Nevada, known for its consistently tight political races, is set to play an outsized role in this year's midterm politics given an array of what are expected to be margin-of-error contests for the Senate and more.
The Silver State has tilted narrowly but decisively toward Democrats in most election cycles since 2016 -- most recently handing the party its six Electoral College votes for president, the governor's mansion, both Senate seats and three out of four House districts.
But Republicans are mustering their political might to flip several of those offices in a year that is anticipated to favor the GOP.
Former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, a Republican, is running to unseat first-term Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, while Clark County's Republican Sheriff Joe Lombardo is facing Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak.
Democratic Reps. Steve Horsford, Susie Lee and Dina Titus are all running to protect their Las Vegas-area House seats, and Democratic attorney Cisco Aguilar is running for secretary of state against Republican Jim Marchant, who has pushed baseless conspiracies about the 2020 presidential race.
Democrats say they are bullish that they can defend their seats, pointing to a legislative hot streak in Washington and positive economic news on employment and lowering prices, despite a more mixed outlook overall as inflation remains high. But the party's ability to win this fall, in a state where elections are already a slog, will be tested by major Republican challengers.
The outcomes could reverberate locally -- given that some candidates have openly questioned how elections are run -- and help determine the balance of power in Congress, where Democrats hold bare majorities.
"How many states do you know have a crazy election-denier running to oversee elections, two close races on top of the ticket and 75% of the congressional races are competitive? I mean, that's not happening too many places," said Jon Ralston, the CEO of local news outlet The Nevada Independent and a veteran political observer in the state.
Nevada's voter registration splits almost evenly among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters, according to the secretary of state's office. On top of that, its electorate is being shaped by some of the same national political trends that have upended both parties' footings this cycle.
"I think it's the most important state," said Jeremy Hughes, a GOP strategist advising a pro-Lombardo super PAC. "It was a battleground state in 2020 and it will be again in 2024. So, you tell me how Nevada goes on election night for Republicans, and I'll tell you how good a night it was for us."
Hispanic voters and the economy have Republicans optimistic
Here are some of the forces that operatives say are shaping the races: Hispanics, who make up roughly 20% of Nevada's electorate, may be slipping away from Democrats, some in the party feel; the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation are taking on heightened importance in a state heavily reliant on tourism and service workers; the abortion debate is raging in a heavily pro-abortion rights state. And Republican candidates are getting tagged by their opponents on past stances on the 2020 election.
Signs of movement by Hispanic voters away from Democrats in other states -- and a dour national mood around the economy -- are handing Nevada Republicans chances to go on offense.
Shifts among Hispanics previously helped GOP candidates oust Democrats from office in southern Florida and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, sparking Democratic handwringing about where those voters will land this November.
According to exit polling, Biden won 61% of the Hispanic vote in Nevada two years ago only to win the state by just about 2%, underscoring how a wide margin among Latinos is key to taking the state.
"Democrats usually rely on getting in the high 50s, low 60s, if they're lucky, on the Hispanic vote. That's not going to happen this cycle. In a state where you have razor-thin margins, that type of movement … is huge," said Hughes, the GOP operative.
Yet Democrats warn against reading into movement among Hispanic voters in other parts of the country, noting that regional differences exist between voters in Nevada and those elsewhere and Hispanics can't be reduced to a single bloc. Indeed, a New York Times/Sienna College poll this month showed that 46% of Hispanic voters in the South plan to vote Democrat this cycle -- while 62% of Hispanics in other parts of the country say the same.
"I think that Latino voters, there's a lot of extrapolation from the small data set from just one cycle versus five or six cycles of an organization and a party showing that they can turn out the vote," said one Democratic strategist with long ties to Nevada, referencing Democrats' noted voter turnout operation. "I do think there's a little bit of an unfair characterization as to this national trend being applied to Nevada."
Democrats do acknowledge, however, that the turbulent state of the economy is top of mind for locals.
Nevada workers and businesses faced severe financial setbacks during the height of the pandemic, given the role tourism plays in the state, with the unemployment rate topping 28% in May 2020. And while COVID shutdowns are in the past, inflation has hampered the recovery, a headwind that Democrats recognize.
"I think it's one of the reasons the races are so tight," said Ted Pappageorge, the secretary-general of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, a labor group that serves as a key part of Democrats' voter turnout machine. "You better come out swinging and be ready to fight, and the Democrats in Nevada are doing that. But that's what it's going to take to win because of a very difficult time we're in right now with the economy."
While voters consistently say in polls this cycle that the economy is as a major issue influencing their ballots, Democrats insist the recent signing of the Inflation Reduction Act and strong jobs numbers offer a potent defense to Republican attacks on inflation.
"The economy's always a big factor in every election. But we can honestly say that Democrats are delivering, and I think that's going to be a big plus for us around the country," said Nevada Democratic Party Chair Judith Whitmer.
Abortion and election denialism may help Democrats
Democrats have their own opportunities to go on offense, particularly on abortion access and the 2020 election.
Nevadans strongly support abortion rights overall, and voters in 1990 overwhelmingly codified access to the procedure into state law in a referendum. And with the Supreme Court's June repeal of Roe v. Wade and debates over a federal abortion ban, state Republican candidates are struggling to align in their messaging.
After expressing openness to tighter limits on abortion access, Lombardo has since said he would support Nevada's current law, which allow abortions up to 24 weeks; while Laxalt, who called the original Roe ruling a "joke," has said he supports an abortion ban at 13 weeks of pregnancy but that no such restrictions could be passed.
Meanwhile, April Becker, one of the GOP House candidates in a top race, has said she opposes abortion but that federal limits are "unconstitutional."
In a sign Republicans are concerned about abortion, a GOP group is running an ad claiming "politicians are trying to scare you about abortion" and that "no politician can change" Nevada's protections.
"They've totally twisted themselves in knots on this issue because they are on one hand tethered by a very rabid base, but their base is extremely unrepresentative of the broader electorate," said one Nevada Democratic strategist working on the gubernatorial race and other down-ballot contests.
Democrats are also casting the Republican slate as one filled with election-deniers, pointing to unsubstantiated claims about the 2020 race that have been voiced primarily by Marchant and Laxalt, including that mail-in voting is ripe for fraud and arguing that electronic voting equipment should be tossed out.
Still, the overall environment is tough to overcome
Outpacing a dour political environment is notoriously difficult, particularly during uneasy economic times and during a midterm as the party already in power.
In a sign of concern among Senate Democrats -- who hold the upper chamber thanks only to Vice President Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote -- several lawmakers there sparked a Twitter campaign to boost Cortez Masto's fundraising even though she has already consistently beat Laxalt in the money wars, finishing June with $9.8 million in the bank compared to his $2.1 million.
"I think everyday family pocketbook issues are what's driving this race," said Brian Seitchik, a GOP strategist who's worked in Nevada. He tied Biden to "inflation, gas prices … these are things that affect families on a daily basis."
"I don't think it trumps economic issues today in Nevada," he maintained of issues like abortion.
Democrats have also outspent Republicans by significant margins in some of the key races only to see polling stay tight. Democrats insist that no amount of money supporting a candidate and advertising them to voters could produce a landslide, but the close surveys after such a yawning spending gap is handing the GOP hope that it can gain an edge once spending comes to parity.
"If it were me on the other side, I would be very worried because you've taken your best shot at these guys, and they're still standing," Hughes said. "And now it's time for them to punch back."