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When Joe Biden narrowly won the state of Nevada in 2020, voters there were in a pretty sour mood, and for good reasons. The state’s tourism bubble had burst during the pandemic, with the Las Vegas Strip all but going dark. A record drought had left the region in a lurch. Some states had even put Nevada on their no-go lists over fears of unchecked Covid-19 spread. When Election Day arrived, pollsters found that 63% of Nevadans considered the country to be on the wrong track.
New polling reviewed by TIME shows the view from the Silver State may be even more dour now, giving Republicans reason for optimism that a Senate seat, and maybe even the state’s six electoral votes, are up for grabs. Seasoned GOP pollster John McLaughlin was in the field last month for a group allied with former Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York, a close ally of the Vegas-based political machine funded by the Adelson casino fortune who is now focused on expanding the Republican Party beyond older white voters. And McLaughlin’s numbers, at least at first cut, show justification for Republicans in Washington, D.C., to give next year’s Senate race a closer look. The data also would do well to serve as a warning for Biden’s re-election team.
On the wrong-track/ right-direction question, a staggering 73% of Nevadans think the country is heading down the lesser path. And given Nevada’s persistent 5% unemployment and sky-high inflation, Nevadans are ready to lay that blame at incumbents as they did in 2020.
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Republicans are a long way from settling on a nominee to face Sen. Jacky Rosen, a first-term Democratic lawmaker who may luck into drawing a Big Lie adherent in Jim Marchant. But even under that scenario, she could be in for a tough fight. A generic Republican is holding healthy with 48% to Rosen’s 46%—within the margin of error, meaning at this point it is essentially a coin toss. That number alone is encouraging some Republican donors to make sure the eventual nominee will have the resources to compete. In an environment with finite cash, polls like the one Zeldin commissioned can prove useful in a silent primary to determine which races are viable—meaning which are flush and which get flushed.
The polling alone is but one narrow window into a state’s electoral patterns that, since 1960, gave Republicans even shots at victory. Nevada’s recent blue entrenchment began with Barack Obama winning there in 2008 and 2012. Hillary Clinton and Biden did the same in races that pitted them against Trump, who hardly cut a sympathetic figure for Latino voters in the state. Trump trailed by 2.4 percentage points both times.
Yet there are signs in McLaughlin’s research to suggest Trump may no longer be such an electoral deadweight for Nevada Republicans. A full two-thirds of Republicans say Trump’s endorsement matters in Nevada. Trump himself has a 54%-41% leg-up over Biden among Hispanic votes and a 53%-37% head-start among men who don’t affiliate with either political party. Among independent women, a block that has been the GOP’s Achilles’ heel in places like Nevada in recent campaign cycles, Trump is polling within the margin of error.
Democrats, to be sure, have already noticed this. Rosen has banked $6 million so far and outside groups are busy lining up pledges. It feels a lot like Democrats’ plans last year when Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto held onto her seat in a race that was even closer than Biden’s win over Trump. She raised $65 million and her allies spent another $64 million to remain the first and only Latina elected to the Senate. On the other side, outside groups pumped roughly $60 million into the state to help Republican nominee Adam Laxalt.
Senate Democrats again are facing strong headwinds in defending their narrowest of majorities. Incumbents in Ohio and Montana are going to be tough to hold, and Arizona’s Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who now wears neither party’s jersey, is expected to face a tough bid for re-election from both parties. By virtue of the Senate’s six-year terms and staggered states, pickup opportunities for Democrats in 2024 are few: statistically, maybe Florida? Perhaps Texas? In other words, Democrats have to defend their current turf with no real slack or leeway to offset troubles elsewhere on the map.
Which brings us back to Nevada, one of just two states where the parties have nominal parity. Biden’s job approval rating in McLaughlin’s survey tracks with the broader national trends; among Nevada voters, 56% disapprove of how he’s doing the job. Rosen’s disapproval rating is less toxic, at 37%. But she’s also far less known, and voters give her a 38% job approval and Biden a 42% showing on the same question. Which is to say: Rosen might have a whole lot of scheduling conflicts when it comes time for Biden to dip his toe into her backyard.
As The D.C. Brief has written before, Nevada’s politics are a tricky blend of rising Latino clout, frontier inertia, and Western independence, with a local economy crushed by Covid-19 recently thrown in. The state’s role in picking White House nominees in 2024 only adds intensity to the spotlight on it, and a Senate race anticipated to reach at least nine-figure spending demands early and sustained attention.
Republicans are surely going to be studying McLaughlin’s new numbers as they plot for 2024. If Trump truly sheds his albatross status, Nevada could revert to where it was politically for decades pre-Obama: reliably red in presidential contests. It could also give Republicans a shot at a Senate majority. Those possibilities could yield close to a billion dollars in political spending deep into the desert.
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