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White Voters Are More Excited About the Midterms. In Nevada, Latino Organizers Aim to Close the Gap

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NORTH LAS VEGAS — Melissa Morales knows the repeated door knocks can get annoying, but she doesn’t really care. With her fellow Democrats facing tough headwinds and white voters showing a higher interest in this November’s elections than non-white voters in polls, the Latino voters she and her team are trying to fire up can handle another ring at the bell.

“Unless you’re a hardcore Republican Trump voter who told us you never want to see us again, we’re probably going to be back on your door again,” Morales says as she eats her huevos con chorizo in a Mexican restaurant that is known for its big celebrations and well-seasoned fish. “This is personal for us.”

Morales, the 34-year-old founder and executive director of Somos Votantes and its affiliated Somos PAC, is visiting Nevada to check in on her team of 10, which is set to double by the end of the month. So far, they’ve hit 100,000 doors in three key states this cycle—Michigan, Arizona, and Nevada—and are on pace to reach 1 million by Election Day. In the last election cycle, she coordinated some $33 million between the nonprofit and political action committee to help educate voters and, in turn, elect Democrats; Morales is showing no signs of easing up on either voters or donors this cycle as her organization also works to incorporate social services into its events, including free assistance with citizenship applications and DACA renewals.

Nevada is the effort’s highest priority, both because the Latino community holds about 20% of the electoral power and because the first and only Latina sent to the Senate, Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, is on the ballot this fall. The state is expected to be close, and the Senate race between Cortez Masto and Republican Adam Laxalt, a former state attorney general, is already fiercely contested. The candidates themselves have unloaded $25 million so far, with 80% of that coming from Cortez Masto. Meanwhile, more than $21 million has been spent by outside groups, and fall TV ad time is quickly becoming as elusive as water in Lake Mead, which is at a record low.

(For the record, Cortez Masto has called for a federal ban on efforts from non-profit groups like Somos Votantes that don’t disclose donations and filter cash to politics, and Laxalt’s campaign has highlighted other groups flooding the state with so-called dark money on Cortez Masto’s behalf.)

Strategists in both parties say the airwaves won’t be where the Nevada Senate race will be won. Rather, the determinant will be activity at the margins, including highly targeted digital ads, efforts by groups like the state’s influential Culinary Union, and, yes, volunteers sweating through their clothes as they knock on thousands of doors.

So with the sun at full strength and temperatures hovering around 100 degrees, Morales drove around the corner to meet up with staffers who were spending the rest of their Tuesday afternoon in a working-class neighborhood where Spanish is the main language spoken in many homes. Their bilingual pitch was well rehearsed even if the majority of doors went unanswered, which is normal for such time-consuming canvasses. When no one came to the door, the canvassers left behind a PAC-funded card that made the case for Cortez Masto on one side the case against Laxalt on the other.

Somos organizer Victor Villanueva dutifully went to almost every door on one street, urging those who could vote to do so and those who couldn’t to urge their families to support Cortez Masto’s re-election. He’s looking for recent immigrants, potential voters who are just turning 18, and families hit by the high price of back-to-school supplies. If they’re game, he also leaves behind a yard sign and encourages supporters to record a video message explaining what will win their vote.

“We want someone who will help us get our share,” says Maria de Jesús Perez, a 46-year-old resident on Villanueva’s route who isn’t a voter but who has family members who are. A resident in the United States for the last 18 years, she posed with a Cortez Masto yard sign for a photo, and said she’d tell her family members that the Senator is for Latinos.

Up the block, 54-year-old Liviera Blanco told Villanueva she wasn’t sure if she was even eligible to vote. Villanueva took down her information and promised a follow-up for the full-time home caregiver. She, too, posed for a video holding a Cortez Masto yard sign and explained why help for special-needs kids needed more support in Washington.

Most of the conversations at the doors before Aug. 1 were about listening to voters about what they wanted their elected leaders to do, but recently those scripts have started to morph into persuasion-driven chats. Nevada last year adopted a permanent system whereby every voter is mailed a ballot. With the primaries in the rear-view mirror, those will start being sent out soon. The airwaves are already clogged with ads, and social media is a choose-your-own-adventure reality. In other words, it’s Go Time for Morales’ team.

Morales sees the same polling as everyone else and spots the warning signs for Democrats. While Hispanic and Latino voters have been roughly consistent with the broader disapproval numbers staring down Biden, the interest in this fall’s elections is decidedly more muted for them and Republicans have been making in-roads with that demographic. Gallup finds a 12-point gap between white and non-white voter interest in the election and a 10-point one when it comes to enthusiasm about it. Perhaps more troubling for Democrats, 60% of non-white voters say they have only a little interest in the elections. Put simply: Democrats can’t win if only white people vote and, right now, they seem to be the ones eager to show up in November.

Which is why Morales is basically living in airport coffee shops for the next three months as she works to get voters in Arizona, Michigan, and Nevada to understand the stakes for Latinos if Republicans have the kind of banner night many are expecting. Morales isn’t ready to cede anything, but she knows a fight is coming. “It’s always closer than it should be,” she says. “That doesn’t mean we can’t be competitive.”

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com