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‘Wild West’ Senate Race Holds Clues to Overall Midterm Election


A volunteer helps to register eligible voters in Las Vegas, Nevada, ahead of the November midterm election.

When elections are over, the results are submitted to a meticulous post-mortem: What went wrong and what went right? Voter turnout is key, complacency is bad, and suitable candidates matter. In the age of President Donald Trump, heated rhetoric and name-calling matter too.

For a while, it seemed, Democrats of Nevada — a gold-and-silver-mining-turned-gambling haven of the American Southwest — had gotten the memo this election year.

Voter registration numbers were up. Early ads were tugging at the consciences of Spanish-language voters. And following her victory in the Nevada Democratic primary race for a Senate seat, U.S. Representative Jacky Rosen appeared to have broad enough appeal to replace embattled Republican Senator Dean Heller. An Oct. 2 CNN poll showed her four points ahead.

Across the country, a Democratic “blue wave” was touted, threatening to splash across the red canyons of the politically decisive “Battle Born” State. (Nevada became a state during the U.S. Civil War.) To defeat an incumbent Republican senator with a firm edge in name recognition would be an extraordinary feat, but attainable — if the polls held.

Nevada’s politics, like its terrain, resemble the “Wild West,” according to Pauline Lee, President of the Nevada Republican Men’s Club.
Nevada’s politics, like its terrain, resemble the “Wild West,” according to Pauline Lee, President of the Nevada Republican Men’s Club.

Republican momentum

But more recently, campaign ads have rolled into high gear and undecided voters have begun to tune in. Judge Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court after being accused of sexual assault while in high school, sparking a bitter national conversation and energizing voters of both parties. And now Trump is battering Democrats on the campaign trail, blaming them for the caravan of thousands of migrants from Honduras escaping violence and extreme poverty, making their way north through Mexico toward the U.S. border.

With just two weeks remaining, Republican Senate candidates have regained narrow momentum in close contests across the country, including in Nevada, Arizona, Missouri and North Dakota. The Real Clear Politics poll average now has Heller ahead by 1.7 percent, still in a statistical tie with Rosen, but likely ahead.

In any election year, unexpected forces and planned strategy can alter state- and nation-wide races and close gaps down the final stretch. But Nevadan swing-state voters who pride themselves on their independence, may offer some clues about still undecided, middle-of-the-road voters across the country, according to some analysts.

Rep. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., center, poses for a selfie with high school students at an event put on by the Asian Community Development Council in Las Vegas, Sept. 29, 2018. In the high-stakes race for Senate in Nevada, Rosen is taking on one of the biggest names in GOP politics by painting Sen. Dean Heller as someone without firm principles.
Rep. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., center, poses for a selfie with high school students at an event put on by the Asian Community Development Council in Las Vegas, Sept. 29, 2018. In the high-stakes race for Senate in Nevada, Rosen is taking on one of the biggest names in GOP politics by painting Sen. Dean Heller as someone without firm principles.

Familiar tactics

“Jacky Rosen is not open to compromise,” Pauline Lee, president of the Nevada Republican Men’s Club, told VOA. “She’s very much a partisan politician, and I think that’s what conservatives see.”

A political seesaw, Nevada is represented by a senator of each party and a popular outgoing Republican governor, Brian Sandoval. Its electorate also chose former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump for president in 2016.

On either side of the aisle, Nevadans assert that moderation is key to winning over the state’s sizeable independent (with no party affiliation) voting bloc, and both candidates’ campaign messaging shows they get it.

“He’s the fifth most bipartisan member of the Senate,” says Sandoval, in a TV spot supporting Heller.

“Jacky works with both parties,” a narrator answers, in an ad released by the Rosen campaign the same day.

But Nevada politics, like its geography, resemble the “Wild West,” according to Lee. It’s anyone’s race, and the gloves of both campaigns have come off in the final weeks, aiming to draw in every undecided Nevadan, with early voting already underway.

Both sides are targeting voters with sophisticated tracking and get-out-the-vote efforts. And the Democrats are counting on a strong turnout by Nevada’s fast-growing Hispanic community to partially blunt Trump’s impact. As the Nov. 6 election nears, the political rhetoric is becoming nastier and more strident.

“Most voters will say, Well, we hate it, we want a clean race,’ but with a change in the points, it’s like the voter actually likes the mudslinging, or believes the negative campaigning,” says Laura Perkins, a member of the Women’s Democratic Club of Clark County, in Nevada.

In bilingual ads, Democrats have taken a cue from President Trump’s playbook in providing a nickname for Heller they hope will stick: “Senator Spineless.”

Critics point to Heller’s waffling on former president Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act that provides millions of Americans with subsidized health insurance. Heller ultimately voted to repeal and replace the health care legislation amid pressure from Trump and far-right voters, avoiding a bruising primary battle in the process.

Trump factor

On the right, critics label Rosen “a lockstep partisan” and “a Pelosi puppet” in Lee’s words, comparing her voting record as a congresswoman to that of the wildly unpopular House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi.

For reasons less clear, Trump has dubbed Rosen, “Wacky Jacky.”

And Trump, himself, might as well be on the ballot for better or worse. Trump is doing everything he can to transform the midterm election into a referendum on his first two years in office, a tactic that is working for Republicans in many red states but not elsewhere.

President Donald Trump, left, embraces Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., during a campaign rally, Sept. 20, 2018, in Las Vegas.
President Donald Trump, left, embraces Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., during a campaign rally, Sept. 20, 2018, in Las Vegas.

“It pays dividends politically for the Democrats to link Heller as much as possible to Trump,” says John Tuman, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“They perceive — and I think rightly so — that Trump is more of a liability than a help in this race, and some of that has to do with his tone,” Tuman said, adding that the president’s “polarizing and divisive” stance on issues doesn’t play to his advantage, particularly since immigration issues are mobilizing Latino voters and allies.

But Perkins warns: “Our attention span is so fleeting.”

Two years ago, in the fall leading up the 2016 election, Heller stated he was “100 percent against Clinton, 99 percent against Trump,” but has since voted in line with Trump on more than 90 percent of measures.

Lee predicts this will ultimately work in Heller’s favor. “[Trump has] his finger on the pulse of America,” Lee said. “He draws from people who never cared before.”

Turnout will be the ultimate deciding factor in the race for the Senate. “If Dems stay home, it’s a done deal,” Perkins said.

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