Losing ground, Cortez Masto defeat in Nevada could cost Democrats Senate Majority
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (campaign image).

With less than a month before the midterm elections, recent polling and reporting have heightened fears about the GOP seizing control of the evenly split U.S. Senate—and particularly, whether Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada can hold on to her seat.

Cortez Masto's is one of few key Senate races—along with those in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—that election watchers largely consider a toss-up. In Nevada, the first-term incumbent senator faces Republican Adam Laxalt, who succeeded her as state attorney general.

Some polls have suggested that Laxalt could be Republicans' "golden ticket" to reclaim the Senate, showing him with slim leads over the chamber's "most vulnerable" Democrat. While the results of a USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll out Wednesday showed Cortez Masto with a 46%-44% lead, that's within the margin of error for the survey, which was conducted last week.

"Both candidates have solidified support within their parties," noted USA TODAY's reporting on the survey. "Cortez Masto is backed by 89% of Democrats, Laxalt by 87% of Republicans. Independents favor Laxalt by 40%-36%. The two sides are matched in intensity; 46% of the backers of each say they are 'extremely' motivated to vote."

The new poll results also highlighted key priorities for Nevada voters:

Concern about inflation and the economy dominates in Nevada, the top issue for 43% of likely voters. Almost half of those surveyed, 46%, say their standard of living is worse now than it was two years ago. Only 16% say it's better.
By 46%-39%, Nevadans say the state is on the wrong track, not heading in the right direction.
One in four cite abortion as the top issue. Asked how much impact abortion views would have on their choice of a candidate in November, using a scale of one to ten, 40% of those surveyed chose 10—the most powerful possible impact.

The U.S. Supreme Court ending the constitutional right to abortion in June with its Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization ruling gave pro-choice Democrats a motivating issue to run on, but Cortez Masto's race may also be revealing the potential pitfalls of focusing too singularly on the issue.

Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—who serves as outreach lead for the chamber's Democrats and won Nevada in the party's 2020 presidential primary—wrote Monday that "I am alarmed to hear the advice that many Democratic candidates are getting from establishment consultants and directors of well-funded super PACs that the closing argument of Democrats should focus only on abortion."

"I disagree," Sanders explained in his Guardian opinion piece. "In my view, while the abortion issue must remain on the front burner, it would be political malpractice for Democrats to ignore the state of the economy and allow Republican lies and distortions to go unanswered."

The Associated Press reported Monday that Democrats predicted abortion would be the "saving grace" for Cortez Masto, "but inside Nevada's crowded union halls, across its sun-scorched desert towns, and on the buzzing Las Vegas strip, there are signs that outrage over the Supreme Court's decision to dismantle abortion rights may not be enough to overcome intensifying economic concerns."

While Laxalt in June celebrated the reversal of Roe v. Wade as a "historic victory," the Republican has since highlighted that in a 1990 referendum, voters "determined that Nevada is and will remain a pro-choice state," allowing abortion until 24 weeks of pregnancy.

The New York Times on Saturday pointed to Laxalt as an example of the kind of GOP candidate who has "sought a delicate two-step on abortion, catering to a base demanding its prohibition and to the political center, which is largely supportive of Roe."

As the newspaper detailed:

Laxalt… is broadcasting television ads proclaiming that no matter what happens in Washington, abortion will remain legal in Nevada, attempting to pivot voter attention back to crime and the economy.
"Over the last two years, Democrat politicians have done incredible damage to America," one ad intones. "But one thing hasn't changed: abortion in Nevada. Why do Democrats like Catherine Cortez Masto only talk about something that hasn't changed? Because they can't defend everything that has."

The AP's Monday report noted that "in an interview, Cortez Masto sidestepped questions about her fragile political standing. She acknowledged 'there's more work to be done' on the economy in a working-class state in which gasoline remains over $5.40 per gallon, the unemployment rate is higher than the national average, and spending at casinos has not kept pace with inflation."

"I know our families, the issues that are important to them are the kitchen-table issues," she said, citing the Democrats' recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. "But I also know, talking with our families, the repeal of Roe v. Wade is having an impact… We're a pro-choice state, proudly. That's why so many are outraged by the repeal."

Cortez Masto also took aim at her GOP opponent for openly backing former President Donald Trump's claim that Democrats stole the 2020 election, saying that he "was the face of the Big Lie" in the state and "in my view, he stands with the insurrectionists and not the people of Nevada."

Laxalt is a favorite of both Trump—who campaigned for him in Nevada last weekend—and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), making him "a perfect fusion for a GOP that needs both Trump's base and McConnell's ability to marshal millions to effectively compete," Ross Barkan wrote Tuesday for Intelligencer.

Barkan pointed out that ushering in a GOP Senate majority that thwarts President Joe Biden's legislative goals is not the only potential consequence of a loss by Cortez Masto—a "protégé of the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid," who oversaw a "highly effective apparatus that forged coalitions between progressive groups and organized labor while homing in on voter registration, consistently turning out the new Democrats that joined the rolls."

According to Barkan, "Her defeat may also say something disconcerting about the health of the Democratic coalition itself: If an increasingly diverse and working-class state slips away from them, what hope is there?"