Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada is on the front lines of Democrats’ attempts to defend the Senate and has the unwanted distinction of being considered the party’s most vulnerable incumbent.
President Biden’s lagging polling numbers, the state’s rapidly changing electorate and economic challenges spurred by the coronavirus pandemic and inflation have generated serious headwinds for Ms. Cortez Masto and fellow Democrats in Nevada.
“It is just a very perilous place to be,” said Jessica Taylor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “It is virtually unanimous among Democrat and Republican strategists … they think Cortez Masto is the most vulnerable Democratic senator, and that is ahead of [Sens.] Mark Kelly in Arizona and Raphael Warnock in Georgia.”
Political handicappers consider the race a “toss-up.” The outcome will go a long way in deciding the balance of power in the Senate.
The road ahead for Ms. Cortez Masto will come into better focus on Tuesday when she is expected to cruise to victory in the Democratic primary and her rival will emerge from a competitive GOP primary. The Republican race features former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt and Afghanistan War veteran Sam Brown.
Mr. Brown is putting up a stronger than anticipated fight against Mr. Laxalt, although Mr. Laxalt is still favored. He has the blessing of former President Donald Trump; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis; and the conservative Club for Growth.
A Nevada Independent/OH Predictive Insights poll of likely GOP primary voters released Friday showed Mr. Laxalt with a 48% to 34% edge over Mr. Brown, a West Point graduate.
“The odds are currently in Laxalt’s favor to come out of the GOP primary to face-off against Cortez Masto,” said Mike Noble, chief of research and managing partner of OH Predictive Insights. “Laxalt brings a high name ID and ability to raise money, which should cause Cortez Masto concern — especially given the strong GOP headwinds Democrats are facing this election cycle.”
Mr. Laxalt’s grandfather Paul Laxalt served as governor and U.S. senator before his death in 2018. Mr. Laxalt’s father, Pete Domenici, was New Mexico’s longest-serving senator.
The Cortez Masto campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Voters on Tuesday also will weigh in on primary races in Maine, North Dakota and South Carolina, where Republican Reps. Nancy Mace and Tom Rice are facing Trump-backed primary challengers.
In Nevada, Ms. Taylor said that compared with six years ago, Ms. Cortez Masto faces a new set of challenges this fall.
“Since she was last on the ballot in 2016 about half of the voters are new,” Ms. Taylor said. “This is a problem all candidates face, and could be particularly troublesome for someone like Sen. Cortez Masto, who is in her first term.”
Ms. Cortez Masto, who previously served as Nevada attorney general, has kept a low profile on Capitol Hill since being elected in 2016 as the country’s first Hispanic senator and assuming the seat of her powerful predecessor, Sen. Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader.
Mr. Reid’s death late last year renewed questions around whether Ms. Cortez Masto would be able to replicate the strength of the political operation — known as that Reid Machine — he built up over the years that put Republicans on the run.
Adding to the sense of uncertainty is the fact that more Democrats have switched parties or changed their registration to unaffiliated than Republicans — suggesting skyrocketing housing and rental prices, as well as higher gas and grocery prices, are hurting the party’s standing with voters.
For her part, Ms. Cortez Masto is casting herself as a warrior for the working class.
Her ads have featured restaurant and hotel workers, who praise her for helping to guide the state during the coronavirus pandemic.
“While things are not all the way back yet, if it weren’t for Catherine Cortez Masto we would all be worse off,” a restaurant worker says in a recent ad. “Catherine fought to give Nevada our fair share of COVID relief.”
In another spot, a hotel worker says, “She led the fight to protect Nevada and make sure we got the help we needed.”
Ms. Cortez Masto also is vowing to reduce health care costs and has leaned into the issue of abortion in response to the leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade.
“If Laxalt defeats me, MAGA extremists will retake the Senate and pass a nationwide abortion ban,” she said in a recent fundraising email.
Mr. Laxalt, meanwhile, said Ms. Cortez Masto is soft on crime and weak on immigration. He said she has made inflation worse by supporting the Biden administration’s big-spending agenda.
Democrats counter that Mr. Laxalt’s “whole campaign is about championing Trump’s Big Lie and relitigating the 2020 election.”
“He’s shown Nevadans time and again that he only cares about pushing his own self-serving agenda, which is why voters will reject him in 2022,” said Patrick Burgwinkle, spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee did not respond to a request for comment.
Ms. Cortez Masto has raised over $25 million since 2017, and has $9 million in the bank, according to OpenSecrets.com.
Mr. Laxalt has pulled in more than $5.8 million and has $2 million in the bank.
Politico reported this year the Senate Leadership Fund — which is aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — plans to spend $15 million in Nevada.