We in Nevada have already experienced a lot in the last two years. We’re about to experience another wild ride with the upcoming 2022 election, as Democrats gear up to defend U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D), secure a second term for Governor Steve Sisolak (D), and maintain their majorities in the Nevada Legislature and in our Congressional delegation.
Today let’s examine the very early state of play, the emerging Republican fields in the big-ticket races, and how the next installment of the most important election of our lifetimes is just getting started.
Before we check on who’s running, let’s see what will be on our 2022 election ballots.
As I’ve been hinting all year, this next election will come down to those famous lines from Janet Jackson: “What have you done for me lately?” The good news for Democrats going into 2022 is that they do have some policies and programs to showcase. Right now, they’re reminding voters of the American Rescue Plan that they passed into law in March – the Rescue Plan that includes the actual funding needed to turn the national COVID-19 vaccine plan from rhetoric into reality, a historic reinvestment in state and local governments, a major boost to the patient premium tax credit that’s allowing more Americans to afford health insurance through the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and the launch of the most ambitious effort to take on child poverty (via the newly expanded child tax credit) we’ve seen in over half a century. And in the weeks ahead, Congressional Democratic leaders seek to pass two infrastructure bills that will go even further in rebuilding America’s economy – from our transportation system, to our energy grid and housing market.
The bad news for Democrats going into 2022 is that those two infrastructure bills are still working their way through Congress, major Rescue Plan programs like the “stimmies” and expanded unemployment insurance have already expired or are about to lapse, additional Rescue Plan programs like housing aid and the child tax credit have been bogged down by bureaucratic hurdles, and President Joe Biden’s economic/infrastructure agenda has increasingly been foreshadowed by more immediate crises like the collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghanistan government and the Delta variant powering another COVID-19 resurgence this summer.
So far this year Biden has managed to maintain net-positive favorability and approval among voters, but the FiveThirtyEight polling average shows Biden’s net approval sliding towards break-even in the last two weeks. The little amount of “Generic Congressional Ballot” polling we have are a little all over the place, but generally point towards a slight Democratic lead. One can argue that the overall trend of polling and special election results makes for a harbinger of a big “Red Tide” next year, yet one can also argue that Democrats’ enduring popularity (at least, for now) and the overall global trend of partisan polarization make a huge Republican midterm victory less likely than most media pundits care to admit. Basically it’s very early, the national political landscape is very unsettled, and it’s too soon to know for sure if next year’s midterm will produce a “wave” rushing in either major party’s direction.
Let’s move closer to home: What the hell is going on with the two major parties here in Nevada?
As we’ve been documenting since this past spring, Nevada Republicans are largely doubling and tripling down on former President Donald Trump’s “Big Lies”. Even the “moderates” who have been battling for party control – such as State Senator Carrie Buck (R-Henderson) and Las Vegas City Council Member Michele Fiore – have sought to ingratiate themselves with Trump’s far-right base, while the even-more-extreme hardliners – such as former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R) and Reno boxer-turned-reality TV star-turned-lawyer-turned-anti-vaccine activist Joey Gilbert – seem to be saying and doing whatever they think they must say or do in order to win that coveted Donald Trump faux tweet-press release endorsement. (Laxalt got one, but it remains to be seen who Trump endorses in the gubernatorial primary.)
The Nevada Republican Party has essentially been a giant (lack of) organizational hot mess for over a decade, so they’ve had difficulty winning most statewide elections since 2008. But when they got the national political winds at their back and caught Democrats napping, such as in 2014 and what almost ended up happening in 2020, they performed better than their lack of proper organization or party discipline would suggest was possible. If political analyst Evan Scrimshaw’s theory of global partisan polarization and realignment reshaping American politics ultimately proves true, then perhaps we can better understand why Nevada Republicans don’t put more effort into rebuilding their party structure. If all they need is for Donald Trump to turn out his base of “culture warrior” voters for them, why should they bother with the boring minutiae of party-building?
For over a decade, top Nevada Democrats prided themselves in building a “well-oiled (Reid) machine” of a state party. But with a new crew of “revolutionary” leftists in charge of the state and Clark County parties, “The Reid Machine” joined forces with the Washoe County party to launch their own 2022 coordinated campaign that’s separate from the official NSDP apparatus. Allies of the current NSDP leaders have cried foul, but that may mostly be due to top national Democrats bypassing NSDP and instead donating to the WashoeDems-run coordinated campaign.
As I’ve been saying all along, the vast majority of Nevada voters don’t care whatsoever about the internal party drama on either side of the aisle, and I suspect that not even the Proud Boys’ takeover of the Nevada Republican Party is enough to change this dynamic. While the ongoing GOP dysfunction probably continues to provide an opening for Democrats to out-hustle them in the field, they can’t ignore the fact that for two presidential cycles in a row, Democrats raised more money and spent more on TV advertising, just to finish with the same underwhelming 2.4% margins of victory. If Democrats want to overcome a radicalized-yet-enthusiastic Republican base, they actually need to motivate their own base and grow that base. On this note, let’s take a very early look at the two statewide races that will garner us another round of national media attention next year.
NV-Sen: How might Catherine Cortez Masto win a second term?
In 2016, U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto kept this Senate seat in Democratic hands with a 2.4% margin of victory that almost perfectly matched Hillary Clinton’s. While Cortez Masto underperformed Clinton in Washoe County (Clinton won by 1%, yet Cortez Masto lost by 1%), she made up for it by outperforming Clinton in Rural Nevada while running up the score in Clark County with a 10%+ margin of victory just like Clinton’s. The Republican nominee that cycle was then Rep. Joe Heck (R-Henderson), a seemingly strong candidate on paper who proved to be more of a political paper tiger who ultimately fell on a double-edged sword of Heck’s failure to generate the kind of enthusiasm on the far right that Trump did while simultaneously failing to substantially differentiate himself from Trump to win enough Democratic crossover votes.
Cortez Masto has already been busy building her own campaign warchest while Republicans waited on Adam Laxalt to make official what we’ve been suspecting he’d do all year. Unlike Heck, Laxalt has put in far more effort to tie himself to Trump and make the Trump base his own. Also unlike Heck, Laxalt has put virtually zero effort into winning over crossover votes or pretty much anyone who doesn’t already view Trump in a favorable light.
This whole election will probably come down to base turnout (as these elections tend to do in our very polarized times), so the key question that Democrats must answer in the coming months is how will they turn out enough Democratic voters to reelect Cortez Masto and the rest of their party’s slate of candidates. This right here explains why Cortez Masto and her Democratic colleagues need to move on passing more of the kind of legislation that may actually motivate their base voters to turn out in large numbers.
For now, I’m starting this Senate race (NV-Sen) as Leans Democratic. This does not mean that Republicans have zero chance of electing Laxalt next year, or that Cortez Masto is already doomed. Rather, this simply means that Cortez Masto starts out with a modest but noticeable and at least somewhat significant advantage.
NV-Gov: How might Steve Sisolak win a second term?
So much of what I just wrote about Cortez Masto also applies to Governor Steve Sisolak, other than Sisolak has a much greater ability to set the agenda for Nevada state government as the governor of this state. He defeated Laxalt by just over 4% in 2018, and he’s enjoyed a Democratic “trifecta” in state government since then. He’s run into some trouble in the past 18 months by reacting to suddenly escalating crises when he had prior chances to be more proactive in solving problems before they could escalate into something much worse. Yet when we consider how Sisolak’s Republican critics have piled on their criticism of his handling of COVID-19 while advocating a far more dangerous (lack of a?) strategy, we can see how and why Sisolak has found ways to weather the pandemic storm.
According to an OH Predictive Insights poll released earlier this month (they’re an Arizona-based firm who recently decided to branch out and poll other Western states), Sisolak has a healthy 52%-39% favorability rating, while Cortez Masto has a less impressive but still positive 42%-39% favorability score, and Nevada Democrats start out with a small 41%-39% generic ballot lead over Republicans. While the OHPI crew are very new to Nevada, they do have a decent track record in Arizona, and their Nevada numbers do seem to align with the very early national generic ballot trial heats.
As I alluded to earlier, Sisolak still has more to do to make his case to his fellow Nevadans that he deserves a second term. While he and the Nevada Legislature did manage to eek out some modest mining tax reform at the very end of this past session, along with a bit more criminal justice reform and an omnibus climate law that largely amounted to approval for what NV Energy already agreed to do, there’s so much more that Sisolak and Democratic legislative leaders essentially left on the table for their federal counterparts to solve for now (via the American Rescue Plan), and for themselves to kick down the road to some other time. Yet with a very unsettled Republican gubernatorial (NV-Gov) field full of Joey Gilbert and the politicians who have essentially become “wannabe Joey Gilberts” (as in – Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, and probably former U.S. Senator Dean Heller), Sisolak can at least begin to make the case to Nevadans that regardless of the issues they’ve taken with his leadership of the state, Sisolak at least provides a more steady hand than any of his current Republican opponents who thus far seem to be more preoccupied with pleasing that one out-of-state hotel owner by the name of Donald Trump.
For these reasons, I’m also starting NV-Gov as Leans Democratic. Again, this does not mean that Sisolak is either guaranteed a victory next year or already doomed to defeat. This simply means that Sisolak starts out as a slight but noticeable favorite to win reelection, but we can’t rule out the possibility that one of these Republicans finds a way to defeat him.
Before we go, some notes on redistricting
Typically when I do election forecasts, I also like to walk everyone through the U.S. House and Nevada Legislature races. But since we’re just getting the full suite of U.S. Census data now, we’re still awaiting a special session of the Legislature this fall to approve new maps for the next decade.
With the First Congressional District (NV-01) as Nevada’s slowest growing district and the Third District (NV-03) as Nevada’s fastest growing district, it’s not too hard to figure out the general contours of how Democratic legislators will seek to give Reps. Susie Lee (D-Las Vegas) and Steven Horsford (D-North Las Vegas, NV-04) at least somewhat more favorable districts next year. Rep. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas) will need to accept a new NV-01 that includes some new territory, but she’s already drawn the line on not losing her home turf of the east side and the Las Vegas Strip. Lee’s geographic home turf is Summerlin, Horsford’s geographic home turf is North Las Vegas, and Democratic leaders so far show zero appetite for drawing any of the three Southern Nevada based Democrats into Northern Nevada just to mess with Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Carson City, NV-02).
What does this all mean? Basically, don’t expect a new Congressional map that’s radically different from the current one. The Crystal Ball’s J. Miles Coleman and Kyle Kondik recently posted a theoretical redistricting map that seems plausible in that it gently shores up Lee and Horsford by a few points while keeping Titus in a safe seat, but I’m not so sure this is exactly the map the Legislature will adopt, as it moves Titus’ home base into NV-03 while shifting Lee’s home base into NV-01.
As I eyeball The New York Times’ 2020 election map by precinct, I’m just wondering if the Legislature can perhaps satisfy everyone by shifting NV-01 south towards (and maybe into?) Henderson in order to let Titus keep her home turf east of I-15 while allowing Lee to trade in some of her current red spots east of I-15 for some blue turf west of I-15. As for Horsford, NV-04 can now afford to drop some rural turf, so the Legislature already has justification for moving NV-04’s current northernmost rural regions into NV-02 while shaving off a little more blue turf from the current NV-01 to shore up NV-04 for Horsford. Perhaps I’m totally off here – We’ll just have to wait for the Legislature to release the actual new lines, then we’ll expand our forecast further down-ballot.
The cover photo is a screenshot taken by me.