LAS VEGAS - Nevada Democrats have held up their state as a national testing ground for how to win Latino voters in 2024.
But with only 37 days until the midterm elections, there are warning signs: At the doors, on the phones and on the streets, Latinos are threatening to stay home. And that is despite the presence of the first-ever Latina elected to the U.S. Senate, Catherine Cortez Masto, at the top of the ballot.
Organizers in both parties say they see the same phenomenon developing, as do major Latino groups and the powerful Culinary Workers Union: Disgruntled over the economy and unhappy with their post-pandemic job quality, these voters, many of whom Democratic groups identify as once lifelong supporters, could sit this one out. That's on top of the usual challenges of turning out voters for midterm elections.
"It's what's keeping me up at night," said Melissa Morales, president of Somos PAC, which has spent millions of dollars on ads in English and Spanish for Cortez Masto. "What I'm looking at is: Do Latinos actually turn out to vote this year? If we see high turnout, we win in Nevada."
Morales said after she spent time canvassing she didn't hear waffling voters turning to Republicans; instead, they said they'd vote either for Democrats or stay home. Latinos interviewed by NBC News supported that sentiment.
This article is based on interviews with strategists, organizers, pollsters and elected officials in both parties. It also includes interviews with more than two dozen Latinos across the greater Las Vegas area: in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods; at the gritty strip mall where the Republican National Committee houses its storefront Hispanic Community Center; at a Latina women's event airing new ads backing Cortez Masto; and amid the oversized watermelon and avocado-shaped pinatas, and the aromas of empanadas and arepas at the mercado inside the Boulevard Mall near the Las Vegas Strip.
In one of the most competitive battleground states in the country, one where Joe Biden won by a little more than 33,000 votes - no group could hold more sway over how the state swings than Latinos, who make up one in five midterm voters in Nevada, according to estimates from both parties.
A depressed turnout, however, is an ominous prospect for Democrats in particular. It could have implications for the state's bid to hold the first primary contest in the 2024 presidential cycle.
In the near term, the stakes are high. By some measures, Democrats need to carry two-thirds of the Latino vote if they're to retain the Senate seat that could determine which party claims the Senate, and a governor's seat that has implications for how the 2024 presidential race is handled in the state. The contest between Cortez Masto and Republican Adam Laxalt appears within the margin of error - and that's even after Cortez Masto vastly outspent Laxalt before Labor Day. Republicans have long viewed the race as their best pickup opportunity but it's now all the more critical that Democrats hold down the seat as races have tightened in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Georgia.
A Sept. 19 fall election memo from Equis Research, a group that studies trends within the Latino electorate, supported Morales' contention that Latinos unhappy with Democrats weren't necessarily defecting to Republicans.
"Many Latino voters who in past elections have voted with Democrats are today persuadable - but Republicans have so far failed to win them over," said the memo. It noted Democrats needed two-thirds of Latino voters to "fend off GOP challenges," and Republicans needed one-third.
Of the Latinos who spoke to NBC News, more than half said they didn't plan on voting, or weren't aware of the upcoming election. Some couldn't vote because they weren't U.S. citizens.
Many had an overall positive reaction to "la senadora" - Cortez Masto - while admitting they knew little about her, even as her six-year term came to a close. They had few good things to say about President Joe Biden, citing high gas prices and poor job quality.
Among the common responses, however, was the negativity associated with Laxalt. Just the mention of the Laxalt's name nearly universally elicited a wince, furious head shaking or a verbal outburst. That included men who said they had supported former President Donald Trump in 2020.
"No thank you! I've heard horrible things," Viviana Rodriguez, a small business owner, said of Laxalt. She admitted, though, that she knew little about Cortez Masto, even as she exited an event promoting the state's senior senator.
One of the factors likely contributing to negative sentiment was on display at a local laundromat in a Latino neighborhood here. On Spanish-language TV, ads pummeling Laxalt are on an aggressive rotation, a result of millions of dollars in spending by Democrats that began months ago.
By the time Laxalt emerged from his Republican primary in June, Cortez Masto, as well as outside Democratic groups led by the Somos PAC, had spent $2.7 million on Spanish-language ads, compared with $176,000 by Republicans. Cortez Masto's campaign aired its first ad on Spanish-speaking TV on March 15 with a biographical spot outlining her family's ties to Mexico.
Maria Hernandez, who worked at the Wash & Save Laundromat, looked up at a TV affixed high in the corner of the room.
"Ooh, I don't like him," she said. The ad playing on the screen was one of the senator's that claims Laxalt had ties to "big oil."
Hernandez, who works behind the register and who does not plan to vote, didn't have better things to say about Cortez Masto.
"For me, [Gov. Steve] Sisolak is more Hispanic than Cortez Masto," she said, noting the irony of her comment about Nevada's white, male governor. "She's not in the Hispanic community. I don't see her at church events or at parks."
Other residents detailed a different experience with Cortez Masto. About 10 minutes away, at an event sponsored by the Somos PAC, Vanessa Barrett, owner of La Vecindad Restaurant, the site of the event, broke into tears talking about how the senator had helped her save her business during the pandemic by guiding her toward small-business assistance.
"Our Latino community wants to know you're on their side, and I've always fought for our families," Cortez Masto said in a statement.
'Big test' for Democrats
The Somos PAC is canvassing and holding a steady clip of events in Latino neighborhoods as well as fundraising and airing television ads supporting Cortez Masto.
But it's the Culinary Workers Union, the most powerful union in the state, that has launched the biggest on-the-ground operation, with a massive voter persuasion effort.
By Monday, 300 full-time canvassers will fan out across Nevada, a number that will ramp up to more than 500 people by Election Day, according to Ted Pappageorge, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union. The idea is to have "working class voters talking to working class voters" about the election, and during their talks, canvassers will ask residents to sign a petition calling for a freeze on rent - a motivating issue in the greater Vegas area, where housing prices have soared, he said.
Pappageorge said he's well aware of the challenges in getting Latinos to the polls in November because they're disaffected by the economy. That includes those from his own union. This past Tuesday, at the union's headquarters 15 minutes off the Strip, newly hired workers at hotels and casinos walked in at a steady clip, signing up to become union members.
The pace is a sign the economy is on the rebound. But it's not all the way back. Nearly 20% of the culinary union's workforce is without a job, said Pappageorge, adding that Latinos are 60% of the labor group's 60,000 members.
"It is a big test," Pappageorge said of whether Democrats can drive turnout. "There's a tough economy out there, and there's an opportunity for folks to say, 'You know what? Maybe I'll go elsewhere.'"
But those efforts aren't easy. Last week, Alexis Lopez, 27, patiently listened on her front porch to a pitch for Cortez Masto by culinary workers out canvassing. She took their literature. She said she disliked Laxalt but found little in Democrats' messaging that motivated her to vote in November, with the possible exception of protecting abortion rights.
"Maybe that," she said. As she spoke, she unknowingly stepped upon an aged, water-damaged political mailer with Cortez Masto's image on it.
Laxalt promises 'historic shift' to Republicans
For his part, Laxalt, at a campaign event this week at a country club in suburban Henderson, chided Cortez Masto for what he predicted would be a huge loss of Latino support on Nov. 8. He cited the economy, crime, school quality and rising gas prices as reasons the electorate would turn away from Democrats.
"All these things accumulated for the Hispanic community and it finally said, 'these Democratic policies are not working. They're not giving us a chance to live the American Dream. They're not letting us educate our kids, and they're not keeping our communities safe,'" Laxalt said in response to a question from NBC News.
"We've made huge efforts to be engaged and speak to the Hispanic community, and we feel very confident these numbers are going to hold and you're going to see an historic shift here in this battleground state with that electorate."
A recent AARP survey suggested Cortez Masto was slipping with Latinos, while an earlier poll by Future Majority and America's Future Majority Fund, Democratic-aligned groups, found her sustaining strength.
Democrats have outspent Republicans in Spanish-language ads since Nevada's June 15 primary, pouring $4.6 million into Spanish-language ads, about 12% of their ad spend, according to AdImpact, an ad tracking firm. Over the same period, Republicans spent $1 million, about 3% of their total ad spend.
The Republican effort to woo Latino voters includes Operation Vamos, run by the Nevada Republican Party and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which has launched 100 volunteers statewide and out-of-state phone bankers who concentrate on rural Nevada.
Republicans insist Democrats are overblowing the abortion issue in Nevada, particularly among Latinos, saying of the potential voters they've surveyed at the doors, only 3% cite abortion rights as an important issue. Republicans say voters recognize that Nevada's law, which offers limited protections for abortion, is settled. Still, Democrats say Republicans are underplaying an issue important to Latinos, particularly women.
Of the Latinos the National Republican Senatorial Committee is targeting - made up of persuadable Democrats, swing voters and Latino Republicans - roughly 20% have said they're sitting out the election, many citing the economy, according to the group.
"For Nevada, it's particularly magnified among Hispanics," Ana Carbonell, NRSC consultant for Hispanic outreach, said of the impact of Nevada's economy. She cited Nevada's rising gas prices and inflation. "They still relish and have this hope in the American dream. Nothing that you're getting on the Democrat side tells you that they're getting the message."
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com