Nevada’s economic turmoil threatens a Democratic stronghold

LAS VEGAS — The scars of the coronavirus pandemic are still visible here. Housing prices have soared, with rents rising faster than almost anywhere else in the country. About 10,000 casino employees remain out of work. Gas prices, now over $5 a gallon, are higher than in every other state except California.

Amid a sluggish economy, state Democrats considered a national role model for more than a decade — registering and voting for the first time — have become the epitome of the party’s struggles ahead of the mid-election. term of 2022.

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

She must overcome the president’s dwindling approval ratings, his dissatisfaction with the economy and his own relative anonymity. And she lacks the popularity and deep ties to Latino voters that Sen. Harry M. Reid, who died in December, exploited to help build the state’s mighty Democratic machine. The state has long been a symbol of the Democratic Party’s future by relying on a racially diverse coalition to win elections, but those past gains are now under threat.

“There’s a lot of frustration on the ground that no one is listening to,” said Leo Murrieta, director of Make the Road Nevada, a liberal advocacy group. “They’re not wrong. It’s hard to talk about the possibility of tomorrow when your todays are still torn apart.

Nevada, which Mr. Biden carried in 2020, has been a linchpin for Democrats in presidential elections since 2008. But an election cycle pattern that has alarmed Democrats has emerged. The party dominates in presidential elections but struggles in midterms when a Democrat is in the White House. Democratic turnout is falling sharply, largely due to the state’s highly transient population, and Republicans are gaining ground.

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

Beyond turnout, a deeper issue for Democrats is that the state has become, ever so slightly, less blue. The state’s share among registered Democrats has fallen — from 39.4% in 2016 to 33.6% in February, according to figures from Nevada’s secretary of state. Meanwhile, more than 28% of registered voters are now unaffiliated with any party, up from 20% in 2016. Officials said the rise in the number of unaffiliated voters stems from an automatic voter registration system. Nevada voters passed in 2018.

The state’s economy has shown some signs of improvement. Unemployment in Reno is among the lowest in a century. Democrats are counting on the area, which has attracted new residents, many from California, and has become something of a tech hub. But with more than 70% of the state’s population living in Clark County, home to Las Vegas, the election will likely be decided by the outcome. In interviews with voters in Las Vegas, the economy trumped all other issues. There was a sense of optimism among some, but they feared they wouldn’t have enough money for the basics – rent, food, gas.

“What matters to me are opportunities and the economy,” said Angel Clavijo, 23, who voted for the first time in 2020. Although he voted for Mr. Biden, Mr. Clavijo has stated that he was not registered with any of the parties.

Although he was able to keep his job as a housekeeper at the Venetian Resort during the pandemic, Mr Clavijo watched anxiously as his parents’ bills piled up. “I really can’t say I pay much attention to politics right now,” he said. “I’m not just going to vote by party.”

Margarita Mejia, 68, a retired hotel worker, said she had voted for Democrats most of her life but did not run in the 2020 election as she helped his family and friends to cope with the pandemic.

“It was depressing, being alone, struggling with everything,” said Ms Mejia, who was selling clothes, stuffed animals and artwork from her backyard before last week. “I don’t know what the government does for us, even when they say they want to help.”

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

Despite five years in the Senate and eight years as Nevada Attorney General, Ms. Cortez Masto remains unknown to a large swath of the Nevada electorate, due to her longtime aversion to publicity, her cautious political attitude and passing Nevada voters.

Nearly half of voters on Nevada’s rolls have registered since Ms. Cortez Masto was last elected in 2016, according to analysis by TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm. Her own internal poll found nearly a quarter of Latinos had no opinion on the race between her and Adam Laxalt, a former Nevada attorney general who will likely be her Republican challenger in the general election.

The Cortez Masto campaign began reintroducing her to Latino audiences last month with a Spanish-language TV ad that leaned heavily on her life story as a political pioneer and family history in the military. .

He gave a generous interpretation of his biography: his father, Manny Cortez, was one of the most powerful figures in Las Vegas during his stints on the Clark County Commission and later as head of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. In this role, he endorsed the ubiquitous Las Vegas marketing phrase, “What happens here, stays here.”

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

Mr. Cortez, who had a close friendship with Mr. Reid, acted behind the scenes. While it served as a political operator for her, it may not help her daughter in this year’s high-profile race that will help determine control of the Senate.

“He was never a guy who went out and sought media attention,” said longtime Nevada reporter Jon Ralston. “She’s kind of an exaggerated version of him in a lot of ways.”

This aversion to seeking the spotlight has left Ms. Cortez Masto as essentially a generic Democrat in a midterm year when being hitched to Mr. Biden is a political risk. A January poll from The Nevada Independent showed Mr. Biden’s approval rating in the state was just 41%.

Ms. Cortez Masto declined to be interviewed.

“No state has been hit harder than Nevada, and we are recovering quickly because Catherine fought to get the relief our hospitality industry needed, supporting 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 a campaign adviser to Dean Heller, the former Republican senator, said Ms Cortez Masto would find it hard to part ways with Mr Biden and the diminished brand of the national party.

“Every data point I’ve seen indicates that Hispanic voters are more open to supporting a Republican this cycle than any other in recent memory,” Hughes said. “If the economy is the No. 1 question on the minds of voters across the country, in Nevada and especially among Hispanic voters, it’s question No. 1, 2 and 3.”

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

Democrats are also counting on greater economic improvement in Las Vegas, where the economy took a hit with the Strip’s abrupt closure but has begun to revive with crowded casinos.

On a recent sunny afternoon in east Las Vegas, Paul Madrid and Daniel Trujillo paused outside the barber shop they’ve run for 20 years. Business has been buoyant lately, and the couple described themselves as relieved that the worst is behind them. Yet they winced as they watched the gas prices rise at the station across the street.

Mr Madrid, 52, called himself a “lifetime working-class Democrat” and said he had tried to pay less attention to politics since former President Donald J. Trump had left office. As frustrated as he has been, he is likely to vote for the Democrats in November. But he said he felt less loyal than before.

“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 over. »

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