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America’s first Latina senator just saved Democrats’ Senate majority

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s victory in Nevada breathes hope into the rest of Joe Biden’s presidency.

Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Gov. Steve Sisolak greet supporters on election night in Las Vegas, Nevada, on November 8.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto always knew her election would come down to the wire. “Nevada is a purple state,” she told me in October when we chatted in Las Vegas in the closing weeks of the 2022 midterm campaign trail. “These are always close races. I won by 2 percent last time [and] I know Joe Biden won by 2 percent also.”

She was right. By the smallest of margins, about 5,000 votes as of Saturday evening, the country’s first and only Latina in the Senate won reelection — an impressive feat given the economic headwinds Democrats faced from high inflation and frustration with President Joe Biden that kept polls close for plenty of incumbents.

Those polling averages were especially tight in Nevada: Cortez Masto was long seen as the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in the Senate, the most likely to fall should a “red wave” sweep the country and punish Democrats this midterm season.

That wave never materialized, but it did keep races tight in Nevada. Incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak lost his contest against Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, while further down the ballot voters reelected all three Democratic representatives at risk this year, while splitting other statewide offices between parties.

Cortez Masto fended off a serious challenge from the former Republican state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who spent much of the late summer and early fall leading in polls. Legal challenges are possible — Laxalt hinted this summer at filing lawsuits to “try to tighten up the election,” after raising claims about voter fraud and criticizing election administration in the state. A 2020 election denier, he walked a careful line in the days after polls closed in the state despite Trump baiting him to call the state’s voting system corrupt while mail-in ballots were being received. Earlier this week, Laxalt did accept the possibility of a loss.

Ballot-counting took this long because the state allows all voters to vote by mail, and the state’s election guidelines allow for ballots to be counted up until Saturday evening if postmarked or dropped off at ballot boxes by the end of Election Day. In-person turnout was low in Clark County, the state’s largest county and home to Las Vegas, meaning a long week of ballot-counting in that county kept the country waiting anxiously.

The bulk of Cortez Masto’s support came from Clark County, home to nearly 75 percent of the state’s population, but she was helped by Democratic and independent support in purple Washoe County, home to Reno, as well. Clark was the only county she won the last time she ran for Senate in 2016. This time, she carried both Clark and Washoe. Like her last election, Cortez Masto won the state without a clear majority of the vote — third-party candidates and the state’s “none of the above” option pulled potential votes away from the two main party candidates.

The incumbent senator will now return to Congress for a second term after running as conventional and calibrated a campaign as possible. She focused on turning out Democratic voters in the state — including the state’s large Latino population — and persuading independent voters with a message focused on abortion rights, lowering household costs, and her work to help small businesses and families during the pandemic. In early national exit polls, a majority of independent voters sided with Democrats, and in Nevada, similar trends appeared to have materialized in both of the state’s urban counties.

As a result, Democrats will be able to hold on to control of the Senate, regardless of what happens in Georgia’s December runoff.

How Nevada’s Democratic machine helped Catherine Cortez Masto win

Cortez Masto’s win came down to turnout in Clark and Washoe counties.

Democrats needed to build a strong-enough lead in Clark County during the early vote period to sustain a lead against the predominantly Republican nature of in-person voting that would surge in from Washoe and rural counties on Election Day. Though Democrats had a slight lead in early voting and returned mail-in ballots in that time, Republicans kept that margin small in the final days of the early vote period. Democrats entered Election Day with the tiniest lead.

Then, on Tuesday, late deciders swung the race. Though numbers didn’t match the turnout rates of 2018, the work of progressive activist groups, labor unions like the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, and Democratic canvassers succeeded in getting enough working-class, Latino, and undecided voters to the polls in the state’s largest counties.

The groups, part of the vaunted turnout operation welded together by the late Sen. Harry Reid, had bet that increased voter contact, door-to-door outreach, and a message focused on affordability and defense of individual rights would be the key to “stem this tide of history of the ruling party in power losing in the midterm,” the secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union, Ted Pappageorge, told me in October.

The Culinary Union continues to be instrumental in padding Cortez Masto’s win. Its canvassers, along with volunteers with the state’s Democratic political operation, have been spread out across Clark County since Election Day to contact voters whose ballots had to be “cured,” or corrected for errors. Voters have until Monday to fix those ballots.

How Cortez Masto’s winning coalition came together

Though she faced criticism throughout the campaign for not doing more to turn out and persuade Latinos to vote, Cortez Masto did zero in on Latino voters, specifically in the Las Vegas area, in the closing weeks of her campaign. Hosting campaign parties, sitting at immigration roundtables, mingling with customers at Latino-owned restaurants and bars, and rallying with former President Barack Obama, Cortez Masto made good on a promise she told me about when we spoke for a story in early October — that she wouldn’t take Latino voters for granted. She would show that Democratic success with Latinos “is about engaging all the time and talking to them about what they’re looking for like every other family: the American dream.”

A defense of abortion rights, promises to go after corporations taking advantage of high inflation, and a pitch for policies to make life more affordable were the key to getting votes out among the Democratic base, while also reminding undecided, disenchanted, or disengaged voters of her work during the pandemic to keep businesses afloat and of her advocating for discounts to health insurance during layoffs.

Her ties to law enforcement and a “tough on crime” approach during her two terms as Nevada attorney general also boosted her moderate image. Those stances are likely to have helped with potential Republican ticket-splitters and independent voters, who turned out at higher rates than Democrats did in the state.

It also helped that Cortez Masto ran a disciplined, scandal-free campaign. This part of her strategy ran both ways, however: Without splashy events or dramas, neither she nor Laxalt received the same kind of coverage as other close Senate and gubernatorial races this year. And though she’s an incumbent, Cortez Masto didn’t have the same kind of aura or celebrity as candidates like Mark Kelly in Arizona or John Fetterman in Pennsylvania to garner national attention and fundraising, or expand her in-state name recognition.

She also lacked an opponent easy to make herself a foil against, as Kelly had with Blake Masters, Fetterman had with Mehmet Oz, or Raphael Warnock had with Herschel Walker in Georgia. Laxalt was a pretty standard GOP figure who never strayed too far from right-wing talking points and platitudes about fighting the “radical left.”

Still, the 2022 midterms were a warning sign for Nevada Democrats

Cortez Masto trailed in most polls during the last month of the campaign — and though they got the winner wrong, they did capture just how competitive the final result would be.

Cortez Masto started the race with an early lead that diminished as Laxalt emerged from the Republican primary with the solid support of his party and boosts from former President Donald Trump: The former president rallied with Laxalt twice, in the primary and the general election. Laxalt’s previous record as Trump’s campaign co-chair in Nevada and a vocal defender of Trump’s election denialism in the lead-up and aftermath of the 2020 election also helped fire up rural Republicans, including in counties that were at the center of election shenanigans this year.

The legacy of Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election results and its motivating effect on Nevada Republicans will remain a problem for Democrats (and those concerned with the integrity of elections) into 2024, when the state’s other Democratic senator is up for reelection. Election deniers were kept out of office at the statewide level, but the threat remains.

Nevada poses other problems for Democrats, who need the state to be part of a new Sun Belt, a Southwestern blue wall to offset growing losses in the Rust Belt swing states. Because of its transient population, the power of incumbency is weaker, outreach is harder, and the ability to sustain a large following is restricted.

The state also has a large Latino population, which is showing less loyalty to and trust in Democrats, raising the stakes of Democratic outreach, messaging, and engagement with this electorate between now and the 2024 election. Early data suggests Latinos in the state still turned out to support Cortez Masto by a large margin, but also that some Latino voters drifted to the right or stayed home.

And because the state’s population is overwhelmingly working-class and less likely to have a college education, the gradual shift of college-educated and suburban voters to Democrats is less likely to offset losses among voters of color in the state. Cortez Masto showed that Democrats can still win in Nevada, but the structural advantages they have there are disappearing rapidly.