Swinging Las Vegas

A film by Laura Pacheco and Jackie Mow

Nevada used to be a deep red state, but things have changed.  Thousands of Latinos have moved there, many to work in the gaming industry, and now the state has turned purple.  With retiring Senator Harry Reid’s seat up for grabs, what can the state GOP do in the year of Donald Trump to get enough Latino votes to put themselves over the top?  The answer may hold the key to the balance of power in the next Congress.

The Backstory:

While Nevada has always had two party competition in state elections, it has been a reliably red state in presidential years.  Jimmy Carter only received 27% of the vote against Ronald Reagan in 1980, but Democratic totals rose from the 30’s in the 1980’s, to the 40’s by the 1990’s, until Barack Obama won the state twice with majorities of the vote in 2008 and 2012.  

So what has changed?  In part, it was the huge growth of the Latino population, mostly in Clark County where Las Vegas is located.  Today, over 700,000 Latinos call Nevada home, almost 30% of the state.  Many of them are members of the powerful Culinary Worker’s Union, a key element in Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s vaunted Democratic ground organization who have mobilized Latino voters and helped to make Nevada a purple state.  

Nevada, though, still has a strong Republican base.  The most popular politician in the state is Cuban-American Governor Brian Sandoval.  And in the off year 2014 elections, a Tea Party wave gave total control over the legislature to the GOP, leaving just Reid and one of four state’s congressmen in Democratic hands.

Much has been written about the Koch funded Libre Initiative reaching out to Latino voters, but what’s the reality on the ground?  And in a year when the election where Donald Trump has grabbed most of the headlines, how will his presence at the top of the ballot impact GOP efforts to gain a foothold among Latinos?  Or will the relatively depressed state economy and housing market one up immigration in the minds of those voters?

About the Film:

Nevada, already a swing state in the epic Trump v. Clinton main bout, may also determine who controls the next US Congress.  And the group that determines the outcome in Nevada may be the exploding Latino population.

In the House races, Republicans are playing defense.  Two years ago, Rep. Cresent Hardy won the 4th Nevada Congressional district with an electorate close to 30% Latino, in a huge upset.  Now he’s campaigning to keep his seat, going on Spanish language radio, canvassing Latino neighborhoods in 100 degree plus heat, and employing a campaign staff of young GOP Latinos that include consultant Joanna Diaz Soffer.  

In the race for the Senate, longtime Democratic leader Harry Reid’s seat is up for grabs and a Republican win here may actually determine chamber control in January.  The Republican candidate is Dr. Joe Heck, a veteran and a Nevada moderate conservative, in the mold of popular Gov. Brian Sandoval, someone who’s walked a middle line on immigration and done well in a swing district.  Now he’s up against former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, who could become the first Latina in the US Senate.  Heck may be the strongest Republican challenger of a blue Senate seat in the country, but like Hardy, he’s running in a year where all election news is Trump news.

Both Republicans are also facing the most effective get-out-the-vote organization in the state, the Culinary Workers Union, the key Reid alley in the rise of the Democrats in the state, and their dynamic political director Yvanna Cancela.  Against Hardy, they’re backing charismatic young State Senator Ruben Kihuen.

So who will win?  As longtime Nevada go-to-guy on state politics, Jon Ralston describes the Republican scenario:  “Donald Trump has made it very, very difficult for them with his rhetoric.  I think their attitude is let’s try and stanch the bleeding if we can.  In other words, we don’t think we’re going to win the Hispanic vote, but we can’t lose 75/25.”