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Nevada senator hopes history repeats itself as she takes on a far-right challenger

LAS VEGAS — In 2010, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada defeated a wave of dark red and dire national predictions for his political career when he won a re-election victory against a Tea Party-backed candidate. He was a Democratic powerhouse with name recognition, pugilistic instincts and a long-brewing state political machine behind him.

Twelve years later, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who replaced him in Congress, finds herself in a November re-election battle against the Trump wing of the GOP. But Ms. Cortez Masto is not as well known as her predecessor and mentor in the Senate, the so-called Reid Machine is not as strong as it had been during her tenure, and Democrats face an even tougher national political landscape.

“When you take all of that together, this is why the Nevada Senate race is one of the most competitive races in the country,” said Mike Noble, a pollster who works in the state.

Ms. Cortez Masto, a former state attorney general, easily won the Democratic nomination in Tuesday’s primary election. But she remains one of the most vulnerable Democratic senators this midterm season as she gears up for a general election contest against Adam Laxalt, a Republican who has accepted former President Donald J. Trump’s baseless claims of a stolen election. of 2020.

A combination of local, national and personal challenges confront her in a high-profile race: state voting trends favoring Republicans, a national climate working against Democratic incumbents and her own tendencies to stay out of the spotlight. and operate behind the scenes.

But she and her supporters remember her past close victories, most recently in 2016, when she beat her Republican rival by 2 percentage points to become the first Latina elected to the Senate.

“I’ve always been in tough racing,” Ms. Cortez Masto said in an interview in February.

In Nevada, the influential network of seasoned operatives, field organizers and volunteers that has fueled crucial Democratic victories for years remains a major force in state politics. It now includes a newer crop of progressive groups. But the loss of Mr. Reid, who died in December 2021 after battling pancreatic cancer, has been felt strongly.

President Biden carried Nevada by just 2 percentage points during the 2020 election. Ms. Cortez Masto will now have to overcome the president’s low approval ratings and voter dissatisfaction with the economy. Nevada, whose sprawling hotel and entertainment industries rely heavily on tourism, was one of the states hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, and high unemployment rates and rising cost of living have exposed Democrats to a constant Republican line of attack on crime, jobs and inflation.

“In November, voters will see the prices at the pump, they will see the inflation when they go to the grocery store, and they will know they have Catherine Cortez Masto to thank,” said Jeremy Hughes, a Republican who was a campaign adviser. to Dean Heller, the former Republican senator.

The choice will largely depend on who shows up at the polls. Mr. Reid’s political apparatus had been crucial in mobilizing multiracial coalitions of working-class and Latino voters. But sharp drops in Democratic turnout in Nevada’s midterm elections have recently given Republicans an advantage. The state’s transient population also makes it difficult for political candidates and elected officials to gain name recognition.

“The challenge for everyone on the ticket in Nevada is turnout,” said Rep. Dina Titus, a Democrat facing her own tough bid for re-election this year from her seat in Las Vegas.

Mr. Laxalt has largely focused on appealing to his base by sparking voter outrage over undocumented immigrants, the economy and pandemic school closures and restrictions. He has already started attacking Ms. Cortez Masto as a vulnerable incumbent in line with the policies of the Biden administration.

The grandson of a former senator from Nevada and the son of a former senator from New Mexico, Mr. Laxalt served as co-chairman of the 2020 Trump campaign in Nevada and led Mr. Trump’s efforts to nullify the 2020 election in the state. He was endorsed by both Trump and Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, two of the most popular figures in the Republican Party.

In a memo released the day after Tuesday’s primary, Scott Fairchild, campaign manager for Cortez Masto, described Laxalt as a corrupt politician and “an anti-abortion extremist” focused on promoting Trump’s “big lie.” His supporters see him as a flawed candidate, pointing to his unsuccessful 2018 run for governor and his attempt to block a federal investigation as attorney general at some of his wealthiest donors, including the Koch brothers.

At campaign rallies and in interviews with Fox News and on conservative podcasts, Laxalt has repeatedly tried to link Cortez Masto to Biden’s policies, criticizing her on crime, inflation and immigration. In a statement, John Burke, Laxalt’s campaign communications director, called his Democratic opponent’s criticism a distraction from Cortez Masto’s role in the “current economic catastrophe.”

“Our state wants change, and Nevadans know it’s impossible to do with her,” he said.

Despite the change in Nevada’s political environment, many Democrats still see a playbook for Ms. Cortez Masto’s success over Mr. Reid’s blockbuster 2010. run for a fifth term against Sharron Angle, a former state lawmaker who pushed through allegations of voter fraud and harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric long before Trump.

Then as now, national pundits and strategists lamented the Democratic incumbent’s slim chances of success. Then, as now, Nevada Democrats were dealing with a struggling economy after the 2008 recession. And then, as now, the more conservative opponent had won the Republican primary.

“Harry Reid was a one-of-a-kind and once-in-a-generation politician, but Catherine Cortez Masto is a powerhouse in her own right,” said Andrés Ramírez, a political strategist who worked on Reid’s 2010 report. -election campaign.

At the center of Mr. Reid’s triumph over Ms. Angle were Latino voters, whom both Mr. Laxalt and Ms. Cortez Masto have been actively courting.

Polls by two Democratic organizations, Future Majority and America’s Future Majority Fund, suggest that Cortez Masto has the upper hand for now. A survey of 600 Latino voters in Nevada in May found that the senator had higher approval ratings among people who speak Spanish, and that candidates from Trump’s “America First” mold were deeply unpopular.

The poll indicated that Ms. Cortez Masto “has an opportunity to build a strong bank of support,” said Kristian Ramos, a political consultant and former Reid staffer who worked on the polls.

At polling places in Las Vegas on Tuesday, several Spanish-speaking Latino voters were quick to express their support for Ms. Cortez Masto.

“When I was taking citizenship classes, our instructor spoke very highly of her, often telling us that she fights a lot for Hispanics and for women,” said Oneida Villaseñor, 45, who works cleaning houses, after casting her vote. by Mrs. Cortez Masto. . “As soon as I became a citizen, I wanted to vote for her.”

Standing outside a community center in West Las Vegas, Matt Guild, 65, a retired electrician, saw her very differently. He associated the senator with the domestic policies of the Biden administration that he described as out of step with his conservative values.

“I’m sure he’s going to fight,” he said.

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