SPARKS, Nev. – In a backyard on a sunny afternoon in late October, a few former Nevada office-holders, donors and prominent families surrounded Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez Masto and offered their endorsement.
The meaning? They were all Republicans from the swing zone of Washoe County, and some supported abortion rights, like the senator who lost the county in 2016. But she couldn’t lose it again if she beat her GOP opponent, Adam Laxalt, in what became one of the densest races in the nation.
According to an adviser to Cortez Masto, internal data from the campaign in the fall knew that a significant number of Nevada residents still did not know Laxalt’s stance on abortion. That highlighted a vulnerability in an issue the senator was sure would motivate the electorate.
As the ballots came in, the incumbent took the lead late last week in Washoe over Laxalt, which had called the 2020 presidential election “rigged” and had repeatedly vowed not to cooperate with the other side of the aisle. Cortez Masto took the opposite of Laxalt, praising her work with Republicans like Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, for example, in what was one of the many strategic decisions described by a campaign adviser that led to her historic victory.
When the race was called late on Saturday, it was the win that was heard across the country. Cortez Masto took Nevada and that took control of the Senate for Democrats, overcoming historic trends that punish the party in the White House.
“When all the national pundits said I couldn’t win, I knew Nevada would prove them wrong,” she said in a victory speech on Sunday. “Because in Nevada no one is left behind — and that means standing up for our families when no one else is.”
Late Sunday afternoon, Laxalt had not yet made a public statement about the outcome of the race.
Cortez Masto’s support of Washoe was crucial to her win, but it was only part of a strategy that flew in the face of critics who said talking about abortion and the Big Lie were not winning messages. Her campaign leaned on both themes, accelerating democracy coverage in the final weeks of the campaign.
Gas and inflation should have spelled disaster for Cortez Masto, as it did for Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak, a Democrat who lost re-election after bearing the brunt of voters’ punishment for closing businesses during the pandemic. But Cortez Masto tried to vaccinate herself by keeping President Joe Biden away and tying Laxalt to major oil, which she blamed for high gas prices at the start of the general election.
Cortez Masto, the first Latina ever elected and now re-elected to the Senate, ran ads linking to law enforcement to push back a GOP crime story and worked her connections with the Latino community that ultimately led her to victory. helped — even as the national narrative predicted that demographics would gravitate toward the GOP.
Latinos turned out in fewer numbers than expected — they made up an estimated 12% of the electorate, according to NBC Exit Polls, rather than the one in five voters, or 20%, that both parties estimated would come out. Of those who did vote, 62 percent supported Cortez Masto. In those same exit polls, voters named inflation first and then abortion as the top topics they voted for.
An organizing force representing 60,000 hotel workers, bartenders, restaurant servers and other entertainment industry employees propelled her to victory. For months, the Culinary Union unleashed sleuths in the neighborhoods, visiting more than 1 million doors — roughly doubling the number of the 2020 presidential election — educating voters about ballot mail, abortion, rents and immigration laws.
Laxalt dominated the state’s 15 rural counties, but there just weren’t enough votes to conquer Clark and Washoe counties.
Cortez Masto and her allies were also better than Laxalt. From the start of the general election to Election Day, Democrats have sunk $82.6 million on TV, radio and digital, while Republican groups have spent $70.5 million, according to AdImpact, an ad analytics firm.
Those factors aside, Laxalt had to overcome both local and national hurdles, including the fallout from the Capitol riots and a tense intra-party struggle between Nevada Republicans who publicly expressed their support for Democrats and their grassroots.
Former Nevada GOP chair Amy Tarkanian said on Sunday the reasons for the Republican losses in the Silver State were simple: self-inflicted wounds.
“You had bullying tactics, you had the elections that denied being pushed… you had so many Republicans who could see so clearly through the lies, through the deception. It made it easy to vote for the Democrat,” Tarkanian said. , who had been expelled from the party apparatus after speaking out against two Republican candidates. “They only have themselves to blame.”
Ben Kamisar contributed.