LAS VEGAS—Around 8:30 p.m. Friday night, three of Nevada's top Latina Democrats posed arm-in-arm at the Factory of Dreams banquet hall in Las Vegas, with the women eager to show off their newly won Hispanic Community Leadership Appreciation Awards. But one honoree was missing from the photo op—Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D.), who snubbed the event.
Cortez Masto often invokes her status as "the first Latina ever elected to the U.S. Senate" in her tight reelection bid against Republican Adam Laxalt, which could determine who controls the Senate next year. That title in part prompted El Concilio Hispano, a Hispanic media group that runs a top Latino talk radio program in Nevada, to honor the Democrat at its 2022 Hispanic Heritage Month Leadership Awards. The event's other three guests of honor—Las Vegas city councilwoman Olivia Diaz, state assemblywoman and Nevada AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Susie Martinez (D.), and Lieutenant Governor Lisa Cano Burkhead (D.), who is also on the ballot this November—accepted their awards in person. Cortez Masto sent a surrogate.
Cortez Masto's decision to ditch the event, which included an array of Hispanic community leaders, is a curious one with Election Day just weeks away. Hispanic voters may very well decide Cortez Masto's political fate—roughly 20 percent of Nevada midterm voters are expected to be Latino, according to a National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials report. Years ago, that stat would have been music to Cortez Masto's ears. The Democrat in 2016 enjoyed 61 percent of the Latino vote, exit polls show. Six years later, however, Cortez Masto's Latino support appears to have diminished considerably as many working-class Nevadans sour on President Joe Biden's economy. An October poll from USA Today and Suffolk University found that just 49 percent of Hispanic voters back Cortez Masto.
Cortez Masto's campaign did not return multiple requests for comment prior to the Friday El Concilio Hispano event. Four days after the ceremony, campaign communications director Josh Marcus-Blank told the Free Beacon Cortez Masto missed the event as she was "scheduled to be in Reno." Marcus-Blank ignored questions asking if the senator's Reno trip was scheduled before she received El Concilio Hispano's invitation.
Both in Washington and Nevada, Cortez Masto has long kept a low profile, an approach that's hardly changed as the Democrat fights for her political life in one of the nation's most closely watched Senate contests. On the eve of former president Donald Trump's Oct. 9 visit to northern Nevada, for example, Cortez Masto's counter-programming consisted of a private speech to Culinary Workers Union canvassers alongside Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.), whose trip to Nevada was not publicized. When the Washington Free Beacon visited Cortez Masto's Las Vegas office days later, a staffer said she "unfortunately" had "no information about the senator's schedule at this time." A visit to the Nevada State Democratic Party office prompted a similar result: A press aide told the Free Beacon he was "not aware" of any upcoming public campaign events. The Free Beacon is not the first media outlet to get the runaround from Cortez Masto—Nevada Independent CEO Jon Ralston in September accused the Democrat of "refusing to let [his] reporters ask her about her record."
Cortez Masto's low-key campaign style does help the incumbent avoid "potential missteps," Ralston noted last month. But it also makes it difficult for the Democrat to energize Nevada voters, particularly as they face one of the worst inflation rates in the nation. "I haven't seen her at all," Victor Roque, a Las Vegas realtor who immigrated from Cuba, told the Free Beacon. "The Democrats are hiding because they don't seem to like answering questions. And that's a problem."
Laxalt and the Republican National Committee have responded by aggressively courting Latino voters, an outreach effort they feel will deliver them the Senate seat come November. Laxalt on Thursday held a Hispanic Heritage Month event at the committee’s Las Vegas Hispanic Community Center, which saw the Republican hammer Biden and Cortez Masto on the race's top issues: inflation and the economy. Laxalt specifically highlighted his opponent's decision to vote for trillions of dollars in spending under Biden, saying Cortez Masto "pretends she's independent … but she never stood against these policies."
"We have a chance in this race to save the American dream," Laxalt said. "If we get Senator Masto out of her office, the government will stop spending, they will stop increasing inflation, and they will stop raising gas prices."
Cortez Masto has attempted to weather the storm largely by focusing on abortion. The Democrat and her campaign allies have spent more than $6 million on abortion-related ads alone, and Cortez Masto's fundraising messages often argue that a Laxalt win would lead to a nationwide abortion ban. But some prominent liberals are expressing concern that the issue won't be enough to deliver them a victory in Nevada. "A lot of these consultants think if all we do is run abortion spots that will win for us. I don't think so," veteran strategist James Carville told the Associated Press last week. "It's a good issue. But if you just sit there and they're pummeling you on crime and pummeling you on the cost of living, you've got to be more aggressive than just yelling abortion every other word."
Carville's assessment is especially convincing given Nevada's unique economic turmoil over the last two years. Democratic governor Steve Sisolak ordered a statewide shutdown of all "nonessential business"—including casinos, hotels, restaurants, and bars—in March 2020, decimating Las Vegas's vast tourism and service industries. By the time the city's casinos and restaurants reopened at full capacity in the summer of 2021, Nevada business owners began battling inflation and supply chain issues under Biden. One bar manager told the Free Beacon he was forced to raise prices "even before inflation ramped up" as he navigated a slump in sales due to the shutdown.
Now, inflation is costing the average Nevada family nearly $10,000 a year. The average price for a gallon of gas, for example, is the fourth-highest in the nation at $5.23. And not all service industry jobs have returned. Roughly 12,000 Culinary Workers Union members have yet to get their pre-pandemic jobs back, according to the Washington Post.
"Since Joe Biden has taken office, I've been struggling. It's really been difficult, to the point that I might just have to get another job, just to make ends meet," Las Vegas resident Tomas Ramos, a retired Army veteran, told the Free Beacon. "With gas, I don't really go anywhere. Groceries as well. Everything has gotten really expensive the last two years."
Cortez Masto's army of Culinary Workers Union volunteers, long a staple of the late Harry Reid's Nevada political machine, are becoming quite familiar with inflation-focused voters like Ramos. Union canvassers have been shouted down in Las Vegas’s working-class neighborhoods, according to the New York Times, with one voter exclaiming, "You think I am going to vote for those Democrats after all they've done to ruin the economy?"
In the race's final weeks, the Laxalt campaign will no doubt repeat that sentiment as often as possible—especially to Latinos. "The message is economy, inflation," Laxalt senior Latino engagement adviser Jesus Marquez said. "And we're not getting off the message." The campaign believes it will prevail in November if it receives 40 percent of the Latino vote, a benchmark both Marquez and Republican National Committee Hispanic communications director Jaime Florez expect to clear.
"If Democrats believe that Hispanics are going to stop worrying about inflation because of the abortion issue," Florez said Thursday, "the election results will show them the colossal size of their mistake."