LAS VEGAS — Democrats in Nevada are optimistic of unseating Republican Sen. Dean Heller, but they acknowledge it won’t be easy.
“I don’t think anybody should be sleeping well,” said Sylvia Lazos, a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who spent Saturday — the first day of early voting — canvassing for Democratic candidates, including Heller’s opponent, Rep. Jacky Rosen.
On the surface, it appears Democrats should be getting a full night’s rest. They have a surge of energy on their side and Heller is the only GOP senator running for re-election in a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
And in a year when health care is central to Democratic messaging, Heller backtracked on a pledge to oppose a GOP effort to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law. (He said changes were made to address his concerns about the proposal last year.)
Polls Are Open in Nevada as Heller, Rosen Are Locked in Tight Senate Race
At a Saturday morning rally here with the powerful Culinary Workers Union, Rosen called that episode “the biggest broken promise of modern Nevada history.”
Republicans are quick to point out that political observers were writing Heller’s electoral obituary after his health care vote. But as polls consistently show, the race has remained close.
Ask political strategists on both sides why, and they tend to say the same thing: “It’s Nevada.”
Watch: GOP Shifts Messaging on Health Care Ahead of Midterm Elections
The Silver State isn’t as Democratic as some may think — Clinton won it by just 2 points.
Democrats have a small registration advantage — 38 percent to 33 percent over Republicans, but almost a quarter of voters aren’t registered with a party. The state has a libertarian slant, and sometimes bucks national political trends. It’s been nearly two decades since Nevada had two senators from the same party.
Heller has built-in advantages as an incumbent who’s never lost an election, including high name recognition and longstanding constituent relationships. He was appointed to the Senate in 2011 after four years in the House and has won four statewide races — for Nevada secretary of state three times and a full Senate term in 2012.
To win next month, Heller needs to perform well in Washoe County, which includes Reno, and boost turnout in rural and more conservative areas.
Zachary Moyle, a former executive director of the state Republican Party, said President Donald Trump’s visit Saturday to Elko in northwestern Nevada underscored how crucial rural voters are to the incumbent’s chances.
Heller has stressed his friendship with the president, even though he sharply criticized candidate Trump in 2016. In the first and only debate of the race Friday, Heller credited the strong economy to Trump’s policies and argued his re-election could help keep it going.
“My children, your children, my grandchildren, your grandchildren now have a future because of this administration and the work we are doing in this Congress,” he said. “I want to continue this work.”
Rosen, meanwhile, has cast the senator as a “rubber stamp” for Trump as she appeals to Democrats and unaffiliated voters wary of the president.
A new face
Republicans have chided Rosen for launching her campaign last year when she was barely six months into her first term representing the Las Vegas-area 3rd District — a seat President Donald Trump narrowly carried. But Democrats quickly lined up behind the former synagogue president and computer programmer.
Recent polls have found a tight race or narrow Heller lead, but Democrats point to the difficulty of surveying Nevada voters, given the number of Spanish speakers and people who work irregular hours in Las Vegas.
“I don’t support national polls. Look at what they said about my race, and I won,” said Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who was elected in 2016.
“I think you have to be on the ground and see the energy here,” she said Saturday afternoon, gesturing behind her to a party hosted by Democratic groups outside a polling place at the East Las Vegas Community Center. The smell of tacos wafted through the air as a mariachi band played and Mexican folk dancers performed.
Kirk Clyatt, a 59-year-old freelancer who voted for Rosen at the community center, suggested her short congressional tenure might be keeping the race closer than expected.
“I think if she had had one or two more terms in the House, it would be a slam dunk,” he said.
Still, Rosen touted her legislative accomplishments in Friday’s debate, while centering much of her message on health care.
Like other Democrats across the country, she said the GOP plan to repeal much of the 2010 law would have threatened health care for people with pre-existing conditions and hurt Nevadans who benefit from the state’s Medicaid expansion – which took place under its Republican governor, Brian Sandoval.
(Heller’s back-and-forth on the issue put him at odds with Sandoval, who nevertheless supports his re-election and appeared in an ad for him.)
Raging with the machine
Rosen will get also some help from the so-called Reid machine — the fabled Democratic turnout operation named for former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The Culinary Workers Union Local 226, to which Rosen belonged when she waited tables at Caesars Palace, is a key part of that operation.
The union has 250 workers dedicated to the field operation, which will grow to 300 workers in the final days before Election Day, according to union spokeswoman Bethany Kahn.
Republicans have also ramped up their ground game, headed by the Republican National Committee. In Nevada and neighboring Arizona, the GOP field team has knocked on nearly two million doors and made close to two million phone calls, surpassing its voter contacts in those states in 2016.
“The Reid machine requires Reid,” said Moyle, the former Nevada GOP executive director, citing the former leader’s small-town roots and appeal in rural parts of the state.
Republicans swept all statewide races in the last midterms in 2014, when they also captured three of Nevada’s four House seats. But political operatives say this year is more comparable to 2010, when the state also had competitive gubernatorial and Senate races driving turnout. (Reid won a final term that year despite polls showing him behind for most of the campaign.)
While this year’s Senate race is expected to be close until the end, Democrats believe Heller will lose his first race next month. And despite past struggles with the typical midterm drop-off among base Democratic voters, some were heartened by the turnout on the first day of early voting.
According to the Nevada secretary of state’s office, of the more than 40,000 people who voted Saturday, 47 percent were Democrats, 35 percent Republicans and 18 percent unaffiliated. In 2010, roughly 26,000 Nevadans went to the polls on the first day of early voting.
At the East Las Vegas Community Center, a handful of people stood in a line as they waited to enter a room to cast their votes. That was a new experience for Clyatt, who said he’s never had to wait before to vote early.
“This is one line I was happy to wait in,” he said.