The Senate race in Nevada between Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto and Republican Rep. Joe Heck is one of the marquee battlegrounds of 2016 — a contest that could determine which party controls the legislative body next year.
And yet, with just two weeks before Election Day, a key bloc of voters doesn’t know much about the race, its candidates, or even whom they’ll vote for.
“To be completely honest, I haven’t done enough research on either of them to feel like I have a final decision,” said China, a self-employed 29-year-old mother. “I’ve been so focused on the presidential debate that I haven’t done much research on the Senate.”
China was participating in a focus group of so-called “Wal-Mart moms,” mostly middle-class, middle-aged women who describe themselves as undecided over the presidential race. It was held in Las Vegas and simulcast for reporters in Washington on Tuesday night. (Only first names were given for the 10 participants.)
Down-ballot races across the country have been heavily overshadowed this year by the presidential race, which has consumed news coverage and attention spans nationally and in individual battleground states. Many party operatives working on Senate races, from both parties, complain about the inability to persuade the media to cover any congressional-race story not intertwined with the White House contest.
What little the participants did know about the race was rooted directly in TV ads that have been run about the race.
For Heck, several of the women cited his opposition to funding Planned Parenthood, a common line of attack from Democrats.
For Cortez Masto, meanwhile, the group labeled her “corrupt” — Republicans have focused much of their efforts on raising questions about her eight-year tenure as the state attorney general.
“It was not much else,” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster who talked with reporters after the session ended. “And we’re two weeks out.”
Margie Omero, a Democratic pollster, said the participants knew “zilch” about the race.
(Newhouse and Omero work for Public Opinion Strategies and Penn Schoen Berland, respectively, the two polling firms that conducted the Las Vegas focus group and another one in Charlotte, North Carolina, later in the night.)
At the Charlotte focus group (which featured five married couples), the participants knew almost nothing about the North Carolina Senate race between Republican incumbent Richard M. Burr and Democratic challenger Deborah Ross. When the focus group leader pressed them about the contest, many started talking about House Bill 2, the state legislation that prevents transgender people from using bathrooms of their chosen gender identity.
HB2 is a major issue in the state’s hotly contested gubernatorial race but has had relatively little impact on the Senate contest.
When the moderator asked if Burr’s support of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump affected their vote, the group demurred.
“It’s hard to say if you don’t know too much about them,” one man said.
Like Nevada, the North Carolina Senate race is one of the election’s top down-ballot battlegrounds. A win for Democrats would likely signal that the party will hold a majority in the Senate in 2017.
The lack of knowledge about the Nevada Senate race contrasted sharply with what the participants know about the presidential race between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, which the ten women spoke about in detail for nearly 90 minutes. Newhouse and Omero each said the depth of knowledge of this year’s presidential contest was impressive, even compared to other presidential races in the recent past.
Voters in Las Vegas expressed a deep frustration with both candidates.
One woman called Clinton a “psychopath” and Trump an “idiot.”
“Either way I’m going to walk out of that voting booth wanting to cut myself,” said Phelicia, 40, who added that she was undecided about the race.
Asked how they would feel if Trump were elected president, the mothers didn’t hold back, using words like “ridiculous,” “OMG,” “shocked,” “laughing stock of the world,” “war,” and “embarrassed.”
One woman named Codie, a homemaker, cited her religion as a reason she wouldn’t vote for Clinton.
“I don’t believe a woman should run the country,” she said.