The Fight for Latino Voters in Nevada Is the Future of American Politics

27 minute read

The immigrant was telling the senator she wanted more than talk, but the senator had little else to offer.

“I am tired,” Norma Ramirez said. “The people that keep their promises—they’re not here. They’re doing things. They said they were going to do things and they actually do it.”

Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto sat at the head of a horseshoe-shaped table in an otherwise empty Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas, listening intently. Cortez Masto, the first and only Latina in the Senate, said she had summoned Ramirez and six other undocumented immigrants there because it was “time to tell our stories, it’s time for people to hear us.” She also wanted to show she was taking a stand on immigration, the issue Democrats have long counted on to win the loyalty of Hispanic voters.

Ramirez was brought to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 5 and allowed to stay by DACA, former President Obama’s 2012 executive order barring deportations of people who came to the country as children. (DACA stands for “deferred action for childhood arrivals.”) In 2017, then-President Trump announced he would rescind the order. Ramirez, then a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at California’s Fuller Theological Seminary, joined a federal lawsuit challenging the move.

Trump delayed the end of DACA by six months, ostensibly to give Congress time to act on the issue. Democrats initially scrambled to protect the so-called “Dreamers” with legislation. But negotiations with Trump fell apart after a meeting in which he complained about migrants from “s—hole countries.” And when courts ruled that Trump’s order was improperly issued, keeping DACA in place, the urgency vanished. President Biden reinstated DACA the day he took office, but the legal challenges continued, and earlier this month a federal appeals court ruled that the program was an unlawful exercise of executive authority. (The federal court decreed that current DACA recipients can stay while the court fight continues, but the program may not enroll new applicants.)

And so, five years after the courts gave them a reprieve, and after two years of Democratic control of Washington, Congress has yet to do anything to save the Dreamers. Ramirez and her peers are back in limbo. DACA recipients have been waiting for relief—and Democrats have been making the same promises—for so long that another roundtable speaker, Anna Ledesma, said it was the third such event she’d participated in, dating back to before Cortez Masto was elected to the Senate.

“We won, right?” Ramirez said of the lawsuit she signed onto five years ago. “And yet here we are.” She described to the senator the humiliation and worry of living at the mercy of Congress and the courts, hopes repeatedly raised and dashed by politicians with better things to do. After a decade of uncertainty, she said, “I want more. I want more than just ‘I’m fighting for you,’ more than a tweet in the media. I want something that is actually going to provide us with that freedom to be full human beings, because we deserve it.”

If these words registered as criticism, Cortez Masto didn’t show it. She thanked Ramirez and moved on to the next person.

Cortez Masto, 58, is seeking reelection in what may be the nation’s tightest Senate race, separated from her opponent, former Nevada attorney general Adam Laxalt, by less than half a point in the most recent polling average. Both candidates are making an aggressive play to appeal to Latinos, a voting group that is key to victory in Nevada and looks up for grabs in ways it hasn’t been in decades.

The Nevada election this year is emblematic of the dynamics at play across the country in 2022, with a Democratic candidate desperately pleading for another chance, a Republican opponent pandering to the party’s hard-right base, and a polarized electorate caught in the middle. It has the potential to do more than determine which party holds the majority in the Senate. It’s a signpost to the future of American politics: a crucial test of whether Democrats can hold onto, or Republicans can peel off, the voting bloc that could determine future elections for a generation or more.

Cortez Masto’s paternal grandparents immigrated from Mexico to New Mexico. Her father, Manny Cortez, got his start in Vegas parking cars at the Dunes, then rose to be a powerful politician, serving on the Clark County Commission, which oversees the Strip. Cortez, who died in 2006, went on to head the influential Las Vegas tourism authority, and today there is an elementary school named for him here. Cortez Masto worked as a prosecutor and chief of staff to a Democratic governor before being elected attorney general in 2006. When then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who had been a close friend of her father, announced his retirement from the Senate in 2016, he anointed Cortez Masto to replace him. She won by a thin margin after her moderate Republican opponent denounced Trump for the Access Hollywood video.

By contrast with her father, an extroverted, backslapping pol, the senator’s demeanor is more reserved. Despite six years in the Senate, including two heading the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, she cuts a low profile in Washington and Nevada alike. In one recent poll, 41% of Nevada voters said they knew “a lot” about her. Although she claims to have been a driver of immigration talks, she is not particularly known for her work on that issue or any other. “She’s there, but I wouldn’t call her a linchpin,” one national immigration advocate tells me. Those who know her describe her as smart and diligent but pathologically cautious and lacking personal warmth.

This year’s Senate nail-biter wasn’t the future Democrats envisioned when Obama won Nevada by 12 points in 2008, racking up a 54-point margin with Hispanic voters, who made up 15% of the electorate, according to exit polls. He pulled it off in part by airing ads unfairly depicting his opponent, Sen. John McCain, as an opponent of immigration reform. The state’s political destiny seemed assured: it had turned blue and was only getting more diverse, the thinking went. Then in 2016, Republicans nominated Trump, who had launched his candidacy with a broadside against Mexican criminals and rapists. To most political observers, it looked like a death knell for the party’s appeal to Latinos.

Read More: How Donald Trump’s Immigration Policy is Splitting Families Apart.

Instead, Trump shocked pundits by doing as well as his predecessor with Hispanics nationally. And in 2020—after four years spent undermining and dismantling the immigration system, including deliberately separating children from their families—Trump improved on his prior showing, taking one-third of the Hispanic vote, a higher proportion than McCain in 2008. In South Texas, majority-Latino counties that had long been overwhelmingly Democratic saw double-digit swings to the GOP. In a special congressional election in June, Republican Mayra Flores won a heavily Latino Texas district Biden had carried by four points in 2020.

This disorienting turn of events has left national Democrats panicked and defensive, scrambling to maintain an advantage that they had expected to see grow, not shrink. It is an existential matter for the party’s future: without large margins with the nation’s second-largest, fastest-growing demographic group, Democrats will struggle to win elections nationally and in places like Nevada, which has the fourth-largest Latino population of any state.

As with Trump, Democrats continue to hope that the GOP’s hostility to immigration will save them. Laxalt, Cortez Masto tells the Oct. 12 roundtable, was one of 26 GOP attorneys general who sued the Obama Administration in 2015 to block the expansion of DACA, breaking with Nevada’s Republican governor at the time, Brian Sandoval. “There’s a lot of people playing politics with your lives,” Cortez Masto says. “And now’s the time for all of us to stand up and call them out.”

Cortez Masto says she has been working to pass immigration reform and give undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. She says she has been “pushing on this current Administration to do more,” but Republicans have stood in the way: “There are some of my colleagues who don’t care, and they’re playing politics with it so they can gain control and power and do nothing with it.”

Cortez Masto was one of six Democratic senators who entered immigration-reform negotiations with seven Republicans in early 2021, hoping to fix the bottlenecked asylum system that has faced an unprecedented influx of would-be refugees in the past two years. That spring, Cortez Masto emerged from a meeting and told Roll Call that negotiations were “going well” and had “been productive so far.” But the talks petered out shortly thereafter, according to Cortez Masto, who today describes those meetings differently. Republicans, she says, “got in the room with us and started talking with us, but then election-year politics came in and they said, ‘Well, wait a minute, we’re not going to do anything unless you address the border issue.’” Their single-mindedness, she insists, made it impossible to move forward.

Since then, congressional Democrats have found bipartisan agreement on a host of tough issues, from guns to infrastructure. They have made high-profile, aggressive pushes on others, such as abortion and voting rights. But they have largely gone silent on immigration, stung by GOP criticism of the border crisis. And even as she seeks to impress Hispanics with her compassion, Cortez Masto has also strived to appear tough on the border, opposing the Biden Administration’s attempt to rescind Title 42, which drew criticism from immigrant advocates.

When I press Cortez Masto on whether she thinks Biden should make immigration more of a priority, she declines to criticize the President, pivoting back to her talking points. She does not explain why, if she also wants to do something about the border, the immigration negotiations could not continue, pairing amnesty with border security as lawmakers from both parties have been trying and failing to do for two decades. Nor has she demanded the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, bring immigration to the Senate floor in the lame-duck session after the election. Asked if there’s a chance that will happen, she says, “I hope so. But I don’t know.”

As the event ends, Cortez Masto returns to the issue’s importance. “We have to do something about this and show not only are we still moving forward to get this done and try to pass it, put them on a pathway to citizenship,” she says, “but we’re still working on their behalf. It is so important, what you just heard around this table today.”

She was, she assured the DACA recipients, “a fierce fighter on this issue.” They were exactly the words Norma Ramirez had said she didn’t want to hear.

In a working-class neighborhood in North Las Vegas, Yusett Salomon Diaz rings a doorbell, stands back a few paces, and waits. When no one answers, he bangs on the steel-barred screen door. On the third knock, a bleary-looking young man opens the door a crack. “I’m looking for Roberto,” Salomon says, over a dog’s high-pitched yapping inside. The canvasser knows some people are sleeping off night shifts, but he thinks the election is too important not to wake them.

It’s a neighborhood of long flat streets and one-story stucco houses, with cinderblock walls rather than fences and rock-pile yards. Grass yards are illegal in Las Vegas, a consequence of the region’s long-running drought. Roberto’s house has a strand of Christmas lights strung from the eaves, a couple of busted chairs on the small front porch, and a Dodge Durango in the driveway. Down the street, I glimpse a rumpled piece of cardboard in the backseat of a beat-up sedan: NEED GAS AND FOOD, it says. GOD BLESS. WILLING TO WORK.

Roberto isn’t home, the man says, moving to close the door. Salomon, a lanky 47-year-old who speaks English with a thick accent, doesn’t believe him. “Yo hablo espanol!” he yells into the house. Sure enough, a voice answers from within—“oh ok, esta bien”—and an elderly man in plaid pajama pants and a black tank top shuffles to the door.

Salomon is a member of the Culinary Union, the backbone of the state’s Democratic machine. The largest local of the national UNITE HERE union, Culinary represents 60,000 hotel, casino, and arena workers, 60% of them Hispanic. (The union runs a naturalization program that it says has helped more than 18,000 people become citizens.) In Democratic primaries, Culinary’s endorsement can make or break a candidate; in general elections, the union is crucial to turning out the party’s voters. Its contracts ensure that members get time off to vote, and the union buses them en masse to the polls. The contracts also allow them to take up to six months’ leave from their jobs to work as paid canvassers on drives like this one. In his regular job, Salomon is a porter at the Wynn hotel-casino on the Strip.

Ya estamos preparados para el voto, el 8 no?” Salomon says. We’re ready to vote on the 8th, right? He mentions Cortez Masto, and Roberto says he’s seen that name on television a lot lately. As Roberto nods in agreement, Salomon talks about rent and gas being too expensive. But, he says, “le vamos a ayudar para que ustedes bajen la renta, verdad?” We’re going to help you lower your rent, all right?

The GOP’s gains with Hispanic voters in recent years have dovetailed with its inroads among the working class. In addition to its large Latino population, Nevada is also disproportionately non-college-educated: just 28% of residents over 25 have college degrees, the seventh-lowest share of any state. (Nationally, the average is 35%.) Nevada’s unemployment and inflation rates are among the nation’s highest, housing costs have soared, and gas is averaging $5.15 per gallon, more than a dollar higher than the national average. It’s this combination that makes Nevada a political ground zero: the demographic Democrats are struggling most to hold onto, working class Latinos, in one of the states that has struggled most economically while Biden has been in office.

After Salomon has secured a commitment to vote from Roberto (who asked that his last name not be used), he has another request. There’s a QR code on the door hangers that Salomon is handing out. It links to a petition that Salomon says will help bring down the cost of housing by capping rent increases at 5% per year. “Controlling the rent would be good, right?” Salomon says in Spanish. “Well, yes,” Roberto says, “it would be beneficial to me.” Roberto agrees to sign, and Salomon enters his information into a browser on his phone.

In fact, the “Neighborhood Stabilization” petition is a gimmick. It won’t go on any ballot and has no official standing. (A version of the initiative failed to qualify for the ballot in the municipality of North Las Vegas in August.) It’s purely symbolic, aimed at making voters feel like Democrats are doing something at a time when many feel whipsawed by forces outside their control.

“It’s to pressure these politicians to take on these Wall Street landlords,” the union’s secretary-treasurer, Ted Pappageorge, tells me in an interview. “When we ask folks to sign that, we tell them, ‘and now we need to make sure that the folks that are going to fight for this get elected.’”

Pappageorge, a 40-year union member who started out as a busboy at the Sands, is sitting in his office in the union’s bare-bones headquarters, a fenced-off campus of concrete buildings and trailers in an industrial part of town. COVID-19, he tells me, hit the union hard. “It’s the worst crisis we’ve ever been through, worse than the Great Recession,” he says. Hospitality and travel and leisure—the industries at the core of Nevada’s economy—were the industries most devastated by the pandemic, and they’re still not fully recovered. “When the hotels reopened, the customers just didn’t come back.” Only about 25% of Culinary’s members were actively working by the end of 2020, a proportion that climbed to 50% by 2021 and 85% today. The union converted its massive worker-training academy into a food pantry and relief center that served an average of 1,800 members per day for 12 months.

Unlike many Democratic organizations, the union kept up in-person canvassing during the pandemic, knocking on 650,000 doors in 2020. The canvassers wore masks, and offered them to the voters who came to the door. “And we elected President Biden, we elected Democrats, and those folks fought for us,” Pappageorge says. “We’re going to back up the people that backed us up.”

It’s always difficult for the party in power to convince voters to keep them in office when things aren’t going well. Many of the arguments Democrats are deploying this cycle—that things are about to get better, or aren’t really so bad, or that the other side would make things even worse, or that some other issue (immigration, abortion, the future of democracy) takes precedence—tend to fall flat with voters whose pocketbooks are strained.

Instead, Culinary has come up with a different message: someone else is to blame. “What’s really resonating with folks is this idea of, you know, we’re going to fight back,” Pappageorge tells me. “The price gouging at the pump—gas is up over $5 a gallon, but meanwhile these massive oil companies are making the biggest profits in their history. But what costs more than gas is rent, and we’re seeing this corporate takeover of housing, private equity and hedge funds are buying up homes. They’ve cornered the market, and they’re jacking up rents.” By blaming Big Oil and Wall Street, the union hopes to convince voters that Democrats are not the problem but the solution. “We’re finding that folks are receptive to that,” he says. “They’re enthusiastic about wanting to do something about that and fight back.”

On the wall behind Pappageorge is a framed sign commemorating an immigration march: “UNIDAD Marcha por los immigrantes.” Above it is a collage of newspaper headlines from 2010, when Reid defied the polls and defeated his Republican challenger despite his personal unpopularity and a historically bad year for Democrats. The morning after he stunned the political world, Reid held a press conference in which he credited Hispanic voters for his victory.

Reid, who died last year at 82, was a colossal figure in Nevada politics. With Culinary’s help, he built the state Democratic Party into a formidable machine and put Nevada near the top of the presidential-primary calendar. This year’s election is viewed as the party’s first chance to prove that the “Reid machine” can survive its creator. It has gotten off to a rocky start: the official state party apparatus has been taken over by socialists, and Reid’s operatives have funneled donations to a shadow party called Nevada Democratic Victory instead.

Culinary is stepping into the breach. The union’s goal is to knock on an unprecedented 1.1 million doors this year, Pappageorge tells me—a number he says includes fully half the state’s Black and Latino households and one-third of Asian American voters. “Look, at the end of the day, what we do is turnout,” Pappageorge says. “Working-class voters talking to working-class voters. There’s a world of polls, there’s Twitter, and then there’s the real world, right? What happens when you knock on somebody’s door and their kids are there. And we get commitments. And that’s how we’re going to win.”

As the sun begins to set over the distant skyline of the Strip, the parking lot of an East Las Vegas strip mall fills with the sounds of a six-piece mariachi band. Under a canopy with a big LAXALT ’22 logo, workers in masks serve tacos, beans, and rice, while other tables hold aguas frescas, pastries, and Mexican candies. “Latinos are going to give the victory to Adam Laxalt!” Jesus Marquez, a local Spanish-language radio host and adviser to the campaign, tells me, shouting to be heard over the trumpets and guitars. The reason, he says, is simple: Democrats have let them down, and Republicans are fighting for their vote.

More than 100 people are in attendance, a mix of GOP regulars and curiosity seekers. There is not a single MAGA hat in evidence, and only a couple of generic political T-shirts. Many attendees say they used to be Democrats, but felt taken for granted by their former party, or didn’t like what was happening with crime and the economy. Yolanda Diaz, a 69-year-old retired property manager, tells me she changed her voter registration from Democrat to Republican this year. “I voted for Trump,” she says. “I didn’t always agree with what came out of his mouth, but how he was running the country, the economy was a lot better than what we have now.”

Pocketbook concerns aren’t the only driver of this shift. It’s also clear that at least some Latinos feel alienated by liberals’ vision of social justice. Lydia Dominguez, a 33-year-old Air Force veteran and single mother, tells me she voted for Obama twice before becoming disenchanted after he expressed support for Trayvon Martin and Black Lives Matter. “I truly had hope for him, and to see him divide the country instead of bringing us together really made me distance myself from the Democratic Party,” she says. A domestic violence survivor, she jokes that she is “breaking the generational cycle of political abuse” by leaving the Democrats.

Krissian Marquez, a campaign volunteer and community activist and the wife of Jesus Marquez, says many Hispanic women feel “canceled” by “the whole Latinx thing” and don’t want their children “exposed to this whole wokeness.” “Yes, immigration—we all know somebody that needs to be legal,” she adds. “But realistically, we want to make sure that we have a job, that our children are going to a good school.”

Immigration is rarely the No. 1 issue in polls of Hispanic voters, who are citizens by definition but commonly have family and friends who are not. Like most people, they care most about putting a roof over their heads and food on the table. But Democrats have long pointed to Republicans’ anti-immigrant rhetoric and hostility to legalizing the undocumented to convince Latinos that the GOP is not on their side. Shutting the border and expelling would-be migrants were central to Trump’s political project, and equally key to the anti-Trump backlash among well-educated suburban voters who found his approach unconscionably cruel.

Read More: The Shame of the Border Crisis Will Never Leave Us.

But the Biden Administration has run from the issue, advocates say, seeking to downplay the humanitarian crisis at the border and making no major push for immigration reform. Now, after more than a decade of telling Hispanics that immigration was the reason they had no choice but to vote for Democrats—a decade in which little has been done for the more than 10 million undocumented—the party seems shocked to find these appeals are no longer credible.

Republicans have also been trying for years to win over Hispanics, emphasizing a shared faith in God, family, and capitalism. Few, however, would have predicted that Trump would be the candidate to turn the tide in the party’s favor. “Latinos, they’re God-fearing people,” says Art Del Cueto, the Mexico-born, Tucson-based vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, who has come to Las Vegas to campaign for the GOP. “They care about their community. They want to feel safe in their homes. They’re in favor of law and order.” Many have fled violence and disorder in their home countries, he says, and see Democrats as soft on rising crime. On Oct. 6, a Guatemalan man who was reportedly in the country illegally went on a stabbing rampage on the Las Vegas Strip, killing two people and injuring six others.

Laxalt, too, is an unlikely bridge between the GOP and Hispanics. He’s a hard-right Trump loyalist in a state with a long tradition of moderate Republicans. Former Gov. Sandoval, the first Hispanic to serve in the post, was a popular two-term governor who favored abortion rights and expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. He publicly clashed with Laxalt over numerous matters when the latter served as attorney general, including Laxalt’s anti-DACA lawsuit. When Laxalt was the Republican nominee for governor in 2018, Sandoval did not endorse him, saying he could not “support a candidate that is going to undo anything I put forward.”

Like Cortez Masto, Laxalt is a political legacy: his grandfather, Paul Laxalt, served as Nevada’s governor and senator and was so close to President Reagan that some nicknamed him the “first friend.” The younger Laxalt was raised by his mother in the Washington area. In 2013, she revealed that Adam was the product of a secret extramarital affair with one of her father’s colleagues, Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, who acknowledged paternity and apologized. (Domenici died at 85 in 2017.) Nevada political insiders believe the disclosure was orchestrated to pave the way for Laxalt to run for office the following year.

In 2020 Laxalt chaired Trump’s campaign in Nevada, and after the election he was the state’s leading proponent of Trump’s baseless stolen-election claims. He filed spurious lawsuits, spoke at a “Stop the Steal” protest, and attacked the Republican secretary of state, who was censured by the state Republican Party for her insistence that the vote was secure. Cortez Masto has sought to make protecting democracy a central issue in the campaign, airing ads attacking Laxalt for pushing the “Big Lie.” But there’s little evidence that the issue resonates widely with swing voters preoccupied with practical concerns.

Laxalt, who once roomed with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the Navy, tops a ticket that includes election-denying, QAnon-promoting secretary of state nominee Jim Marchant, who “is so deep into election conspiracy theories that he questioned his own primary victory,” in the words of the state’s largest newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal. (Disclosure: I worked for the R-J from 2006 to 2009.) The R-J, owned by the family of the late casino mogul and GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson, is one of the most conservative dailies in the country, one of a handful of major newspapers to endorse Trump in both 2016 and 2020. Yet this year’s GOP slate is so far-out that the paper’s editorial board has endorsed three Democrats for statewide office, including Marchant’s opponent.

Read More: Conspiracy Theorists Want to Run America’s Elections. These are the Candidates Standing in Their Way.

At the “Latinos con Laxalt” fiesta, the candidate spends a while shaking hands, then goes inside the campaign office—a storefront Hispanic Community Center funded by the Republican National Committee—to speak. The crowd follows him and sits on plastic chairs as a local pastor, Hilda Espadas, gives an invocation in Spanish.

“Look, we’re all here because we want to save America, right?” says Laxalt, who looks uncannily like a shorter Jon Hamm. Laxalt’s campaign refused my interview request, and he did not take questions from reporters at the event. He has been known to echo Trump’s contempt for the media. The race is the only competitive Senate contest that will not feature a single debate between the candidates, something both blame the other for. Each agreed to a different set of debates, then refused to budge. (“His concern is that too many people, I assume, would hear from him,” Cortez Masto tells me.)

Laxalt pauses after each paragraph of his stump speech so that Marquez can translate into Spanish. He has a harsh, sarcastic speaking style, and apart from a couple of vague promises—cut spending, secure the border—his speech is devoid of policy proposals and consists entirely of attacking his opponent. He decries the COVID shutdowns that he says have permanently shuttered 10,000 Hispanic small businesses: “That’s the American dream,” he says, “and unnecessary COVID shutdowns took away that opportunity. They’ll never get it back. We all know how hard it is to get that first shot and succeed. And I hope that we never shut down our economy again for something like COVID.”

In the speech’s climax, Laxalt blames Cortez Masto for rising crime. In 2020, he says, “She said she supported Black Lives Matter. We all watched the TV and we couldn’t believe anyone was supporting the violence, the looting, the attacking of police officers.” Thousands took to the streets in Las Vegas that May and June; dozens of local businesses were looted and vandalized, and numerous police officers were injured, including one who was shot and permanently paralyzed. “She could have stood up, gone to a bank of microphones, and said, ‘Not in Las Vegas, we will not tolerate the violence,’” Laxalt says. “She was nowhere to be found. Now she’s lying to you all in commercials, pretending like she was there all along.” (Cortez Masto tweeted “this violence is unacceptable” at the time.) The Las Vegas police union, which endorsed Cortez Masto in 2016, is one of several that has switched to Laxalt this time around, although Cortez Masto has also been endorsed by some law enforcement organizations.

Hay que ganar, y hay que apoyar a Adam Laxalt este noviembre,” Marquez concludes. We have to win, and we have to support Adam Laxalt this November.

The candidate squeezes into the crowd for a photo op, and a Mexican soccer cheer goes up: “A la bim bom ba! Adam Laxalt, rah rah rah!”

With reporting by Vera Bergengruen

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