Latino Voters Helped Power The First Latina to the Senate. But Will They Send Her Back?

Latino Voters Helped Power The First Latina to the Senate. But Will They Send Her Back? 1

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto made history nearly six years ago as the first Latina elected to the U.S. Senate following a hard-fought, expensive race that she won by less than 3 percent.

Her re-election is looking just as difficult and one demographic is especially key to maintaining her seat: Latinos.

Republicans, emboldened by their gains with Latinos in South Texas and Florida in recent elections, are eying Nevada as their next opportunity to make inroads with a voting demographic that’s been trending in the right’s direction.

GOP nominee and former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, through his “Latinos for Laxalt” coalition, is pitching those voters that his MAGA-brand candidacy is an opportunity for change.

“The only thing we have to look forward to is that people are waking up to it,” Laxalt said at a Latinos-focused campaign stop in Las Vegas earlier this month, according to a dispatch from The Nevada Independent. “They’re throwing the Democrats off. They know these policies are dangerous and toxic for our kids, for our country.”

But left-leaning Latino organizing groups and Cortez Masto’s campaign are pulling out all the stops to make sure that voting shift doesn’t happen—and they reject the idea that the GOP playbook that worked with Latino voters’ recent Texas and Florida victories will have the same effect in the Battle Born State.

“Republicans are treating Latinos as a monolith and stating that because they saw movement in some small portion of Latinos in select states that that is a brush to paint for the entire country and Latinos across the country,” Yvonne Gonzales, managing director for the Latino Victory Fund, told The Daily Beast. “When we know that that is not the case.”

Cortez Masto has been a reliable vote for President Joe Biden’s agenda and a voice for Nevada’s woes during the pandemic, where the hospitality and tourism industry was decimated as travel slowed to a stop.

But elections for Nevada Democrats are often won on small margins. Cortez Masto won her first term in the Senate by just 2.4 points in 2016— but Latinos voted for Cortez Mastro 61 to 32 percent over then challenger Joe Heck – in like with the 60 percent former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton received the same year, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Biden also won the state in 2020, but with 56 of Latinos who voted, while Trump improved his percentage of the vote from 29 percent to 37 percent in exit polls, according to NBC News.

Latinos are expected to turn out in increased numbers in Nevada compared to the 2020 general election—and they’ll likely make up 1 in 5 Nevada-midterm voters this November, according to projections from the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund.

Though Democrats have seen some signs of hope that their midterm prospects aren’t totally tanked, a historic two-point margin gives little breathing room in what’s forecasted to be a difficult year for the party.

“It’s going to be competitive, they normally are in Nevada,” Cortez Masto told The Daily Beast Tuesday.

Laxalt himself was one of the GOP’s top recruits this cycle, with expectations that he’d dominate any Republican primary field on name recognition alone, as Laxalt’s father—and grandfather—were U.S. Senators. Those expectations rang true, as Laxalt, who’s endorsed by former President Trump, won the GOP primary in June with more than 55 percent of the vote.

Cortez Masto’s campaign is well aware of the role Latino voters play in securing her re-election against Laxalt this November. She’s been on the airwaves in Spanish since May, with ads touting her Mexican grandfather’s journey to America and her record in the Senate during her first term. She’s also been making rounds at Latino-focused events, cross-crossing the state to help turn out voters from the key demographic.

Cortez Masto campaign spokesman Josh Marcus-Blank said her candidacy offers a “clear contrast” from Laxalt’s, adding, “Senator Cortez Masto has consistently fought for Nevada’s community.”

But Laxalt and his conservative allies are putting boots on the ground in Latino communities as well. Just last week, Laxalt plunged into deep-blue Las Vegas with a series of Latino-focused voter-outreach events, hoping to sway longtime Democrats to take a chance with conservatives.

His message echoes those Republicans have utilized in Texas and Florida—which have proven to be at least somewhat effective: that the American dream is under attack in the state amid inflation and heightened gas prices, and that maybe electing a Republican could catalyze some element of change.

“I’m immensely grateful for the overwhelming support I’ve received from the Latino community throughout this campaign,” Laxalt said in a statement after completing a circuit of campaign stops focused on Latino voters.

“As I’ve traveled across the state, I’ve had the chance to speak with countless Latino families to hear their stories and hear about their concerns and priorities. Like many families, they are concerned about rising prices, the cost of gas, our open border, and the deadly uptick in violent crime.”

Republican operatives in the beltway are also chest-thumping about Laxalt’s prospects.

“Oh, we’re gonna win,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Rick Scott told The Daily Beast about the Nevada Senate showdown. In a follow-up asking what voting demographics would make that possible, Scott touted a “big investment in the Hispanic vote” as Republicans’ silver bullet toward victory.

“As you know, Hispanics are fed up with the Democratic Party because they figured out the Democratic Party doesn’t care about them… the Spanish are fed up with the public school system, they’re fed up with all this inflation. They’re fed up with defunding the police,” Scott said.

“I think it’s going to put us in a great position to win.”

But organizers say attempts to sway Latinos in the GOP’s direction aren’t new—and note conservative records on issues like immigration and more won’t resonate with Nevadan Latinos this cycle.

“We’ve seen Republicans throughout the years focus on trying to win the Latino vote and using certain wedge issues that they believe will engage with Latinos,” Gonzales said. “When you really look at the Republican narrative right now, they could not be more anti Latino.”

Maria Teresa Kumar, president of the organizing group Voto Latino, also told The Daily Beast the rightward trend of Latinos is in large part driven by older Latinos. Younger Latinos, she says, still steadily trend with Democrats, and their turnout is key to a Cortez Masto win.

“They’re the ones that are able to put a lot of these states in question that we have to get them to the polls,” Kumar said.

And Democratic operatives warn that new efforts by the GOP won’t outweigh the long-term investments the left has made among Latinos.

“Democrats have been doing this work for a really long time. And there’s more work to be done currently, but we’ve been outpacing that all the time for decades,” said Megan Jones, a veteran Democratic operative in Nevada.

To be sure, Nevada is one of the most diverse states in the nation, with large Asian American and Pacific Islander and Black populations as well, meaning an array of opinions will come into play. And bread-and-butter political issues are sure to remain at the forefront of both candidates’ campaigns as new restrictions on abortion, climate change, jobs and rising prices remain issues in the West.

“[Laxalt] goes against Roe versus Wade and giving everybody the choice of reproductive freedom and is opposed to the bipartisan infrastructure package that I supported that’s gonna create good paying jobs in our state,” Cortez Masto told The Daily Beast. “And he’s still out there peddling his conspiracies and lies about the election—the last election.”

But there’s no denying investments in Latinos will be a gamechanger—to the point that Gonzales says even Democrats could manage to do more.

“I always think there needs to be more and I’m biased…” she said. “We can’t just paint with a broad brush. So I think that there definitely needs to be more done, you know, by the party to engage and motivate and mobilize Latinos to vote for them—and it is an important opportunity.”