LAS VEGAS — Democrats predicted abortion would be Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s saving grace.
But inside Nevada’s crowded union halls, across its sun-scorched desert towns and on the buzzing Las Vegas strip, there are signs that outrage over the Supreme Court’s decision to dismantle abortion rights may not be enough to overcome intensifying economic concerns.
That’s leaving Cortez Masto as the Senate’s most vulnerable Democrat in the final month of a volatile midterm election year. Her predicament is the starkest example of the challenge facing Democrats nationwide as they try to capitalize on anger over the abortion ruling while Republicans focus on crime and stubborn inflation. If Cortez Masto can’t turn things around, the GOP would be well on its way to netting the one seat they need to retake the Senate and blunt the final two years of President Joe Biden’s term.
In an interview, Cortez Masto sidestepped questions about her fragile political standing. She acknowledged “there’s more work to be done” on the economy in a working-class state in which gasoline remains over $5.40 per gallon, the unemployment rate is higher than the national average and spending at casinos has not kept pace with inflation.
“I know our families, the issues that are important to them are the kitchen-table issues,” she said, citing the recent passage by the Democratic-controlled Congress of the so-called Inflation Reduction Act, which lowered the cost of some prescription drugs and expanded health care coverage, among other Democratic priorities.
“But I also know, talking with our families, the repeal of Roe v. Wade is having an impact,” she said. “We’re a pro-choice state, proudly. That’s why so many are outraged by the repeal.”
Democrats insist that Nevada remains a purple state, despite being led by a Democratic governor, two Democratic senators and a Democratic-controlled state legislature. Former President Donald Trump lost the state by less than 34,000 votes in 2020. And on Nov. 8, polls suggest, the GOP could take over several statewide offices.
Veteran Democratic strategist James Carville fears his party’s hyper-focus on abortion isn’t working.
“A lot of these consultants think if all we do is run abortion spots that will win for us. I don’t think so,” said Carville, a vocal Cortez Masto ally who has sent dozens of fundraising emails on her behalf. “It’s a good issue. But if you just sit there and they’re pummeling you on crime and pummeling you on the cost of living, you’ve got to be more aggressive than just yelling abortion every other word.”
Cortez Masto is facing Republican Adam Laxalt, a former state attorney general, failed 2018 gubernatorial candidate and the 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 election’s final weeks as his campaign works to avoid unscripted moments.
Laxalt’s campaign refused to make him available for this story. And he has declined to participate in any of the state’s traditional debates, although he called unsuccessfully for Cortez Masto to agree to at least two other meetings. Late last week, organizers canceled what would have been the only debate broadcast in Spanish because of Laxalt’s refusal to attend.
Laxalt instead spent his weekend campaigning with Trump, whom Laxalt has leaned on to revitalize his political career.
Laxalt co-chaired Trump’s state campaign in 2020 and spearheaded legal challenges to the vote-counting process. Earlier in the year, he began raising fears of voter fraud in the 2022 midterms as well.
With polls now showing he could defeat Cortez Masto, Laxalt avoided the topic of election fraud as he addressed thousands of Trump supporters gathered Saturday on the edge of a desert air field. Speaking an hour before Trump called 2020 “a fake and dirty and rigged election” on the same stage, Laxalt focused on the state’s economic woes and Cortez Masto’s support for Biden.
“She won’t mention the two words: ‘Joe Biden.’ Will Joe Biden come to Nevada anytime soon? I’m still waiting for that invite,” Laxalt snickered, speaking from a podium emblazoned with 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 Nevadans,” she said, adding that she wasn’t surprised Trump was in the state campaigning for Laxalt.
Laxalt “was the face of the big lie for President Trump in the state,” Cortez Masto said. “In my view, he stands with the insurrectionists and not the people of Nevada.”
Vulnerable Democratic senators in Arizona, Georgia and New Hampshire are also fighting to overcome Biden’s weak standing, which is roughly equal to Trump’s in the 2018 midterms when the GOP lost 40 House seats. The party that occupies the White House almost always suffers major losses in a president’s first midterm election.
But there are reasons to believe that Cortez Masto’s situation is more dire than those 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% of the state graduated from college, compared to 35% nationally, according to the Census Bureau.
Nevada has among the highest gasoline prices in the country at an average of $5.44, almost 40% higher than the U.S. average, according to AAA. Higher gas prices have also translated into fewer drivers crossing into Nevada from California to go to Las Vegas. Nor has gaming revenue kept pace with annual inflation. Gaming revenue in Clark County, home to Las Vegas, rose just 2.9% in August from a year ago.
Gas prices may get worse before they get better. The Biden administration suffered a stinging 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 ad reservations designed to benefit GOP nominee Don Bolduc in recent days, reflecting a growing sense that Bolduc’s hard-line conservative positions will make it difficult to defeat Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan.
Republicans have also pulled some money out of Arizona, despite first-term Sen. Mark Kelly’s apparent vulnerability in a state Biden carried by less than 1% in 2020. And in Georgia, Republican Senate nominee Herschel Walker’s prospects have been clouded by allegations that he paid for a girlfriend’s abortion.
Laxalt, by contrast, has sought to cast himself as a mainstream Republican with longstanding ties to the state, despite the best efforts of Democrats to highlight his loyalty to Trump. That may be good enough in a difficult political environment for Democrats as questions loom about the potency of the Democrats’ abortion message.
Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, in Las Vegas late last week to promote the GOP ticket, said Democrats have “oversaturated” their abortion message.
“Voters are starting to come back to the things they wake up thinking about every day: Can I fill my car with gas? Can I pay for groceries? How are my kids doing?” she 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 — in the state, at least — is settled because of a 1990 referendum that codified abortion access until 24 weeks of pregnancy into state law.
Yusette Solomon, a canvasser for the state’s powerful pro-Democrat Culinary Workers union, said he doesn’t hear much about abortion when talking to voters. Instead, the 47-year-old hotel utility porter said, the state’s economic challenges remain a constant concern.
“It’s hard for everybody,” he said. “It’s the supermarket. It’s gas. Inflation is something we need to deal with. Everyone’s feeling it.”
Solomon lost his job at a Las Vegas hotel for roughly two years because of the pandemic. He survived only by driving for Uber.
Still, he’s optimistic about Cortez Masto’s chances.
“I’m sure Democrats are going to win. This is a blue state. We’re going to continue to be a blue state,” Solomon said. “Every election is tough.”