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National issues dominate Nevada elections

Updated October 15, 2022 - 1:28 pm

WASHINGTON – Democrats and Republicans in congressional races have settled on their campaign messages in the final stretch toward the midterm elections that will determine which political party will control the House and Senate.

Candidates nationwide — and those in Nevada — are following respective party scripts for attacking opponents on issues that public surveys show resonate with voters.

But as former House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill once famously said, “all politics are local,” and many candidates are focused on hyper-local issues not included in “talking points” conjured up by Democratic and GOP apparatchiks in Washington.

Local candidate credentials and personalities also outweigh the historical and generalized trends from previous midterm elections, which favor the party that doesn’t hold the White House.

Former President Bill Clinton told CNN last week that Democrats could hold control of both legislative chambers, “but we just have to say the right things.”

“And we have to note the Republicans always close well. Why? Because they find some new way to scare the living daylights out of swing voters about something,” Clinton said on the Sunday show “Fareed Zakaria GPS.”

Following the script

Nonetheless, with less than a month before the Nov. 8 election and ballots being cast early or by mail, candidates in both parties have geared campaign advertisement and turnout efforts toward issues and strategy their party leaders have devised through polling and research.

“Abortion dominates Democratic messaging, while Republicans are much less likely to mention it,” wrote Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, who watched 300 campaign advertisements.

“Crime has become a huge focus for Republicans, with Democrats trying to inoculate themselves by featuring law enforcement officers in their ads,” wrote Kondik, a nonpartisan political analyst.

The economy also remains a central focus of GOP messaging, although Democrats have countered with recent legislative victories on drug prices, health care access, building of roads and bridges and financial help for businesses and workers during the pandemic.

Still, Republican candidates for federal office in Nevada — Adam Laxalt for Senate and congressional hopefuls Mark Robertson, April Becker and Sam Peters — have focused on economic woes and record inflation in their campaign advertisements as they try to oust Democratic incumbents.

And they have ramped up their attacks that Democrats are “soft on crime.” Democratic candidate U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto has highlighted her endorsements from law enforcement groups, while U.S. Rep. Steven Horsford has touted recently passed legislation that includes local police funding.

Abortion a prime issue

Midterm elections historically are a referendum on a sitting president’s policies, and that’s true in this cycle, but the forecasted “red wave” of earlier this year has appeared to evaporate after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning federal abortion rights.

Cortez Masto, D-Nev., has made abortion rights a centerpiece of her campaign for re-election, as has Rep. Susie Lee, who is in a highly competitive race with Becker.

Reproductive rights also are being highlighted by Rep. Dina Titus and Horsford, although both have broadened their messaging to include legislative funding and projects for their districts.

Still, abortion is the main theme in Democratic messaging.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee aired a television advertisement in the Las Vegas market, which includes the congressional districts held by Titus, Lee and Horsford, attacking Robertson, Becker and Peters as supporters of a national ban on abortion.

Democrats have spent money in other competitive districts, but the Las Vegas Valley is unique with three nailbiters.

“There are 3 competitive House races in the pricey Las Vegas market — the DCCC produced an attack ad there that hits all 3 Republican candidates together. But such exceptions are rare,” Kondik said.

All three GOP candidates told the Review-Journal they do not support a national abortion ban and support the 1990 Nevada referendum that made abortion legal in the state for the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. But all three have been endorsed by right-to-life groups that oppose abortion rights.

And every Nevada Democrat seeking re-election to federal office has warned of the loss of women’s rights and other democratic freedoms if Republicans win majorities and pass a national ban — which would be highly unlikely to become law in the next two years as President Joe Biden would veto the legislation.

Bad economy, good politics

Republicans, meanwhile, have hammered home the erosion of family finances, blaming Biden’s policies and the Democrat-controlled Congress for historic inflation, high gasoline and grocery prices.

Economic experts note that the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have contributed to supply chain issues, high fuel costs and global inflation.

But the roaring economy following the pandemic and an infusion of federal cash has prompted the Federal Reserve to stomp on the brakes with higher interest rates to control inflation, actions that increased consumers’ costs on credit card debt and mortgages.

While Republicans continue to focus on Biden for the economic ills, former President Donald Trump has injected himself into the midterm scenario in ways that leave even Republicans puzzled.

Trump endorsed GOP candidates who have won primaries, but the former president has also been in the news after the FBI executed a search warrant at his Florida residence and recovered classified documents.

Trump is also fighting fraud charges in New York, and the Jan. 6 committee has revealed his role in inciting violence during the Capitol siege. Trump has also insulted Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and referred to his wife, Elaine Chao, the former Transportation Department secretary under Trump, with a racist slur.

Biden targeted Trump during a political speech in Philadelphia, calling the Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement associated with Trump a threat to democracy. Trump blasted back last week during a rally in Nevada, saying the country was at a “tipping point” and urging people to vote Republican. He called the crowd in rural Minden the largest he has seen since Jan. 6, 2021.

Lowering expectations

The Supreme Court decision on abortion, Trump’s emergence into the midterms and recent economic gains by Democrats have led most non-partisan political forecasters to lower expectations of Republican wins.

The Senate is now considered a “toss-up,” with Democrats poised to hold seats in Arizona and New Hampshire and possibly win seats in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and North Carolina.

The most vulnerable Democratic seats are those held by Cortez Masto in Nevada and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock in Georgia, although recent revelations concerning his Republican opponent, former Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, about abortions could boost Warnock’s candidacy.

Both Nevada and Georgia races are considered a “toss-up” by the non-partisan Cook Political Report. But all non-partisan experts agree that the Nevada race provides the best chance for a Republican victory. Polls have showed the race within the margin of error, with the Real Clear Politics average favoring Laxalt 46.2 percent to Cortez Masto’s 44.5 percent.

Expectations for a major Republican sweep in the 435-member House have been lowered from a possible 35-seat victory, to as low as just eight. The GOP needs only to pick up six to regain control of the chamber.

Nevada in the spotlight

The competitive nature of the midterms and the vulnerable position of lawmakers in Nevada have garnered national attention.

Redistricting by the Democrat-controlled state Legislature in 2021 shifted precincts from the heavily Democratic seat held by Titus to Lee, who is in a historical “swing” district that has flipped back and forth between Democrats and Republicans. Titus picked up Boulder City and more rural areas of Clark County.

Even with redistricting, however, Lee’s district is considered a “toss-up” with Becker, who narrowly lost a state Senate race two years ago and is considered a formidable opponent in a year that favors Republicans.

The Cook Political Report has moved Congressional District 1 into the “toss-up” column as Titus is competing with Henderson businessman Robertson, a veteran and former Defense Department official.

Horsford’s seat is considered “lean Democrat.”

U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei, the state’s lone congressional Republican, is considered to be in a “safe” GOP seat, despite Democratic opposition.

But even Amodei, whose northern district is heavily Republican, shudders at predictions and doubts polling that has been skewed in recent years by social trends and telephones.

“If you are a candidate, you better be running through the whistle,” Amodei said.

He is being challenged by Democrat Elizabeth Mercedes Krause, an independent candidate as well as a Libertarian.

Pattern emerging

But Democrats also see hope.

“A pattern has begun to emerge: in surveys by both parties, House Democrats’ polling numbers are holding up surprisingly well in states with contentious statewide races driving turnout: Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, to name a few,” said U.S. House Editor Dave Wasserman with the Cook Political Report.

And generic ballots mean less in congressional districts where candidates are more known to voters, such as Congressional District 1.

Robertson is a known local businessman and active community leader.

Titus has served portions of the 1st District for 20 years while in the state Senate and, following a stint in District 3 from 2008-2010, has represented the area since 2012. She is in a House leadership position and has used it to steer funding and formula adjustments to and for Nevada.

Libertarian Ken Cavanaugh, a conservative on fiscal policies, also is in the District 1 race.

Despite Democratic Party guidance, Amodei doubts that his colleague Titus would follow anyone’s advice but her own. She’s been successful for so many years and knows how to run an election better than “anyone at the (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee).”

But Amodei also noted that veteran Democrats like Titus, “are sailing in tougher seas” this election cycle.

“I would rather be us than them,” he said.

Polls

Nationally, a Fox News poll conducted Sept. 9-12 that found 59 percent of voters were concerned about inflation and high prices tends to underscore Amodei’s point.

And a decision by OPEC on Oct. 5 to cut oil production by 2 million barrels per day is expected to drive up gasoline prices before the midterm elections.

Despite the expected price hike, Laxalt began airing a TV ad that day blaming Biden and Cortez Masto for the rising cost of fuel on families. Cortez Masto has responded with advertisements that brand Laxalt as beholden to Big Oil over families and note his work as a lobbyist for a national firm where he earned millions after leaving the state attorney general’s office.

Democratic incumbents are running TV ads on legislative accomplishments that include job creation through the bipartisan infrastructure bill, pandemic aid to small businesses and extended unemployment benefits during the pandemic and health care measures.

Democrats rammed through Congress a bill that will allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug costs, expected to reduce the cost of some medicines to seniors. It also capped insulin costs for seniors at $35 per month.

Despite the legislative gains and the Supreme Court decision, Democratic strategists such as James Carville have warned Democrats they need to be aggressive on crime, an issue that GOP candidates have used as a cudgel.

Border security has long been a constant focus of Republicans, who have characterized Biden and Democrats as being soft on immigration enforcement, resulting in rising crime in the United States.

A recent Pew Research survey found 73 percent of voters said increased border security should be an important policy goal. The survey also found a partisan divide, with 79 percent of Republicans favoring increased enforcement and deportation while 80 percent of Democrats are concerned about treatment of refugees and reform to allow undocumented immigrants to stay here legally.

The poll was conducted from Aug. 1-14 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 1.75 percentage points.

Republican candidates Laxalt, Peters and Becker said they have toured the Southwest border in Texas and described it as a chaotic scene with a demoralized federal workforce trying to combat illegal immigration and smuggling.

When asked why a Nevada congressional candidate would tour the Southwest border, Peters responded that policy impacts all states and noted recent reports of drug busts in the Silver State of fentanyl after being smuggled from Mexico.

Republicans made illegal immigration and border security top issues in the 2018 and 2020 elections, but to disastrous results. The GOP lost control of the House and Senate in 2018 and lost the presidency in 2020.

Among Latinos, 54 percent of registered voters disapprove of the job Biden is doing, and only 45 percent approve of his performance, according to a 2022 National Survey of Latinos by Pew Research Center.

The survey, also taken Aug. 1-14, found that Latino registered voters identify more with Democrats than Republicans, 64 percent over 33 percent, nearly a 2-to-1 margin. Some 73 percent of Latino registered voters said they would not want Trump to remain a national figure, according to the survey, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 1.7 percentage points.

Latinos made up 28.7 percent of the population in Nevada in 2020, according to the U.S. Census.

Overall, the top five issues that may affect the midterm election outcome are the economy, abortion rights, climate and energy, public education and America’s standing in the world, according to Karen Hult, a Virginia Tech political science professor.

Hult said current economic trends, declines in the market and a possible recession worry higher income voters and those nearing retirement. Holding the president and his party responsible would favor Republicans.

The Supreme Court’s abortion decision, along with states seeking restrictions on abortions, is likely to mobilize younger voters and cause women to vote for women, Hult said.

Contact Gary Martin at gmartin@reviewjournal.com. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter.

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