On a Saturday morning in early October, Joe S.,1 an Uber driver in his 40s, was in Freedom Park in East Las Vegas, waiting for his kid’s soccer game to start. Bags and equipment were piled near his sneakered feet as he turned to the woman he was with, who was watching another game then on the field, and said he was voting for “anybody but the Democrats.”
When I heard him say that, I approached him and asked him why. He responded with a mix of local issues and the economy: He blamed Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak and other Democratic leaders for teacher shortages and high gas prices, which were especially painful since they ate into his earnings as a driver. Abortion, which he heard the Democrats talking about, was a nonissue, he said. It should be up to the states, and is already protected in Nevada. “Right now you can have an abortion up to childbirth in some places,” he said, repeating a common and misleading Republican claim.
Three hours later and 9 miles away, I was in front of the Bellagio Fountain on the Strip with a small group of protesters. Local and Women’s March groups staged protests around the country that day in support of the right to abortion access, but the Nevada women who gathered feared their state’s extremely close Senate race could tip the balance against abortion rights. And they worried that not enough people knew about it.
“I think there’s a group of people that stay well informed and are on top of it, and they know what’s at stake, and then there’s the masses that are kind of oblivious to really how bad this is,” said Theresa Barber, a 55-year-old parts manager for a restaurant supply company who stayed at the march until the early evening, after most of the rest of the crowd of about 100 had left. She’d made a sign — Regulate Dick Not Jane — and told me she’d even tried to convince a worker at a Wendy’s drive-through to vote. “I mean, it’s bad,” she said. “We are right on the edge of losing everything.”
Everything feels existential to voters in this midterm election year, and it’s no different in Nevada. The state’s Senate race, between Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Republican Adam Laxalt, is a toss-up that could determine control of the chamber. And the race, like so many others across the country, has largely played out as a tug of war between protecting women’s rights and alleviating economic pain.
Republicans nationwide have campaigned against Democrats’ record on the economy, and it’s been no different in Nevada.
For Republicans, soaring gas and grocery prices have revitalized decades-old attacks on Democrats’ approach to the economy as a threat to individual prosperity. For Democrats, the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has pushed them to argue that women’s rights could erode further if Republicans gain control of the Senate.
Polling tells us the top issues on voter’s minds are inflation and the economy. But elections aren’t that simple. Candidates matter. Local conditions matter. Turnout matters. Over five days in Nevada, I saw all of those were swirling as one of the tightest races in the country barrels toward the finish line. Everywhere I went, things kept coming back to that tug-of-war between two seemingly unrelated issues. Nevada, whose economy was hard-hit by the pandemic and whose voters strongly support abortion rights, is a microcosm of the major issues defining this election year.
As Ana Olivas, a 35-year-old whom I met at a Latina business leaders breakfast, put it, “To me, I think human rights are No. 1, and then [the] economy is second. And somehow that’s always the two things that I feel like are in battle.”
Earlier this year, with inflation soaring and President Biden’s approval rating sinking, it seemed like the economy would propel Republicans to take over both chambers of Congress in a red wave. But then came the June Supreme Court decision overturning Roe V. Wade, and early signs suggested the unpopular decision might drive voters who were angry about it to the polls. And in August, unexpectedly high turnout helped defeat a proposed constitutional amendment in Kansas that would have allowed the state’s legislature to restrict abortion rights, suggesting Democrats had a path toward real electoral gains in November.
After all, the public trusts Democrats on abortion, and the issue was soaring in importance nationally. According to the ongoing FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll using Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel, in April, 6 percent of likely voters2 listed it as one of the most important issues for the country, but that number rose to 19 percent after the decision to overturn Roe.3 The share of likely voters who chose it as one of the country’s top issues dipped again in the months following, but it remains higher than where it started, with 11 percent citing it as a top issue in October. Among all respondents, the trends are fairly similar, as shown in the following chart:
Despite that movement, inflation remained the No. 1 issue for Americans, with 65 percent in the last wave saying it was one of the most important issues facing the country (likely voters felt similarly, with 63 percent listing inflation). Voters trust the Republican Party more on economic issues, and with the Dobbs decision further removed, the race has tightened nationally and in Nevada.
Cortez Masto is betting that abortion is still an issue that can power Democrats over the finish line. By mid-October, Democrats and outside groups had spent nearly $6.2 million in ads in favor of abortion rights to support Cortez Masto, according to a Washington Post analysis. On Laxalt’s side, only about $391,000 had been spent on the issue.
Cortez Masto has warned that if Republicans control the Senate, they could pass a national abortion ban, like one proposed in September by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham that would prohibit abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. “The current legislation introduced by Senator Graham stops the people in pro-choice states like mine, like Nevada, from choosing to protect the rights of women,” she said on the Senate floor. It’s an issue Cortez Masto talks about in English- and Spanish-language ads, in press conferences, in speeches and in meetings with Nevada voters.
It’s clear where Nevadans stand — and have stood. In 1990, a referendum protecting abortion up to 24 weeks passed with 63 percent of the vote, and an May 2022 analysis by The New York Times estimated that the same percentage of adults in the state still supports access to legal abortion, making it one of the most pro-choice states in the country. In September, an Emerson College poll found that abortion access was the second-most important issue to Nevada likely voters, with 18 percent saying it would determine their vote.
It’s also clear where Laxalt stands, though. He has said abortion regulations are best left to the states, and as Nevada’s attorney general, he signed onto amicus briefs in support of restrictions in other states and said he would support further restriction in Nevada. “A journalist recently asked me if I would support a referendum limiting abortion to the first 13 weeks of pregnancy, essentially, the first trimester,” he wrote in an August op-ed in the Reno Gazette-Journal. “I said that I would, and I stand by that view. I also believe that most Nevadans agree with that position.”
Perhaps because of the contrast between his views and those of his potential constituents, Laxalt has largely focused on inflation during the campaign, particularly high gas prices. Economic conditions have been especially tough in Nevada. In 2019, more than a fifth of the state’s workers were employed by the hospitality industry, which was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing shutdowns. Around three-quarters of the state’s population lives in and around Las Vegas, which is especially reliant on the industry.
Ted Pappageorge, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in Las Vegas, told me that about 80 percent of their workforce is back. Meanwhile, rent, gas, and grocery prices have climbed throughout the Western United States, and energy prices rose 20 percent year-over-year.
Cortez Masto and other Democrats in the state have acknowledged the economic difficulties but have also essentially said, ‘We were there for you when you needed unemployment and COVID-19 protections, so trust us to see this recovery through.’ “Today, jobs are up, unemployment is down, and American manufacturing is back,” Biden said in a virtual fundraiser for the Nevada congressional delegation last week. “But even with all this progress, we know folks are still struggling with inflation. …That’s why we’ve been so determined to reduce everyday costs.”
But the tough economy is a present reality for Nevadans, while the threat to abortion access that Cortez Masto has pointed to is a future one. This basic tension could help explain the enthusiasm gap we’ve seen between Republican and Democratic voters nationally. For example, a CNN/SSRS poll from last week found that only 24 percent of Democratic voters said they were enthusiastic about voting, compared with 44 percent in 2018; for Republicans, the decline this year was just 5 percentage points, from 43 percent in 2018 to 38 percent in 2022.
Each candidate is trying to appeal to key voting blocs, not just to sway them, but to convince them to vote at all. In Nevada, that means trying to win Latino voters.
On a Thursday afternoon, I met up with canvassers from Somos Votantes, an independent outreach group that has endorsed Democrats and mobilizes Latino voters, as they knocked on doors of registered voters in a North Las Vegas neighborhood of brown stucco single-family homes. Without trees for shade, the midday sun was at its full power. Sunrise Mountain framed the sky to the east. The canvassers and I walked by one family butchering part of a cow in their driveway for a celebration with friends and family visiting from Texas. Another family chased after a puppy that had escaped from its yard. An ice cream truck driver, lingering for the young children just home from school, saw the canvassers’ signs and started chanting, “Masto! Masto! Masto!”
Some voters said they couldn’t vote or that they didn’t pay attention to politics. Some said they needed to do more research. They were generally familiar with Cortez Masto, and many thought they would vote for her but hadn’t quite committed. Another man said Cortez Masto reminded him of Hillary Clinton and that he was voting for the other candidate. Veronica Balentine, a 54-year-old who works in health care, said affordable health care was the most important issue and that voters in the state were hearing a lot of misinformation in ads. Jose Bobadilla, a 30-year-old who’d heard stories about crime in the 1990s, was worried about gun rights. These voters, immersed in their everyday lives, brought their own set of concerns and issues to the election; the back-and-forth of the campaigns felt far away.
Latinos make up 30 percent of the state’s population, and while a majority voted for Biden in 2020, the Republican Party has made inroads with the group nationally and many Latino voters seem undecided this year. Whether this key bloc of voters shows up for Democratic candidates, swings toward Republicans or stays home could be a deciding factor. “My biggest thing that’s sort of keeping me up at night is not actually that Latinos are vote-switching, but it’s that the base is going to stay home,” said Melissa Morales, president of Somos Votantes and Somos PAC, which has endorsed Cortez Masto, the first Latina in the Senate.
Morales said the economy is an overriding concern for the voters her organization speaks with, but what that means can vary. People are worried about rising rents and the costs of healthcare and medicine as much as they’re worried about prices at the grocery store — so her organization always opens its door-to-door conversations by talking about cost-of-living issues. “I think there’s obviously the relief that, especially in a state like Nevada, that was the hardest hit by unemployment, that the jobs are back,” Morales said. “They’re able to sort of work to make ends meet. But also the realization that it’s just hard. All of it feels hard.”
Morales said that in their focus groups with young Latino voters, abortion remains a top issue. “It has been hard to get them excited or motivated or really sort of mobilized around anything for the past two years,” she said. “But what we’ve seen that’s starting to really take root and with those voters is the abortion and … the climate provisions in the IRA [Inflation Reduction Act].” Overall, Latino voters support access to abortion by large majorities. But will they come out to vote because of it?
In such a tight race, anything could tip the scales. Biden won Nevada by 33,596 votes. “Nevada is an extremely divided state,” Pappageorge said. “More than most folks understand — it’s one-third Democrats, one-third Republican, one-third independent. But most voters aren’t extremists. Most voters don’t believe in extremism on the right or extremism on the left.” Perhaps it’s fitting, then, Nevada could be the state that determines the balance of power in a divided Senate amid an increasingly divided country.