Former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto on Wednesday launched her campaign for U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s seat in 2016 and immediately was endorsed by the Democratic Party hierarchy from Nevada to the nation’s capital.
“We got our wish,” Reid, D-Nev., said of his top choice to succeed him, casting her as a historical pick as the first Latina to serve in the U.S. Senate if she wins. She also would be Nevada’s first female senator.
Reid first backed the fellow Democrat when he announced March 27 that he would retire rather than run for a sixth term. Hours after she announced her plans Wednesday, Reid emailed supporters to tout her and ask for campaign contributions.
“I am proud to endorse her,” Reid said. “She’s spent a lifetime fighting to protect Nevada families. And I know she will continue that work in the Senate. … Let’s make sure she gets off to a strong start. Make a contribution now.”
Cortez Masto, 50, made her announcement in an email to supporters.
“I’ve spent my life and career fighting to protect the families of Nevada,” said Cortez Masto, who was the first Latina attorney general in Nevada. “I’m running for the Senate to continue my work standing up for Nevada seniors, consumers, homeowners, women and children.”
In her announcement, Cortez Masto highlighted her achievements during her two four-year terms as attorney general.
“I stood up to special interests and fought for consumers in Nevada,” she said. “I worked with local law enforcement to crack down on meth labs to help combat our state’s growing drug problem, protected domestic abuse victims and children preyed upon by sex traffickers, and looked out for seniors who have been cheated by scam artists.”
Cortez Masto is well-known in Southern Nevada, where her late father, Manny Cortez, headed the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority for years, making the gaming city a tourist mecca.
Preparing for the race, Cortez Masto on Tuesday evening tendered her resignation from the Nevada System of Higher Education, where she was executive vice chancellor.
With Reid’s backing and his fundraising and political machine behind her, Cortez Masto is the favorite to win the Senate seat, although she is expected to face heavy competition from Republicans and outside interests in the general election.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee said Cortez Masto is vulnerable and the GOP is targeting her for defeat.
“Despite being Harry Reid’s handpicked candidate, Catherine Cortez Masto will quickly learn that running for Senate is no picnic,” committee spokesman Jahan Wilcox said. “Nevada was a top pickup opportunity for Republicans before Reid threw in the towel and his handpicked liberal candidate jumping in the race does nothing to change that.”
The GOP primary could get messy, however, with the eventual nominee wounded by the infighting.
That could be avoided if Republicans can persuade Gov. Brian Sandoval to run for the Senate, a move that could clear the field. He is expected to face growing pressure to run because the popular Hispanic leader is seen as the best chance for the GOP to win the seat and help the party maintain control of the Senate. Sandoval has expressed no interest in Reid’s seat, however, and has said he wants to complete his second four-year term as governor.
U.S. Rep Joe Heck, R-Nev., also will face more pressure to run, although he has said he wants to stay in the House.
Other possible GOP contenders include former Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, Nevada Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson of Las Vegas and Attorney General Adam Laxalt. Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Beers is the only declared GOP Senate candidate and has been running a low-key campaign for months.
“I think without a Sandoval or a Heck, it’s going to be tough for any Republican,” said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said he expects a crowd of Republicans to get into the race, possibly including former also-rans such as Danny Tarkanian and Sharron Angle, who both ran in 2010.
“It’s going to be a food fight on the Republican side,” Barasky said with some glee.
He expressed confidence Cortez Masto will win the race but added, “We don’t expect a cakewalk.” Stakes high, the contest probably will be costly with lots of outside money coming into Nevada to sway the election, he said.
In 2010, Reid and his GOP foe, Angle, each spent more than $25 million. And outside groups matched that.
In the end, Barasky said the Democrats are confident they can hold Reid’s seat in what will be one of the two most competitive Senate races in 2016 for Democrats. The other is Colorado. Republicans, meanwhile, are defending at least 10 competitive seats and have a greater risk of losing majority control of the Senate in 2016.
Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which endorsed Cortez Masto, called her “the strongest candidate to keep this Senate seat in Democratic hands and continue Harry Reid’s legacy of fighting for Nevada’s best interests.”
But Cortez Masto has never had a difficult race while twice running statewide for attorney general.
She also could face a contested Democratic primary, although Reid is working behind the scenes to avoid that.
U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., is still considering running for the Senate and would be Cortez Masto’s strongest primary challenger. Titus didn’t endorse Cortez Masto on Wednesday as other Democrats did.
Titus’ office said the statement she put out the day Reid said he would retire stands. She said: “I am humbled by the calls I’ve received from supporters across the state encouraging me to run for Senate. This is a decision I will make carefully after talking with family and close friends to ensure it is in the best interest of District One and the people of Nevada.”
In 2012, Titus defied Reid and ran for the 1st Congressional District although Reid had backed state Sen. Ruben Kihuen. In the end, Kihuen dropped out of the race after Titus released a poll showing she would defeat him in the primary. Titus easily won and then was re-elected in 2014 in the safe Democratic district that covers urban Las Vegas.
Other potential Democratic contenders for the Senate swiftly backed Cortez Masto, including former Treasurer Kate Marshall and former Secretary of State Ross Miller.
“I’m proud to support my friend Catherine Cortez Masto in her bid for US Senate,” Miller tweeted.
Marshall piled on, tweeting, “I am excited &honored to support my friend Catherine Cortez Masto for #NV US Senate.”
Review-Journal Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault contributed to this report. Contact Laura Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2919. Find her on Twitter: @lmyerslvrj