May 21, 2024
Senate Democrats are playing defense in Nevada, a must-win state to hold or expand the party’s current razor-thin majority.

Senate Democrats are playing defense in Nevada, a must-win state to hold or expand the party’s current razor-thin majority.

A swath of recent polls shows Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto trailing Republican rival Adam Laxalt, a former Nevada attorney general and the scion of a prominent GOP political family. That puts Senate Democrats in a tough position as Election Day nears.

The Senate has been split 50-50 since January 2021, with Vice President Kamala Harris giving Democrats the majority through her tiebreaking vote. Democrats are eager to expand that majority by at least one seat and have a good shot in Pennsylvania’s open Senate race. There, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman leads Republican nominee and former television personality Dr. Mehmet Oz, per recent polls.

But a Democratic expansion on that Senate majority relies on the party holding all its current seats. And recent surveys show that Cortez Masto is even more endangered politically than what her Democratic colleagues thought for most of the cycle. Cortez Masto’s seat may even be in the most trouble, including Sens. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, and Mark Kelly in Arizona.

A Sept. 14-19 poll by Data for Progress, a Democratic-aligned group, found Laxalt leading Cortez Masto, 47% to 46%. A Sept. 17-20 Trafalgar Group poll gave Laxalt a wider lead over Cortez Masto, 47% to 43%. A Sept. 8-10 Emerson/The Hill poll put Laxalt ahead 42% to 41%, while an InsiderAdvantage poll Tuesday also had him up, 46% to 43%.

“For those counting at home, that’s 4 polls TODAY showing LAXALT up on Cortez Masto in #nevsen,” tweeted Josh Holmes, the former chief of staff to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and a plugged-in Republican operative.

That hardly means the race is over for Cortez Masto. Nevada is a highly competitive state in 2022, with Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak in a close race against Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, the Republican nominee. And in three of Nevada’s four House seats, incumbent Democrats face well-funded GOP rivals in a trio of races that could go either way.

Moreover, Democrats and allies contend the polls are not properly surveying Nevada’s electorate, particularly in the Spanish-speaking communities, which is a similar problem in neighboring Arizona, noted Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg, who has argued for months against the notion of a “red wave” that would sweep Republicans into power on Capitol Hill.

“No Spanish interviews in AZ, NV in Data for Progress polling. Problematic,” Rosenberg tweeted. “We know Spanish speakers much more Dem.”

Rosenberg also took aim at the Data for Progress numbers, noting the left-leaning firm was wildly off in a recent upstate New York House special election, won by Democratic Rep. Pat Ryan.

“Before the freak out about Data for Progress’ new polls begins a reminder that they’ve had the biggest miss of the cycle, calling NY-19 +10 R on Election Day itself when it went +2.2D,” Rosenberg tweeted.

Nevertheless, the Nevada Senate race is a new cause for concern for Democrats, a state thought to be going the party’s way. In 2020, President Joe Biden beat former President Donald Trump in Nevada 50.06% to 47.67%, the fourth straight Silver State win by a Democratic nominee.

Cortez Masto, who was also a state attorney general, has generally kept a low profile in the Senate term to which she was elected in 2016. On the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, she has worked to block the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.

A former federal prosecutor, Cortez Masto arrived in the Senate in 2017 as former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s hand-picked successor for the seat. Reid knew her late father, Manny Cortez, a longtime chief of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Laxalt also is a familiar figure in Nevada politics. He won Nevada’s attorney general office in 2014, a strong Republican year. Though Laxalt lost a 2018 governor’s race, he has residual name recognition. His grandfather, Paul Laxalt, was a Republican governor of Nevada from 1967-71 and then a senator from 1975-87. (Laxalt’s father was the late New Mexico GOP Sen. Pete Domenici, though his mother raised him as a single parent. Laxalt’s paternity was not acknowledged by his parents until 2013.)

For Senate Democrats, any time and resources spent shoring up Cortez Masto’s Nevada reelection bid takes away from other top targets. Their problem is there’s no real choice. There are few, if any, viable paths to a Senate majority without holding on to the Nevada seat.

That’s not an ideal place to be heading into the campaign’s final stretch.

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