LAS VEGAS — Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is the most vulnerable Senate Democrat in this year’s elections for many reasons, but a big one is the absence of Harry Reid.
Reid dominated Nevada’s political scene for decades before bequeathing his seat to Ms. Cortez Masto in 2016 when the state defied an otherwise Republican-friendly year that President Trump elected. Reid died last year, and Ms. Cortez Masto, the first Hispanic elected to the Senate, is now struggling to replicate Reid’s political machine.
She is compensating by running fierce ads against Republican challenger Adam Laxalt and hoping that a message about abortion rights can get her over the hump.
“I think it is all she has,” Mr. Laxalt said of the abortion focus.
“She did nothing as U.S. senator,” Mr. Laxalt told The Washington Times. “The bottom line is she can try to win on [abortion], and she tries to win on the politics of personal destruction.”
Ms. Cortez Masto has kept a low profile during her single term in the Senate. She has supported President Biden’s policies but has done little to stand out. That leaves her largely at the mercy of other forces, including income-sapping inflation, Mr. Biden’s unpopularity — and the absence of Reid.
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“She absolutely has not filled the shoes of Harry Reid,” Mr. Laxalt said. “I didn’t agree with his politics at all, but if you wanted to get something done, he’d get it done.”
It’s not just the comparison.
Mr. Reid’s political machine churned out victories for Democrats, including Ms. Cortez Masto’s 2016 win, pushing her to a 47% to 45% victory over Republican Rep. Joe Heck.
Mr. Laxalt said the Reid machine conked out with his passing. “They’re not the humming machine that they were,” he said.
Mr. Reid rebuilt the Nevada Democratic Party after nearly losing reelection in 1998 and then watching Republicans sweep every contested statewide office in 2002. The rebuild focused on registering voters, turning them out, and developing strong coalitions with powerful groups, including the Culinary Workers Union.
Along the way, Reid became the leader of his party in the Senate, giving him unparalleled powers over pork spending and other critical issues. In particular, he blocked a nuclear waste site slated for Yucca Mountain.
Reid was such a giant on the state scene that the international airport in Las Vegas was renamed for him just before his death.
Now, it has fallen to Ms. Cortez Masto to keep the party foot soldiers in line.
Nevada Democrats and their allies, nonetheless, are bullish about their chances of rallying voters behind their candidates.
“We’ve been we built on what Sen. Reid built, and I think we’ve been successful,” Ted Pappageorge, secretary-treasurer of the 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union Local 226, told The Times in an interview in his office just off the Vegas Strip.
He hailed Reid as a “giant among men” but said Reid’s political organization lives on without him. “You know, they call it the Reid machinery. We like to call it the culinary machine,” Mr. Pappageorge said.
More than 350 Culinary Workers Union members have been granted a political leave of absence to canvass across Nevada as part of a push to knock on 1.1 million doors before Election Day.
Going door to door eight hours a day, five days a week in the desert heat, the canvassers urge voters to back Ms. Cortez Masto, Gov. Steve Sisolak and Democratic Reps. Dina Titus, Steven Horsford and Susie Lee.
Ms. Lee and Ms. Titus are considered extremely vulnerable, and political prognosticators give Republicans an outside chance at defeating Mr. Horsford.
Mr. Pappageorge said there are similarities between the 2022 and 2010 election cycles.
Mr. Reid that year survived a brutal election cycle for Democrats despite a powerful challenge from tea party favorite Sharron Angle, who sustained self-inflicted wounds.
“She was ahead in the polls, and we beat her,” Mr. Pappageorge said.
This time, Ms. Cortez Masto and Mr. Laxalt are statistically tied. Most polls give the Republican the edge, though his lead is always within the margin of error.
Mr. Laxalt said his Democratic rival is a reliable foot soldier for Mr. Biden, which makes her particularly vulnerable in a state reeling from supply chain issues and dependent on a hospitality industry that hasn’t fully recovered from pandemic shutdowns.
“People know that it’s Joe Biden, people understand it is Democrat policies that have given us a poor economy, high inflation and high gas [prices],” Mr. Laxalt said.
His closing message to voters is that the nation is heading in the “wrong direction in almost every way you can measure it,” and they have the power to stop it by handing Republicans control of the Senate.
“Being able to have a check on Joe Biden, for at least two years, is a way to slow this leftist march of our country,” he said. “People understand that, and I think people are going to be motivated to turn out and vote for change.”
Ms. Cortez Masto and her outside allies have blanketed the airwaves with millions of dollars in attack ads targeting Mr. Laxalt, who has Mr. Trump’s support.
They say Mr. Laxalt supports Mr. Trump’s stolen election claims and is in the pocket of big oil companies.
Ms. Cortez Masto has focused chiefly on abortion, and this summer’s Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade has served as her rallying cry.
“I will always fight for a women’s right to make our own health care decisions, but Adam Laxalt won’t,” Mrs. Cortez Masto says in an ad now airing in Las Vegas.
Her campaign also is running an ad featuring footage of Mr. Laxalt, who succeeded Ms. Cortez Masto as Nevada attorney general in 2015, praising her for the work she did cracking down on sex trafficking.
“She has done an excellent job,” Mr. Laxalt says in the video clip included in the ad.
The Cortez Masto campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Mr. Laxalt, like other Republicans running in marquee Senate races, has been vastly outraised, including over the past three months when Ms. Cortez Masto bested him by $15 million to $6.2 million.