In March 2015, Harry Reid announced he would not seek reelection in 2016. Considered a swing state with a popular Republican Governor, Brian Sandoval, Nevada looked ripe for a Republican pick up in the Senate. A month later, former state attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto announced her intentions to run for the seat for the Democratic Party. Almost immediately, Reid endorsed her candidacy and the DSCC followed suit hoping to avoid a bloody primary. The Republican Party wasted no time characterizing her as a rank-and-file Reid supporter.
To be sure, there were other names bandied about, but they soon took their names out of the mix since they were seeking other offices or had moved on from politics. On the GOP side, Sandoval was mentioned the most initially be he all but ruled himself out after winning a landslide reelection victory in 2014. All eyes then turned to two people- state senate president Paul Roberson and Congressman Joe Heck. Heck seemed reluctant and many thought he would have to be coaxed into the race much like Cory Gardner was in Colorado. However, in July 2015 he announced he would run for Reid’s seat and Roberson filed to run in the 3rd District which Heck was vacating. Both Heck and Roberson are considered close political friends of Sandoval.
With Heck in, most Republican backed groups lent their endorsement and support including local Republicans and the mayor of Las Vegas. There was one complicating factor along the way: Sharron Angle entered the GOP race. She had surprising won the GOP primary for Senate in 2010 in an attempt to unseat Harry Reid who was seen as vulnerable at the time. However, some campaign miscues cost her the election against Reid although the race was close at 50-44% for Reid. Angle was a darling of the Tea Party movement in 2010 but with their decreasing prominence, she faced an uphill battle against Heck. Eventually she lost the GOP Senatorial primary in a race that was not even close.
On February 23rd, Donald Trump won the GOP caucus in the state taking 45% of the vote and doubling the total over second-place finisher Marco Rubio. Unlike exit polls in other states, Trump garnered a wide swath of the GOP electorate in Nevada despite the category. However, there was one category he failed to win: those who made their decision because they shared the voter’s values. That seems to be a redundant theme in these exit polls. Instead, Ted Cruz- although finishing a distant third- won that category. What is troublesome is that when asked why they voted for who they did, this group comprises the largest group of Republican voters. In other words, although Trump may have won the primary or caucus, voters do not necessarily share his values or policy positions.
Another area where Republican voters obviously have difficulty with Trump is electability. In fact, in Nevada a majority of voters gave that category to Marco Rubio. Considering that electability and value sharing voters are 55% of the GOP electorate in Nevada (a majority trend in most states), the question becomes whether Trump can win them over while not alienating that base of support of voters who believe he can effectuate change or “tells it like it is.”
“Telling it like it is” has resulted in Trump suggesting a Hispanic judge should recuse himself from the Trump University fraud civil suit. That is an insult not only to the justice system, but to Hispanics. Considering that 28% of Nevada’s population is Hispanic and Hispanics comprised 19% of the electorate in 2012 AND Heck is running against a Hispanic female Democratic opponent, pinning Trump on Heck’s tail will obviously be a Democratic strategy.
For his part, Heck is highlighting the fact that he represented a district he won despite the fact it narrowly supported Obama in two elections. He notes, as do prominent Hispanic leaders, his willingness to listen to their points of view and has tremendous outreach in Hispanic communities in his district which is 19% Hispanic. A former emergency room doctor, he has recently championed efforts to get more Hispanic doctors educated.
The question will come down to local politics. While Republican Hispanic business leaders are “willing” to listen to Trump, they likewise criticize his tone (although they support many of his business ideas). Cortez-Masto has not yet directly linked Heck to Trump. Heck, on the other hand, is relying on his proven track record as a Congressman and retail politics- community meetings, town halls, and outreach from his office. If he can expand the relations he has in his congressional district with Hispanics on a statewide level, he may be able to withstand any backlash against the GOP vis-a-vis Trump’s candidacy.
Before Trump’s presumptive nomination as the GOP’s presidential candidate, this was considered the best chance for Republicans to pick up a seat in the Senate. It is an important seat because it would mitigate potential losses elsewhere and possibly be vital in keeping the Senate in the hands of the GOP. Despite the chances of a pick up, the Republican Party anticipated a close race. With an unpredictable candidate at the top of the ticket, they are one statement away from blowing their chances. Unfortunately, it would cost them not only a seat in the Senate, but result in the loss of a candidate who represents what it takes to win the Hispanic vote in key states. The headwinds certainly picked up with Trump at the top of the ticket.