This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.
LAS VEGAS—Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto stood by the kitchen doors of a Latino-owned restaurant and welcomed the crowd that overflowed to the sidewalk, where a DJ blasted hits into the shopping complex about five miles east of the neon-soaked Las Vegas Strip. With fried fish piled high in guests’ bowls for the grand opening of a new restaurant, and a who’s-who of the de facto Latino chamber of commerce in attendance, the Senator strode in, seemingly knowing most of the people there.
“Latinos, it’s what we do. We open businesses,” Nevada’s first female Senator, and the only Latina ever elected to the Senate, told the crowd, clearly in her element. “We’re part of the community. We’re entrepreneurs. We want to make sure our families are strong, our children have opportunities, everyone in our neighborhood—we’re all in this together.”
Afterwards, Cortez Masto spent more than an hour taking photos with supporters who seemed to know their Senator in a way seldom seen elsewhere. They called her Catherine to her face and La Senadora to anyone who will listen. They understood the importance of her ties to the community, and they understood the high stakes of her re-election bid, shaping up to be perhaps the most hotly contested this fall. The match-up against Republican Adam Laxalt is seen as a two-point race at best—and one that could decide if the Democrats hold their narrow majority in the Senate.
“She knows us,” says Noemi Quintero, a niece of labor icon Cesar Chavez who calls Cortez Masto a friend. “I believe in her. I’ll be with her until the end.”
More from TIME If Democrats end up on the receiving end of a national drubbing this fall but Cortez Masto somehow survives, the Hispanic vote will have played a pivotal role. Strategists anticipate about 15% to 20% of the electorate to identify as Hispanic or Latino—and could be even bigger as both sides are working to register new voters. Yet, according to polling conducted by Emerson College last month, a solid one-third of Hispanic and Latino voters are casting their lot with Laxalt. For context: that’s about the same level of support Trump enjoyed in 2020, when Biden won Nevada by just two points overall.
“We are starting to define the elections of so many races,” says Daniel Garza, a longtime Republican operative who now leads the LIBRE Initiative, which does Hispanic and Latino outreach on behalf of the conservative Koch network. “It’s because we are now politically curious. Right now, is the time to double down.”
Hours after Cortez Masto did the honors and opened the new restaurant east of the Strip, the volunteer network in Nevada behind LIBRE was passing jerk chicken and ribs across the table of another small business, this one six miles south of the Strip. Here, LIBRE super-activists were greeting each other with hugs and nodding along as they talked about economic opportunity and smaller government. The group offered a gift card to cover the meals of any potential new recruits.
“People are not engaging in politics any more because they’ve lost faith in the system,” says Rosemary Flores, a veteran activist in the Hispanic community who changed political jerseys during the Trump years. Flores, 57, is now whipping votes against Cortez Masto, arguing that it’s time for new representation. “She’s no longer the new face,” she says of Cortez Masto. “We gave her a chance and she didn’t take it.”
Nevada’s increasingly brown political landscape is a tricky one, strategists on both sides concede. Changes in demographics had been expected to make the state more competitive for Democrats, but there remains a conservative streak in the Latino community that has fueled a lot of the state’s growth. Its Western character tends to have libertarian sympathies. As one Latina strategist describes it, the Latino community is the last population in the United States that still believes in the American Dream.
Despite headwinds, Democrats insist they have reasons to sidestep despondency. Their party dominates Governors’ offices and House and Senate delegations in the American Southwest. New polling from a pro-Biden super PAC suggests Democratic support among Latinos is consistent with 2018, while Republicans are slipping. And coming fresh off a turn as Senate Democrats’ campaign quarterback, Cortez Masto knows all of the best practices of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and its top fundraisers.
Then, there’s the Republican in the race. Laxalt, who succeeded Cortez Masto as attorney general, has given his Democratic critics plenty of fodder, and the crowd at the restaurant opening she spoke at seemed to be fully briefed on his missteps. His embrace of The Big Lie won him ex-President Donald Trump’s endorsement but also scorn from centrists in this state. Laxalt’s fundraising hasn’t matched some of national strategists’ optimism; Cortez Masto has raised $29 million this cycle and has $9 million banked, while Laxalt has raised $7 million and is sitting on $2 million.
National Republicans have recently begun grousing about Laxalt’s campaign more openly, although they also know Cortez Masto is still vulnerable. Nevada remains one of their three best pick-up opportunities, along with Arizona and Georgia. (Senior Democrats think Georgia is the safest, given the GOP nominee there, Herschel Walker, seems to have an unlimited capacity for errors.)
Flores, the activist backing Laxalt, remains clear-eyed about the race. She is well aware of the state she lives in. “They’re four steps ahead of us,” she says of the Democrats.
And Cortez Masto and her team aren’t ready to cede a single stride of that head start.
“At the end of the day, this is about all of our families,” Cortez Masto said, back at the new restaurant. Though refusing to name Laxalt by anything other than “my opponent,” she accused him of being insufficiently supportive of Latino businesses “That’s the challenge. That’s who we are up against. If we are going to continue to fight for all of us, we need to make sure we stand together at all times. And if we do, we get opportunities like this.”
The whole pitch on Latino solidarity took less than two minutes, but it was better than anything she could have scripted in a 30-second ad. And, judging from the love Cortez Masto enjoyed after her quick remarks, many in the crowd quickly texted their neighbors the photo they had just snapped with La Senadora. After all, as the signs taped to the support columns between tables pointed out, the woman who took the time to visit with them that day was Una De Las Nuestras. One of Ours.
Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the D.C. Brief newsletter.
Write to Philip Elliott at [email protected]