LAS VEGAS (AP) — Voters will put an end Tuesday to the incessant ads in Nevada’s highly competitive race for U.S. Senate, which will determine who takes the mantle from powerful longtime Sen. Harry Reid and possibly decide which party takes a majority in the upper chamber.
They’ll also issue their verdict on two close House races in southern Nevada swing districts, and could make history if they elect the first Latina to the U.S. Senate and the first Latino to a Nevada House seat.
Reid, 76, reluctantly opted not to seek a sixth term after an exercise injury that left him blind in one eye. He’s committed to doing everything he can to hand the torch to two-term former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, 52, and has served as an unbridled attack dog for his more measured candidate.
She faces a formidable foe in three-term Republican Rep. Joe Heck, a doctor and brigadier general in the Army Reserves. The wonkish Heck, 55, has shown a command of federal policy issues and represents the GOP’s only potential pickup opportunity in a year they’re playing defense, but he’s come under fire from both sides of the political spectrum over his middling stance on Donald Trump.
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Outside groups have poured more than $90 million into the race. That’s powered wall-to-wall TV ads that seek to paint Cortez Masto as the most corrupt attorney general in Nevada history and highlight Heck votes to defund Planned Parenthood, as well as his mixed record on a program that waives deportation for young immigrants.
But the biggest single factor likely to shape the race is Trump. Heck stood by the nominee until the recent release of a lewd audio recording from 2005, then pulled his endorsement and called for Trump to step down.
Democrats have only intensified their efforts to link Heck and the nominee after the un-endorsement. President Barack Obama excoriated Heck at a North Las Vegas rally in October, saying that after Heck backed Trump for months and benefited from his supporters’ enthusiasm, disavowing him a month before the election is “too late! You don’t get credit for that.”
Some Trump devotees have reacted angrily toward Heck’s abandonment of the nominee and vowed not to vote for him, but the greater danger is probably from a wave of energized anti-Trump voters supporting a slate of Democrats. That dynamic is exacerbated by Democrats’ well-oiled and unified turnout machine and a Republican operation divided into silos over Trump’s candidacy.
Heck has ruefully acknowledged that there’s a limit to how much he can outperform Trump in Nevada. Hillary Clinton is favored to win the close presidential race, and a six percentage point Democratic lead in early voting threatens to be an insurmountable vote deficit for Republicans.
The Trump effect is also playing out further down the ticket in two swing district House races. Republican Rep. Cresent Hardy, who came to power in the conservative “red wave” of the 2014 election, is now trying to hang on in the opposite conditions in a district with a double-digit Democratic registration advantage.
Hardy, 59, has the perks of incumbency but also a tendency toward verbal gaffes. Democrats supporting state Sen. Ruben Kihuen, 36, have attacked Hardy on his opposition to gun control measures and his prior support of Trump, even though Hardy unendorsed Trump at the same time as Heck.
Kihuen is facing his own headwinds, including a barrage of ads suggesting the public relations firm that employs him gets sweetheart contracts and supports predatory payday loan companies. The company, Ramirez Group, is under a shadow after being subpoenaed in an FBI corruption investigation targeting Las Vegas City Councilman Ricki Barlow.
While polls have shown a close race, Democrats have brought in big guns to help Kihuen pull ahead. Former President Bill Clinton, President Barack Obama and the ground-game machine of the Culinary Union are campaigning hard for Kihuen — a Mexican immigrant who would be the first Latino Nevada elects to the House.
And in Nevada’s open 3rd Congressional District, frequent Republican candidate Danny Tarkanian is facing off against political newcomer and former synagogue leader Jacky Rosen. Polls offered widely divergent predictions of the outcome in the district, which has a narrow Democratic advantage.
Tarkanian has high name recognition from previous bids for office and his father, the late, legendary UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian. The seat has also been held by Republican Rep. Joe Heck for the past three terms.
But Tarkanian has defied others in tight races by standing with his Trump endorsement. That’s served as fodder for Rosen, a political blank slate who trumpets her opponent as a tea party radical too extreme for the relatively affluent, suburban swing district.
While the battles play out in the two competitive House districts, two other incumbents expect to easily win re-election. Democratic Rep. Dina Titus is expected to coast to victory in her deep-blue urban Las Vegas district, while Republican Rep. Mark Amodei has a heavy advantage in his deep-red northern Nevada district.