LAS VEGAS — Vicki Lamb has worked as a valet at Caesars Palace for 38 years and belonged to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters for even longer. Over the years, she’s seen a lot of Democratic candidates court the powerful labor vote in Las Vegas. During Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s recent campaign stop at the local union hall, Lamb predicted that two issues would be on Nevada voters’ minds in November.
“I think the economy is going to be huge because everybody is feeling the crunch,” Lamb, 66, told The 19th. “Then, of course, Roe v. Wade, that’s huge, as always. Access is still protected [in Nevada] right now, but the [Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization] decision doesn’t say much for the future.”
The economy and abortion rights will be front-and-center in many senatorial and gubernatorial races this year, but they are particularly salient in Nevada, where Cortez Masto, the first Latina to serve in the U.S. Senate, is fighting for reelection in one of the most competitive Senate races in the country. Before Congress, she twice won statewide races for attorney general by double-digit margins. Her Republican opponent is Adam Laxalt, another former state attorney general who made an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2018 and co-chaired former President Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign in the state.
Nevada is heavily dependent on tourism and was hit hard economically in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevadans also favor abortion rights at higher rates than the national average: About 90 percent believe it should be legal in all or some cases, recent polling shows. Speaking effectively to voters about these issues, and turning out Latinx voters, who are expected to cast 1 in 5 ballots there in November, will be key for Democrats on the ballot there this year.
At the Teamsters hall, there were introductions in both English and Spanish. Cortez Masto told the story about her grandfather, a Mexican immigrant, who worked as a pit boss at the since demolished New Frontier Hotel and Casino. “If anybody remembers any of that,” she said to knowing laughter. She then talked about her father, who worked nights as a Teamsters valet to pay for college before working at the tourism board, where he greenlit the “What happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas” ad campaign.
“I can remember as a young girl — and still have pictures — the Teamsters were a family, they still are, we would go to picnics, we would spend time together, we would spend Christmas together,” she said to nods of agreement.
Cortez Masto then went on to draw a contrast with Laxalt, another Nevada native who has served as the state’s attorney general, saying “there is a big difference between us.”
“He opposes the new jobs and new union jobs coming to Nevada because of the bipartisan infrastructure law that we have passed at the federal level, he stands against organized labor, opposes raising the minimum wage, and he is focusing his campaign on conspiracies and lies about election fraud — conspiracies that our Republican secretary of state has dismissed,” she said.
Laxalt’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment. While he presents his policies differently, Laxalt has said he would have opposed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package signed into law late last year and that he does not believe raising the minimum wage would solve the state’s economic problems. He also has repeatedly called the 2020 presidential election in the state “rigged” despite a lengthy investigation by the Republican secretary of state that found just 20 potential cases of voter fraud out of nearly 1.4 million ballots cast.
Laxalt describes himself as “pro-life,” called Roe a “joke,” and has lamented Nevada’s abortion protections. He nevertheless said he would not pursue a national ban if elected to the Senate, though Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell has said it might be on the table if the party regains control of the chamber in November.
Nevada has a long history of supporting abortion rights. In 1990, voters backed a ballot referendum affirming the right to an abortion until 24 weeks of pregnancy, and after if a gestational parent’s life is in danger. Only voters can change the statute. Despite the current legal protections there, abortion rights have become an issue motivating Nevada voters in both the Cortez Masto–Laxalt race and also the gubernatorial contest.
Abortion rights are the most motivating issue to 17 percent of Nevada voters, second to only the economy at 40 percent, according to a poll released earlier this month by the Nevada Independent and OH Predictive Insights. With gas prices falling, supply chain holdups easing, and Democrats’ ability to point to the recent passage in Washington of the Inflation Reduction Act, an improving economy could focus even more electoral attention on abortion rights.
The day before Cortez Masto was at the Teamsters union hall, she’d been up in the Reno area, where she held a roundtable discussion about abortion rights with GOP women. Some prominent local Republican women have endorsed her, citing the need to preserve abortion access.
“I had said, if this Supreme Court goes down the path of ignoring 50 years of precedent for women’s reproductive freedom rights … it’s going to galvanize the state, and people don’t realize the impact it’s going to have, and that’s what we are seeing across the state,” including at the roundtable, she told The 19th in an interview.
Cortez Masto said that she is already hearing how the Supreme Court’s June decision in Dobbs overturning its 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade has resulted in pregnant people from other states, including Texas, coming to Nevada for abortions. She, along with several of her Democratic colleagues, introduced a bill in July that would protect the right to travel across state lines for abortions. She has also introduced data privacy legislation that would apply to information on health care, including abortion.
To pass anything, Democrats will need to increase their numbers in the evenly divided, 100-seat Senate, where almost all legislation requires 60 votes and the vice president acts as a tiebreaker. After the Dobbs decision, legislation to codify abortion rights stalled in the Senate after passing the House.
“This is the first time I really have seen the United States Supreme Court actually have a decision that takes away the rights of half Americans in this country,” Cortez Masto said.
“When I take the oath of office to follow the Constitution and protect those rights for everyone, that means everyone, not picking and choosing for political gain,” she added.
A couple of hours later, Karis Harwood was walking through the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip, where Trump was about to campaign with Laxalt. She was holding an “Abortion Is a Human Right” sign. She cuts through the casino to reach her own job at another and wanted to protest their appearances on her way. The sign had been in her car for several weeks, since she went to a demonstration the night the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
“I keep it in my backseat, behind me in the window, so anyone who drives by can see it,” Harwood told The 19th.
Harwood moved to the Las Vegas area about nine years ago and says that “Vegas is starting to become a place where people show up” when it comes to progressive activism. Nevada is growing quickly as people move from other states “and a lot of them are women,” she said. “And we all want our rights.”
That evening, Cortez Masto’s campaign held a “Gran Fiesta Latina” at a park gymnasium where one of Las Vegas’ most well-known taco spots — Tacos El Gordo — had set up a grill station outside. She recently appeared at the restaurant’s opening of its latest location as supporters stood behind her holding signs that said: “One of Us.”
There were local representatives of Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Cuba and other Latin American countries. Dancers performed. Booths displayed traditional handicrafts. “The difference between a baker from Chihuahua, Mexico, and the first Latina in the Senate is two generations!” Cortez Masto said to applause.
A record 32 million Latinx voters were projected to be eligible to vote in the 2020 elections, and it is one of the fastest-growing demographic groups in U.S. politics. While candidates from both parties seek to court Latinx voters, the Democratic Party has historically had more success, though there were signs in 2016 and 2020 that Republicans may be making inroads.
President Joe Biden received about the same support from Latinx voters nationally in 2020 as Hillary Clinton did in 2016 — but he did worse in Nevada, where Latino men in particular backed Trump at higher rates than anticipated. When the University of California, Los Angeles examined Latinx voters in the 2020 election, researchers found that Democratic Senate candidates tended to perform better than Biden, suggesting Trump appealed more specifically than the overall Republican ticket. But they also concluded that while there was still “overwhelming support” among Latinx voters for Democratic candidates, “a not insignificant number are persuadable swing voters.”
Abortion rights could be a persuasive issue for Latinx voters this year. UnidosUS, a civil rights organization, and Mi Familia Vota, a civic engagement group, earlier this month released new polling showing that abortion had entered the top five issues for Latinx voters for the first time, surpassing immigration. Both groups are progressive leaning. More than 70 percent of Latinx voters said they believed abortion should remain legal no matter their personal or religious beliefs on the matter.
Cecia Alvarado, the Nevada executive director at Somos Votantes, a left-leaning voter engagement group, said the polling reflects her experience organizing the Latinx electorate. “We are a community that understands the diversity of faith and the diversity of voices. My communities, they’re respectful of people’s stance and beliefs. And so, because it is part of our culture, faith, it’s part of who we are as Latinos, that’s how we were raised, that’s how we raise our kids,” she said.
The best way to engage with Latinx voters on abortion and other issues is through women, Alvarado said, because they are “the backbone of our families and our communities and our economy. … We are like the head of our families when it comes to making decisions and so that also includes voting.”
“One thing we know for sure is that Latinas want access to health care. And that includes abortion,” she added.