Down Ticket #16: How Trump has transformed the Nevada Senate race — and down-ballot politics in general

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
Joe Heck and Catherine Cortez Masto. (Photos: David Becker/AP; Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal/AP)

It’s clear from even the quickest glance at the latest headlines — the “audio issues,” the stiffed piano merchant, the whole “Miss Piggy” controversy — that Donald Trump has transformed the 2016 presidential election into a spectacle unlike anything in recent U.S. history.

But what has Trump done to down-ballot politics?

Last Friday, Down Ticket traveled to Las Vegas to check in on the race to succeed retiring Sen. Harry Reid former majority leader, current minority leader, and, with nearly 34 years of Capitol Hill maneuvering under his belt, the second most powerful Democrat in the country.

We chose Nevada because, more than any other marquee 2016 contest, it seemed like the perfect place to explore the deeper forces that define American politics today.

For starters, it’s one of the few open Senate seats at stake this cycle. No incumbent means no incumbency advantage, no out-of-the-gate favorite. A level playing field is helpful when you’re trying figure out what’s actually happening on the ground.

Second, both contestants represent bigger trends in their respective parties. Republican Rep. Joe Heck, a physician and a brigadier general in the Army Reserve who has served three tours of active duty, is precisely the kind of candidate the RNC was calling for when it declared, in its autopsy of Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss to Barack Obama, that Latinos “will close their ears to our policies” if they “think we do not want them here.” Heck’s Henderson-area congressional district, NV-3, is 15.4 percent Latino, and in his 2014 reelection bid, he won 40 percent of the Latino vote, besting Romney’s 2012 performance by 13 percentage points.

Sen. Harry Reid arrives for a press interview in Las Vegas last August. (Photo: David Becker/Reuters)

Meanwhile, Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, the state’s two-term attorney general, is Latina herself — the granddaughter of an immigrant from Chihuahua, Mexico. If elected, she would be the first Latina in the U.S. Senate.

Then there are the overall demographics of Nevada to consider: 28 percent Hispanic, 9 percent black, roughly 10 percent Asian-American or Pacific Islander (a community that’s growing faster in the Silver State than anywhere else in America). With non-Hispanic whites now reduced to 50 percent of the population, Nevada has already morphed into the kind of multi-ethnic melting pot that the rest of the country will soon become as well. The fact that it’s also a purple state makes it something of a bellwether — a glimpse of our political future.

Last but not least: The contest between Heck and Cortez Masto is too close to call. Both candidates reminded Down Ticket of what they constantly remind voters — that Nevada could determine which party will rule the next Senate.

“When you look at the first four seats ranked as most likely to flip parties, they are Republican seats going Democratic, which puts us at 50-50,” Heck told Down Ticket. “This is number five, which puts us back at 51.”

“Right here in Nevada is the pathway for Democrats to take back control of the Senate,” added Cortez Masto.

Translation: everybody is bringing their A-game.

These were the reasons we went to Nevada. What we found, however, was less emblematic of American politics writ large than of how Donald Trump is distorting American politics.

Both sides insisted that all they wanted to talk about was “the issues.” What they were actually talking about was whether Cortez Masto was Hispanic enough.

*****

The quarrel started last Thursday with Tom McAllister, a longtime Heck consigliere who was, until recently, his official political director. Reacting to a Washington Post story in part about Cortez Masto and her Mexican-American roots, McAllister tweeted that “Catherine is about as Mexican as I am. It’s relevant when applying for scholarhsips [sic] … or running for #nvsen.”

Rep. Joe Heck at the Capitol last year, during the vote to elect the speaker of the House. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

Next up was Heck’s former campaign manager, Mark Ciavola, who seconded his old colleague on Twitter with some quips about how Cortez Masto doesn’t speak Spanish. Finally, McAllister took to Facebook to complain that Cortez Masto is “going around Nevada hyping up the fact that she could be the first female Hispanic ever elected to the U.S. Senate.”

“Don’t believe her BS,” McAllister warned. “Hispandering at its finest.”

Cue firestorm. “To try to erase [Cortez Masto’s] family’s provenance, to equate being Mexican with being Hispanic, to use the term “Hispandering,” a sneering insult: This is outrageous. This is nasty. This is borderline racist,” wrote Jon Ralston, Nevada’s most influential political reporter. “And it is just plain dumb.”

It was also distinctly Trump-like: an identity insult with echoes of the candidate’s trademark tirades against Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren and Judge Gonzalo Curiel.

“This is Donald Trump’s America, where you can say almost anything you want about minorities,” Ralston wrote. “Just as Trump thinks it’s fine to call [Curiel] Mexican, so, too, McAllister and Ciavola think it’s fine to try to erase Cortez Masto’s heritage because they worry about her having success at winning Hispanic votes.”

As for Cortez Masto, she could, theoretically, have let the issue drop. After all, neither Ciavola nor McAllister are currently affiliated with Heck’s campaign, and Heck doesn’t agree with their remarks.

“We have a lot of questions for my opponent, but her ethnic heritage is not one of them,” Heck told Down Ticket in his first public comments on the controversy. “Those are former aides. … One left the campaign four months ago, one six months ago. There’s a reason why they’re no longer with us.”

But no surprise: That wasn’t enough for Cortez Masto.

Guadalupe Arreola, civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, Catherine Cortez Masto and an unidentified supporter address campaign volunteers in Arreola’s Las Vegas home, Sept. 15, 2016. (Photo: Dalton Bennett/Washington Post via Getty Images)

By Friday morning, her campaign had organized an event at the Hispanic Museum of Nevada, a small storefront space in Las Vegas’ Boulevard Mall. A podium was positioned in front of a high white wall hung with oil paintings by Carlos Porfirio and Samy Gana; nearby stood a mannequin bedecked in traditional Bolivian garb and a table arrayed with Guatemalan handicrafts. Two dozen Hispanic Cortez Masto supporters holding orange-and-blue campaign signs emblazoned with the slogan “¡Una de las Nuestras! Cortez Masto Para el Senado” slowly shuffled behind the podium. A family friend reminded the news media in attendance that Cortez Masto’s late father, Manny Cortez, was a local legend; immigration activists demanded that Heck apologize.

“If they’re attacking her because of that,” said Jose Macias, “that means they’re attacking the whole community.”

Finally, Cortez Masto stepped to the microphone in a bipartisan purple pantsuit.

“For longtime aides of Congressman Heck to attack my Mexican heritage, claiming that it is only useful for a college application, is disgusting,” she said. “It’s offensive not only to me, my father and my grandfather, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, but it is insulting to all Mexican-Americans who make America strong.”

“Attempts to diminish their contributions go to the heart of what people like Donald Trump and Joe Heck are thinking,” Cortez Masto continued. “They think America is weaker because of our differences and that our diversity is something to be criticized and feared. Let me tell you: they are wrong.”

In an interview after the Hispanic Museum event, Cortez Masto was even more indignant.

Donald Trump speaks as his sons Donald Trump Jr., second from left, and Eric Trump, third from left, look on during a caucus night party in Las Vegas last February. (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

“It starts with Donald Trump, his message of hate, racism and discrimination,” she told Down Ticket. “People need to stand up to that type of rhetoric and just call it what it is. And Donald Trump” — here Cortez Masto paused, catching her mistake — “excuse me, Congressman Heck, by not even being willing to stand up, by not saying anything, then he’s complicit in perpetuating that type of divisive rhetoric. That’s not somebody who should be representing the state of Nevada, or our country in general.”

*****

Cortez Masto’s calculus here is simple. In Nevada, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by nearly 80,000. Lots of Nevada Democrats are Hispanic. Cortez Masto doesn’t need crossover voters; if her base turns out on Nov. 8, she will win. What better way to get Nevada Democrats fired up than by accusing Heck of being just as anti-Hispanic as Trump — even if you have to stretch the transitive property to its limits (ex-staffers = Heck = Trump) to do it?

As one Nevada Democrat excitedly told Down Ticket, “word of mouth has more resonance here, where people work all-night shifts and don’t tune into the evening news. This is something that people will talk about. People who don’t pay attention to politics will be like, ‘Holy s***, that’s quite the accusation.’ People can connect with this.”

A reminder for people to vote at a primary election polling site in Las Vegas. (Photo: John Locher/AP)

Or at least that’s what Democrats hope. For months now, the Cortez Masto campaign has been trying to portray Heck as a Trump clone, reminding voters that, unlike many other GOP Senate candidates — and unlike his fellow Nevada Republicans, Sen. Dean Heller and Gov. Brian Sandoval — Heck has endorsed the Manhattan mogul for president. Cortez Masto has described Heck and Trump as “ideological soul mates.” Reid — who selected Cortez Masto to succeed him and says he is “devoting a huge amount of [his] time” to the race — has referred to his protégée’s rival as both a “parrot” and “Joe ‘I’m Really Trump’ Heck.” Democratic attack ads have pilloried Heck for saying he has “high hopes” that Trump will win; that he “completely supports” Trump; that he trusts Trump with America’s nuclear codes.

And yet the polls appear to be moving in Heck’s direction. In August, Heck and Cortez Masto were basically tied; the largest gap between them in the RealClear Politics polling average was 0.3 percentage points. Since the start of September, however, Heck’s lead has grown: first to 1 point, then to 1.2 points, then to 1.5 points, then to 2 points, and now to 4 points. One of the most recent statewide surveys shows Heck up by seven; another puts him ahead by three. In contrast, the same poll shows Hillary Clinton beating Trump by six.

Sen. Dean Heller, with his wife, Lynne, after his win over challenger Rep. Shelley Berkley in 2012. (Photo: Julie Jacobson/AP)

Democrats argue that a transient population, odd work hours, and lots of cell phones, especially among younger minorities, make Nevada notoriously difficult to poll. They point out that existing polls tend to underestimate Democratic turnout; in 2012, the Republican Senate candidate, Dean Heller, won by a much slimmer margin (1.2 points) than his average polling lead predicted, and in 2010, Reid defeated Republican Sharron Angle by a solid 5.6 points even though he’d trailed her in 14 of the last 18 public surveys. They say Reid’s powerful political machine will give them an edge over the state’s notoriously sloppy GOP on Election Day. They blame a multimillion-dollar ad blitz by the Koch Brothers — who are determined to embarrass Reid, their archenemy — for depressing Cortez Masto’s numbers. And they believe that last week’s “Hispandering” flap will help turn the tide.

Maybe so. Or maybe not. We’ll find out soon enough.

Political operatives saying offensive stuff — that’s nothing new. Neither is the outrage machine that their rivals like to rev up in response. But something about the recent Heck vs. Cortez Masto contretemps felt … symptomatic. The eagerness to insult an opponent’s ethnic identity. The eagerness to capitalize on these insults for electoral gain. Even Heck’s stiffness when discussing the subject. (He simply repeated, verbatim, his press shop’s official line on the subject: They have a lot of questions for Cortez Masto, but none about her heritage.)

One side seems terrified that white working-class voters will turn on them if they aren’t sufficiently Trump-like. The other side seems convinced that trashing their opponents as bigots-by-association is the best way to voters’ hearts. It’s a vicious circle that’s becoming even more vicious in the Age of Trump.

*****

This is unfortunate, because Heck and Cortez Masto actually have some ideas worth discussing. During an interview at the Democratic Party’s Las Vegas headquarters, Cortez Masto empathized with Nevadans “still struggling” in the wake of “the worst recession I’ve ever seen,” when “literally 77,000 homeowners were at risk of losing their homes”; she recalled that, as one of the few state attorneys general with the power to write legislation, she “introduced over 40 bills — 40 — that passed out of the legislature with the support of Republicans and Democrats, and were always signed by a Republican governor”; she spoke about writing the state’s “first sex-trafficking law,” creating its “first domestic-violence fatality review team ever,” and “filing suit against one of the biggest banks in the country because they weren’t doing right by the homeowners here.”

Catherine Cortez Masto, running for Minority Leader Harry Reid’s Senate seat in 2016, speaks with supporters last February. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, at his field office in Summerlin, Heck made it clear that he doesn’t agree with many aspects of Trump’s divisive immigration platform, pointing out, with a laugh, that “it’s logistically and fiscally impossible to find and deport 12 million people,” and that “there are areas on the border with Mexico where physical obstacles just won’t work.”

“You put up a 10-foot wall and I’ll show you a 12-foot ladder,” Heck said. “Or I’ll show you the tunnel.”

Heck’s history on immigration is nuanced. Democrats insist he’s all talk, no action — and that he has voted against both DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Legal Permanent Residents and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) — but the truth is that he’s also broken with the GOP herd on several occasions. (Heck’s congressional district begins just south of the glitzy hotels and casinos of the Vegas Strip and stretches into the neighboring suburbs that many of the Latino and Asian immigrants who staff those hotels and casinos call home.) In 2013, Heck read all 1,200 pages of the Gang of Eight’s comprehensive immigration reform bill, and though he objected to portions of it, he planned to work on a House version. When House Republicans eventually decided to kill the legislation, Heck released a statement saying the situation was “extremely frustrating and very disappointing.” He spent six months drafting a GOP version of the DREAM Act. And he says that he would continue to push for bipartisan immigration reform as a senator under President Trump.

Demonstrators outside Heck’s office in Las Vegas in 2014. (Photo: Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, Astrid Silva/AP)

“You’ll get to a comprehensive solution through a series of individual bills,” Heck told Down Ticket, noting that he recently partnered with progressive Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona on a career and technical education bill that passed unanimously in the House. “These days you’ve got folks that want to go off into their respective corners and just argue at each other. But if you take the time to build relationships and get simpler things accomplished, that builds a level of trust to then be able to go out and tackle the more difficult issues.”

At the moment, however, the race to replace Reid couldn’t be more polarized.

Last Saturday, while Cortez Masto repeated her applause lines about Heck and Trump at a Hillary Clinton “Glassbreakers” summit in North Las Vegas, Heck was 70 miles west in the desert town of Pahrump, a libertarian outpost in the middle of one of the largest but least populous counties in the United States. He’d come for the annual Fall Festival parade.

Men circled on horseback, American flag bandanas knotted around their necks. An activist in full Revolutionary War regalia, long rifle included, was holding a sign that read “VOTE NO ON QUESTION ONE” — the November ballot measure that would institute background checks for gun purchases. “Life is Short, Death is Sure, Sin the Curse, Christ the Cure!” read a banner lashed to the side of church float. Billboards for the Chicken Ranch Brothel lined the road. (Prostitution is legal in Pahrump.) Nye County Commissioner Donna Cox — decked out in a suede-fringed poncho, turquoise jewelry, a cowboy hat and a pistol on her hip — pulled her blond grandson in a wagon; Cox’s husband walked beside her, a pitchfork in his hand. Beneath his denim overalls was a bright red T-shirt: “101% TRUMP.”

For a mile and a half, Heck (in Wranglers and a white, tightly tucked polo) and his wife, Lisa (in cowboy boots and pink plaid), meandered down Route 160 in the low morning sun, waving to onlookers. They walked a few feet behind the Nye County Republican Party float that featured bales of hay, a “Make Liberty Great Again” scroll and a life-size cardboard cutout of Donald Trump.

Contrasted with Cortez Masto’s event at the Hispanic Museum, the parade in Pahrump was a vivid illustration of the cultural divide has driven Trump’s campaign — and that threatens to define the Nevada Senate race. The Silver State may be diverse — a preview of America’s majority minority future. But as many studies have shown, diversity and resentment — particularly on the part of a previously privileged group — go hand and hand. Everything is a little hotter in a melting pot.

Heck during a roundtable event in Henderson, Nev., in June. (Photo: David Becker/AP)

“Dr. Joe Heck!” shouted Heck’s outreach director. “Running to replace Harry Reid in the U.S. Senate! Dr. Joe Heck!”

“’Bout time!” the people of Pahrump shouted back. “Give ‘em Heck!” “Praying for you, man!” “Hooray for that guy!” “You gonna take out Nancy Pelosi too?”

“Good morning,” said Heck, still waving. “Good to see you.”

There were a few Hispanic locals lining the parade route. They largely remained silent.

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