden. And Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat from Nevada and the country’s first Latina senator, is one of the party’s most vulnerable incumbents.

She must overcome the president’s falling approval ratings, dissatisfaction with the economy, and her own relative anonymity. And she lacks the popularity and deep ties to Latino voters that Senator Harry M. Reid, who died in December, used to help build the state’s powerful democratic machinery. The state has long symbolized the future of the Democratic Party by relying on a racially diverse coalition to win elections, but those past gains are now in jeopardy.

“There’s a lot of frustration on the ground that nobody’s listening,” said Leo Murrieta, the director of Make the Road Nevada, a liberal advocacy group. “You are not wrong. It’s hard to talk about the possibility of tomorrow when your today is still torn.”

Nevada, which Mr. Biden carried in 2020, has been a linchpin for Democrats in the presidential election since 2008. However, a pattern of the election cycle has emerged that has alarmed Democrats. The party dominates in the presidential election but struggles during the midterms when a Democrat is in the White House. Democrat turnout is plummeting, largely because of the state’s highly volatile population, and Republicans are gaining ground.

In 2014, the last midterm election with a Democrat in the White House, the state’s turnout dropped 46 percent from the previous presidential election, ushering in Republican control of the state legislature. This year, Republican victories could unseat Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak and the three Democratic members of the state’s House of Representatives, while replacing Ms. Cortez Masto with a 2020 Senate election denier.

Turnout aside, a deeper problem for Democrats is that the state has turned, albeit slightly, less blue. The state’s percentage of registered Democrats has fallen — from 39.4 percent in 2016 to 33.6 percent in February, according to figures from the Nevada Secretary of State. At the same time, more than 28 percent of registered voters are now unaffiliated with any party, up from 20 percent in 2016. Officials said the surge in non-party voters is due to an automated voter registration system that Nevada voters introduced in 2018.

The state’s economy has shown some signs of improvement. Unemployment in Reno has fallen to some of the lowest levels in a century. Democrats are counting on the region to attract new residents, many from California, and become something of a technology hub. However, since more than 70 percent of the state’s population lives in Clark County, which is home to Las Vegas, the election is likely to be decided there. In interviews with Las Vegas voters, the economy overshadowed all other issues. There was optimism among some, but they worried that they would not have enough money for basic necessities – rent, groceries, gas.

“What interests me is opportunity and the economy,” said 23-year-old Angel Clavijo, who was voting for the first time in 2020. Despite casting his vote for Mr. Biden, Mr. Clavijo said he was not registered with either party.

Despite being able to keep his job as a housekeeper at the Venetian Resort during the pandemic, Mr Clavijo watched with concern as his parents’ bills piled up. “I really can’t say I’m paying much attention to politics right now,” he said. “I will not only vote for parties.”

Margarita Mejia, 68, a retired hotel worker, said she had voted Democrat for most of her life but put the 2020 election on hold as she helped her family and friends navigate the pandemic.

“It was depressing to be alone fighting for everything,” said Ms Mejia, who was selling clothes, stuffed animals and art in her front yard last week. “I don’t know what the government is doing for us, even if they say they want to help.”

Mr. Clavijo and Ms. Mejia failed to nominate Nevada’s incumbent senator — Ms. Cortez Masto, whose seat is crucial if Democrats are to retain control of the Senate — for re-election.

Despite five years in the Senate and eight years as Nevada Attorney General, Ms. Cortez Masto remains unknown to a broad segment of the Nevada electorate because of her longstanding dislike of the public eye, cautious political behavior, and Nevada’s transient constituents.

According to analysis by TargetSmart, a Democratic data company, nearly half of the voters on Nevada’s lists have registered since Ms. Cortez Masto was last on the ballot in 2016. Her own internal poll found that nearly a quarter of Latinos had no opinion on the race between her and Adam Laxalt, a former Nevada attorney general who is likely to be her Republican opponent in the general election.

Cortez Masto’s campaign began last month re-introducing her to Latino audiences with a Spanish-language television ad that relied heavily on telling her life story as a political pioneer and her family’s history in the military.

There was a generous interpretation of her bio: Her father, Manny Cortez, was one of the most powerful figures in Las Vegas while serving on the Clark County Commission and later as head of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. In that role, he endorsed Las Vegas’ ubiquitous marketing phrase, “What happens here, stays here.”

“He didn’t start at the top,” said Mr. Reid of the Senate after Mr. Cortez died in 2006, “but he ended up there.”

Mr. Cortez, who was a close friend of Mr. Reid, acted as a behind-the-scenes player. While that served him as a political player, it may not help his daughter in this year’s high-profile race that will help determine control of the Senate.

“He was never someone to go out and seek media attention,” said Jon Ralston, the longtime Nevada journalist. “She’s an exaggerated version of him in many ways.”

This reluctance to seek the limelight has essentially turned Ms. Cortez Masto into a generic Democrat in an interim year when being linked to Mr. Biden is a political risk. A January poll by The Nevada Independent found Mr. Biden’s approval rating in the state is just 41 percent.

Ms. Cortez Masto declined an interview.

“No state has been hit harder than Nevada and we are recovering quickly because Catherine has fought to get the help our hospitality industry needs and supports the tens of thousands of workers who depend on our tourism economy,” said a spokesman, Josh Marcus-Blank. said in a statement.

Jeremy Hughes, a Republican who was campaign adviser to Dean Heller, the former Republican senator, said Ms. Cortez Masto was having a hard time parting with Mr. Biden and the diminished brand of the national party.

“Every data point I’ve seen suggests Hispanic voters are more open to supporting a Republican this cycle than anyone in recent memory,” Mr. Hughes said. “If the economy is the #1 issue on the minds of voters across the country, in Nevada and especially among Hispanic voters, it’s the #1, 2, and 3 issue.”

But Democrats say their likely Republican opponent, Mr. Laxalt, is unlikely to win over moderate voters. Mr. Laxalt, whose father and grandfather both served in the Senate, led Trump campaign efforts to overturn Nevada’s 2020 election results.

Democrats also anticipate further economic improvement in Las Vegas, where the economy took a hit with the abrupt closure of the Strip but is reviving with overcrowded casinos.

On a sunny afternoon in East Las Vegas, Paul Madrid and Daniel Trujillo took a break outside the hair salon they’ve run for 20 years. Business has been brisk lately and the couple described themselves as relieved the worst was behind them. Still, they winced when they saw the gas prices go up at the gas station across the street.

Mr Madrid, 52, called himself a “lifelong working-class Democrat” and said he’s tried to pay less attention to politics since former President Donald J. Trump left office. As frustrated as he was, he’ll likely vote for the Democrats in November. But he said he feels less loyal than he used to.

“Something has to change,” he said. “We have to put the country before the party. I have to stay positive. My business is back, the customers are back and I just want this all to be over.” Nevada’s economic turmoil threatens a Democratic stronghold

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