LAS VEGAS - The Culinary Workers Union members who are knocking on doors to get out the vote are on the cursed-at front lines of the Democratic Party's midterm battle.
Most voters do not open their doors. And when some do answer, the canvassers might wish they hadn't.
"You think I am going to vote for those Democrats after all they've done to ruin the economy?" a voter shouted one evening last week from her entryway in a working-class neighborhood of East Las Vegas.
Miguel Gonzalez, a 55-year-old chef who described himself as a conservative Christian who has voted for Republicans for most of his life, was more polite but no more convinced. "I don't agree with anything Democrats are doing at all," he said after taking a fistful of flyers from the union canvassers.
Those who know Nevada best have always viewed its blue-state status as something befitting a desert: a kind of mirage. Democrats are actually a minority among registered voters, and most of the party's victories in the last decade were narrowly decided. But the state has long been a symbolic linchpin for the party - vital to its national coalition and its hold on the blue West.
Now, Democrats in Nevada are facing potential losses up and down the ballot in November and bracing for a seismic shift that could help Republicans win control of both houses of Congress. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto remains one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the country. Gov. Steve Sisolak is fighting his most formidable challenger yet. And the state's three House Democrats could all lose their seats.
The Democratic juggernaut built by former Sen. Harry Reid is on its heels, staring down the most significant spate of losses in more than a decade.
The party had in recent years relied on the state's changing demographics, capitalizing on the workers who flocked there in search of an attainable path to middle-class dreams. But Nevada Democrats are learning that demographics alone are not destiny. The state's transient population has made building a reliable base of voters difficult, with would-be voters leaving in search of work elsewhere, as more children of immigrants in the state reach voting age. And with Reid's death last year, Democrats are missing the veteran leader who never hesitated to twist arms to get donors and activists on board.
The vulnerabilities in Nevada reflect Democrats' challenges nationwide, most acutely in the West. Worries over inflation and the economy overshadow nearly every other concern, particularly for the working-class and Latino voters the party has long counted on. And Republicans believe that voters blame the Democrats in power for the dour economic outlook.
"It's the purest example of a referendum election you have more than anywhere else in the country," said John Ashbrook, a consultant who is working with the campaign for Adam Laxalt, the Republican Senate candidate. Frustrations over inflation, he added, "created an electorate that simply wants change."
While the economy might be the most challenging hurdle for Democrats this year, it is not the only one: Republicans and nonpartisan voters make up nearly 60% of the Nevada electorate, which historically has lower turnout in midterm elections.
The Republican challengers were narrowly leading Sisolak and Cortez Masto in a new poll from the Nevada Independent and OH Predictive Insights, though the leads were within the margin of error. Former President Donald Trump is scheduled to a hold rally for the Republican candidates in the northern part of the state this week.
Even the most fervent Democratic backers acknowledge the steep challenges at a time when many people are still struggling to pay for basic needs, such as rent, gas and groceries. Both parties are trying to attract the state's working-class voters, who are less affluent and less likely to hold college degrees than in many other swing states.
Nevada remains firmly reliant on tourism to fuel hospitality and service jobs, which were temporarily wiped out by the pandemic. And while the resorts on the Las Vegas Strip are bustling once again, international travel and conferences have yet to rebound, and thousands of people are still out of work. The state's minimum wage has risen to $10.50 an hour, but rents have increased far more steeply.
"There is a significant amount of nervousness and fear about the economy and especially about the cost of housing. Your gas costs more; your rent costs more," said Ted Pappageorge, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union, which represents thousands of housekeepers, bartenders and cooks and has played a key role in electing Democrats in Nevada. "Working families are hurting."
While Republicans believe that the sour economic views have given them a chance to mount an aggressive offense, Democrats do not believe they have to be entirely defensive either. Instead, the party's candidates are trying to deliver a carefully crafted message, acknowledging voters' worries while suggesting that the economy is already improving and will get even better soon, as the pandemic fades.
For months now, Republicans have blamed Democrats for the sputtering slog to return to economic normalcy. During an event targeting small-business owners, Joseph Lombardo, the sheriff of the Las Vegas area who is running for governor, shared the stage with Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and United Nations ambassador. She recalled the initial pandemic shutdowns in 2020 and argued that Republican mayors had more effectively balanced the need to keep people safe with the need to keep them employed.
"We suffered the most here because we have all our eggs in one basket," Lombardo said, echoing the frequent refrain of the need to diversify the state's economy. He called for more programs to create a steady pipeline of electricians, plumbers and truck drivers. "We need workforce development because those are quality jobs."
Republicans are especially confident such messages will help the party peel off support from Latino voters, who make up roughly 20% of the electorate. Polls show the majority of Latino voters still favor Democrats, but if more than 30% of those voters cast their ballots for Republicans, the GOP could gain the edge to win.
"The path to victory all runs through the Hispanic community," said Xochitl Hinojosa, a Democratic consultant who has worked in the state. "Democrats are finally realizing, we've invested in Black voters significantly over decades, and we've been successful, but we've assumed Hispanics will turn out for us, and that's not been the case."
Democrats also believe they can make inroads with independent and moderate voters who favor abortion rights. They have attacked Lombardo for repeatedly shifting his views on abortion and portray Laxalt as a reliable supporter of a federal abortion ban.
Rep. Susie Lee pointed to a libertarian streak in voters that was activated by the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
"Nevada voters don't want government messing with their personal choices, which I think is a big issue and one that's going to play out in this election," she said.
Nevada has four House districts, with three occupied by Democrats - Lee and Reps. Steven Horsford and Dina Titus. All are considered deeply at risk. David Wasserman, the House analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said Democrats in the state Legislature took a high-risk, high-reward strategy when redrawing the state's House seats, draining Democratic voters from Titus' central Las Vegas district to shore up the outlying districts. Now, the state map has three districts that lean slightly Democratic.
Horsford's new district lines are slightly more Democratic than the others, and his Republican opponent, Sam Peters, a conspiracy-minded conservative who has repeatedly called the 2020 election stolen, is the easiest to paint as an extremist. Wasserman said he expected this week to adjust his forecast in Horsford's favor, from a pure tossup to a race that leans Democratic.
Titus, an experienced political hand who taught political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, before winning a House seat in 2008, has not faced a real race in more than a decade. Her opponent, Mark Robertson, has a military record, a mild persona and strong ties to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a powerful force in Nevada.
Lee might have the toughest Republican opponent, April Becker, whose soft-focused positive advertising has insulated her from Democratic attacks, many of them from Lee's well-funded campaign.
"Susie's ad is about April, and April's ad is about April," said Jeremy Hughes, a campaign aide for Becker. "She missed an opportunity to reintroduce herself to people."
Now the Las Vegas media market, one of the most expensive in the country, is cluttered with advertising from the House races as well as three statewide races, including the battle for secretary of state. Breaking through the din in the final weeks could be next to impossible for individual House candidates trying to reach voters who might not know whose district they live in.
"It's a difficult market," said Ben Ray, communications director for Emily's List, which works to elect women who support abortion rights. "You've got a lot of voters that you need to talk to at odd hours. They're not going to catch the 6 o'clock news because that's when their shift starts."
As they have in the final weeks during other election cycles, national Democratic groups are preparing a rescue mission. The House Majority PAC, which is affiliated with Democratic leadership, has reserved more than $11 million in advertising slots in the Las Vegas market for a final blitz.
The group has just released an online ad in English and Spanish, hitting Robertson on abortion, and began sending bilingual mailers attacking Becker for the "extremists" who support her campaign. Another direct mail effort from the PAC is going after Peters for his 2020 election denial and accusing him of wanting to "defund public education."
The advantage of incumbency allows Lee to talk up provisions in the bipartisan infrastructure bill that address Las Vegas' chronic water shortages. But because Nevada has such a transient population, incumbency matters less.
"I always run in a district that's a tough district, so I never go into an election with confidence," she said. "I go in fighting to make my case in front of my voters. This is no different, for sure."
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