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How Catherine Cortez Masto clinched the Nevada seat — and the Senate

SPARKS, Nev. – In a backyard on a sunny afternoon in late October, a smattering of former office holders, donors and prominent Nevada families surrounded Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and offered their endorsement.

The significance? They were all Republicans from the swing area of Washoe County and some supported abortion rights, just like the senator who lost the county in 2016. But she couldn’t lose it again if she were to defeat her GOP opponent, Adam Laxalt, in what became one of the closest races in the nation.

The campaign’s internal data moving into the fall showed that a significant number of Nevadans still did not know what Laxalt’s stance was on abortion, according to an adviser to Cortez Masto. That underscored a vulnerability on an issue the senator was certain would motivate the electorate.

As ballots came in, the incumbent took the lead late last week in Washoe over Laxalt, who had called the 2020 presidential election “rigged” and repeatedly vowed not to work with the other side of the aisle. Cortez Masto took a tack opposite to Laxalt, touting her work with Republicans like Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, for instance, in what was one of a slew of strategic decisions, described by a campaign adviser, that led to her historic victory.

When the race was called late Saturday, it was the win heard around the nation. Cortez Masto clinched Nevada and that clinched control of the Senate for Democrats, overcoming historical trends that punish the party in the White House.

“When all the national pundits said I couldn’t win, I knew Nevada would prove them wrong,” she said in a Sunday victory speech. “Because in Nevada, no one gets left behind — and that means standing up for our families when no one else will.”

As of Sunday late afternoon, Laxalt had not publicly addressed the race’s outcome.

Cortez Masto’s shoring up of Washoe was critical to her win but it was just once piece of a strategy that flew in the face of critics who said talking about abortion and the Big Lie were not winning messages. Her campaign had leaned into both of those themes, accelerating messaging on democracy in the final weeks of the campaign.

Gas and inflation should have spelled disaster for Cortez Masto as it did for Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat who lost reelection after taking the brunt of punishment from voters for shuttering businesses during the pandemic. But Cortez Masto attempted to inoculate herself by steering clear of President Joe Biden and tying Laxalt to big oil, which she blamed for high gas prices, at the start of the general election.

Cortez Masto, the first Latina ever elected and now reelected to the Senate, ran ads touting ties to law enforcement to push back on a GOP crime narrative and worked her connections with the Latino community that ultimately helped lift her to victory — even as the national narrative predicted that the demographic would trend toward the GOP.

Latinos did come out in fewer numbers than anticipated — making up an estimated 12% of the electorate, according to NBC Exit Polls, instead of the one in five voters, or 20%, that both parties estimated would turn out. Of those who did vote, 62 percent backed Cortez Masto. In those same exit polls, voters cited inflation first then abortion as the top issues for which they voted.

An organizing force that represents 60,000 hotel workers, bartenders, restaurant servers and other entertainment industry workers helped her to victory. The Culinary union unleashed canvassers into the neighborhoods for months, who visited over 1 million doors – about doubling the numbers from the 2020 presidential election – and educated voters about mail in ballots, abortion, rent prices and immigration laws.

Laxalt did dominate the state’s 15 rural counties, but there just weren’t enough votes to overcome Clark and Washoe counties.

Cortez Masto and her allies also outspent Laxalt. From the onset of the general election through Election Day, Democrats sunk $82.6 million on TV, radio and digital while Republican groups spent $70.5 million, according to AdImpact, an advertising analytics firm.

Aside from those factors, Laxalt had to overcome both local and national hurdles, including the fallout from the Capitol riot and a tense intra-party battle between Nevada Republicans who publicly express support for Democrats and its rank and file members.

Former Nevada GOP chair Amy Tarkanian on Sunday said the reasons for the Republican losses in the Silver State were simple: self-inflicted wounds.

“You had bullying tactics, you had the election denying being pushed … you had so many Republicans who could see so clearly through the lies, through the deception. It made it easy to vote for the Democrat,” said Tarkanian, who had been expelled from the party apparatus after she spoke out against two Republican candidates. “They only have themselves to blame.”

Ben Kamisar contributed.

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