Nevada's Senate race may come down to Latinos

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LAS VEGAS—Sen. Kathryn Cortez Masto stood by the kitchen doors of a Latin American restaurant and welcomed the crowd that spilled onto the sidewalk, where a DJ was spinning hits at the shopping complex about five miles east of the neon-drenched Las Vegas Strip. With fish fry piled high in the diners’ bowls for the grand opening of a new restaurant and a who’s who of the de facto Latin American Chamber of Commerce in attendance, the senator walked in looking like he knew most of the people there.

“Latinos, this is what we do. We’re opening a business,” Nevada’s first female senator and the only Latina ever elected to the Senate told the crowd, clearly in her element. “We are part of the community. We are entrepreneurs. We want to make sure our families are strong, our kids have opportunities, everyone in our neighborhood – we’re all in this together.”

Cortez Masto then spent more than an hour taking pictures with supporters who seemed to know their senator in a way rarely seen elsewhere. They called her Catherine to her face and La Senadora to anyone who will listen. They understood the importance of her community ties and understood the high stakes of her re-election bid, shaping up to be perhaps the most hotly contested this fall. The match against the Republicans Adam Laxalt is seen as a two-point race at best — and one that could decide whether Democrats hold on to their narrow Senate majority.

“She knows us,” said Noemi Quintero, the niece of labor icon Cesar Chavez, who calls Cortez Masto a friend. “I believe in her. I will be with her until the end.”

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If the Democrats suffer a national coup this fall, but Cortez Masto somehow survives, the Hispanic vote will have played a key role. Strategists expect about 15 percent to 20 percent of voters to identify as Hispanic or Latino — and it could be even more as both parties work to register new voters. And yet, according to voting conducted by Emerson College last month, a solid one-third of Hispanic and Latino voters chose Laxalt. For context: that’s about the same level of support as Trump having fun in 2020, when Biden won Nevada by just two points overall.

“We’re starting to define the election for so many races,” said Daniel Garza, a longtime Republican operative who now runs the LIBRE initiative, which deals with Hispanics and Latinos on behalf of conservatives Koch network. “It’s because we’re politically curious now. Right now is the time to double down.”

Hours after Cortez Masto did the honors and opened the new restaurant east of the Strip, the Nevada volunteer network behind LIBRE was feeding chicken and ribs to the table of another small business, this one six miles south of the Strip. Here, LIBRE super-activists greeted each other with hugs and nods as they talked about economic opportunity and smaller government. The group offered a gift card to cover meals to all potential recruits.

“People don’t get involved in politics anymore because they’ve lost faith in the system,” said Rosemary Flores, a veteran activist in the Hispanic community who switched political jerseys during the Trump years. Flores, 57, is now campaigning against Cortez Masto, saying it’s time for new representation. “She’s not the new face anymore,” she says of Cortez Masto. “We gave her a chance and she didn’t take it.

Nevada’s increasingly brown political landscape is difficult, strategists from both parties acknowledge. Changes in demographics were expected to make the state more competitive for Democrats, but it remains the conservative streak in the Hispanic community that has fueled much of the state’s growth. His Western character tends to have libertarian sympathies. As one Latino strategist describes it, the Latino community is the last population in the United States that still believes in the American Dream.

Despite the headwinds, Democrats I insist they have reasons to bypass discouragement. Their party dominates the governors’ offices and the House and Senate delegations in the American Southwest. New voting by a pro-Biden super PAC assumes Democratic support among Hispanics is in line with 2018, while Republicans are declining. And it comes just after the Democratic Senate campaign defenderCortez Masto knows all the best practices of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and its top fundraisers.

Next in the race is the Republican. Laxalt, who succeeded Cortez Masto as attorney general, gave plenty to his Democratic critics fodder, and the restaurant opening crowd she spoke to seemed fully informed of his missteps. His embrace of the Big Lie Earned him the approval of former President Donald Trump, but also the disdain of centrists in this state. Laxalt fundraising does not meet some of the optimism of national strategists; Cortez Masto has raised $29 million this cycle and sits at $9 million, while Laxalt has raised $7 million and sits at $2 million.

National Republicans recently started murmuring for the Laxalt campaign more openly, although they also know that Cortez Masto is still vulnerable. Nevada remains one of them three the best options for pickup, along with Arizona and Georgia. (Top Democrats see Georgia as the safest, given that the GOP candidate there, Herschel Walker, appears to have an unfettered capacity for errors.)

Flores, the activist supporting Laxalt, remains clear-eyed about the race. She is well aware of the state in which she lives. “They’re four steps ahead of us,” she says of the Democrats.

And Cortez Masto and her team aren’t ready to budge even a step from that lead.

“At the end of the day, it’s about all of our families,” Cortez Masto said at the new restaurant. While she declined to call Laxalt anything other than “my opponent,” she accused him of not supporting Latino businesses enough. “That’s the challenge. Here’s who we’re up against. If we want to continue to fight for all of us, we must make sure that we are together at all times. And if we do, we get opportunities like this.

The entire presentation of Latin American solidarity took less than two minutes, but it was better than anything she could have written in a 30-second commercial. And judging by the love Cortez Masto was getting after her quick remarks, many in the crowd were quick to send their neighbors the picture they had just snapped La Senadora. After all, as the signs taped to the support columns between the tables indicated, the woman who took the time to visit them that day was Una De Las Nuestras. One of Ours.

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Write to Philip Eliot c [email protected].

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