Photo: Photo For The Washington Post By Bridget Bennett
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LAS VEGAS – In all of her 63 years, Linda Powers has never felt more politically engaged. She’s never felt more on edge. She’s never felt so much was at stake.
So on Friday afternoon, over the din of beans being ground and lattes made, she joined a half dozen other Republicans sitting at the back of a strip mall coffee shop here, calling voters to urge them to cast their ballots.
“This midterm is different than any before,” she said. “With the divisions in the country – and the Democrats are making it that way – everybody will get out and vote their party line. We’ll see who feels stronger about it.”
Across town, Aby Rojas knocks on door after door, sustained by bottled water filled with chia seeds and finding it hard to believe anyone could feel more strongly about the election. She’s a been a hostess for nearly 20 years at Paris Las Vegas. Her husband is here on a special visa that Trump is threatening to end, and she fears he could be deported.
“It’s more personal for people now because of President Trump,” she said. “They’re really going after us. We have to do something.”
The campaign in Nevada may be the ultimate test of Democratic enthusiasm versus Republican organization, which is becoming a defining characteristic of the 2018 midterms – and a mirror image of 2016, when a sophisticated Democratic organization was upended nationally by the raw energy of the Trump movement.
Many of the trends bubbling up around the country in this midterm cycle are at a full boil here. The race in Nevada is a test of whether Republicans can still compete in a purple state and weather the demographic shifts that are about to hit them in other states. And it’s a test of whether the controversial confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh will buttress Republicans – or Democrats.
Both sides are aggressively targeting potential voters, and Democrats are particularly going after Hispanic voters, who has been a growing part of the population and, Republicans worry, could be motivated to blunt the ability of a build-the-wall president to enact his agenda.
Both sides see it as one of the premier battlegrounds this year, with President Donald Trump rallying voters in Elko on Saturday and former President Barack Obama coming to Las Vegas on Monday. Almost every election here is competitive – congressional contests, the governor’s race and the U.S. Senate contest between Republican incumbent Dean Heller and Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen. The results could dictate how each party approaches the future, including a 2020 presidential contest, in which Nevada will play an early role.
In 2016, Nevada was a rare bright spot for Democrats – Hillary Clinton won the state, and Democrats won a Senate seat, two congressional races and control of the state legislature. If a blue wave has been building, these House and Senate contests would seem to be the easiest to win. But that’s not been the case; the campaigns here are among the tightest races in the country, offering hope to Republicans that they can stem a Democratic onslaught and giving Democrats even more trepidation over their chances.
“I think the enthusiasm is real, but I’m nervous. I don’t think it’s going to be a wave,” said Megan Jones, a longtime Democratic consultant working on independent expenditures this year. “It’s more of a tide. And I’m not sure yet if it’s low tide or high tide.”
“It’s a coin toss. I wouldn’t be surprised if Democrats won every race and it was super close, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Republicans won every race and it was super close,” said Peter Ernaut, a veteran Republican consultant. “Which is just a weird place to be.”
The 2016 election raised alarms for Republicans here. In a year in which Trump effectively tapped into a populist movement of voters angry about losing homes, jobs and wages – something Nevada has in droves – they lost.
Democrats relied on a powerful political organization, built up over decades of work by former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and dominated by a union of casino workers, and created what Democrats felt was their own little blue bubble.
Republicans vowed to make a more concerted investment, one they hoped would help them protect vulnerable Heller, the only Republican incumbent running in a state that Clinton won.
The Republican National Committee moved in to model their organization on what the Obama campaign did in 2008 and 2012, recruiting and training volunteers to organize in their own communities. They have trained more than 2,000 people in the state – compared with 5,000 nationally in 2016 – and by August had made 1 million contacts, the same amount as they did during the entire 2016 campaign.
“They are here in a way that they have not been here before. They are organized better than they have been before – even in Clark County, the Democratic stronghold,” said Jon Ralston, a top political analyst here who is the editor of the Nevada Independent.
“The Republican Party here has been a compete joke,” he added. “But the RNC has been organized. They didn’t do it two months ago, as they’ve tried in the past. They’ve been here for a while.”
For the first time, Republicans have a full-time staffer aimed at building relationships with communities traditionally skeptical of Republicans, including Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans. The program is not overtly political, instead trying to build positive relationships by working on issues such as choosing schools or helping new residents get settled.
They also have hired a voter registration director for first time, which has helped narrow a Democratic advantage.
“We’re in a very, very good position given we’ve built this grass-roots army to turn out the voters we need to turn out,” said Dan Coats, the Nevada state director for the RNC. “They’re recruiting their neighbors and people in their community.”
But the RNC has a lot of catching up to do, for as it has improved, the existing Democratic organization has been buttressed by newfound enthusiasm in toppling Trump.
The Culinary Union Local 226 is the dominant political force in the state, with 57,000 members, and on a recent weekday it was buzzing with activity.
Every day but Sunday, about 200 union members canvass from 9:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. They go in bilingual teams, clad in red shirts and knocking on doors of inconsistent voters, pleading with them to get to the polls this time.
“The RNC can staff up all they want. We’ve been in this for 83 years,” said Bethany Khan, spokeswoman for the culinary union. “The long-term investment of protecting our community is there – and it’s not funded by billionaires.”
They have pamphlets on each of the Democratic candidates. They talk about school classroom sizes, health care and minimum wage. But the most animating factor is the man not on the ballot.
“Trump makes me a Democrat,” said Bryan Eble, an unemployed 57-year-old as he held his dog at the door and told the team of culinary workers that he would vote early.
A few blocks away, Darrell Ballard, a 52-year-old who is semiretired, stood at his door and recounted how he hadn’t had a drink for nearly 10 years before election night in 2016.
“I got drunk that night,” he said. “Motivated? Yeah. I’m into this more than any other election in my life.”
Early voting started in Nevada on Saturday, and both campaigns see the next few days as critical for understanding who may have an edge in the state. It’s a test for the Republican’s vaunted new campaign infrastructure, just as it will test whether Democratic enthusiasm translates to votes. The vote tally on Saturday indicated Democrats were turning out in big numbers – approaching presidential-year turnout – and running slightly ahead of Republicans in Washoe County, a swing area in the northwestern part of the state.
A recent NBC News/Marist poll, which had Heller up by two points over Rosen in the Senate contest, found that 89 percent of likely Democratic voters considered the midterms “very important,” compared with 82 percent of likely Republican voters.
But Democrats are also seeing some evidence that Republicans are closing the gap. The turning point seemed to happen around the time of the Kavanaugh hearings – something Heller and his supporters frequently bring up.
Democrats, led by Rosen, are pushing health care as the issue they think most resonates with voters. It’s the topic door-knockers bring up during canvassing, and it’s the first thing Rosen usually talks about.
Democrats also have focused on Trump’s immigration policies in an effort to turn out Hispanic voters, whose turnout plummets during midterm years.
The Republican strategy in the closing weeks seems far more focused on turning out rural areas that are less diverse. It was a concession that Trump appeared to make during his rally with Heller on Saturday, when the opening of early voting brought the start of a parade of high-profile figures to buttress the legions of volunteers who have been canvassing Nevada for months.
“Do we have many Hispanic Americans here?” Trump asked, shrugging. “Eh. Not the most, not the most. I’d give it 5 percent. That’s OK.”
Earlier, outside of the culinary union headquarters in downtown Las Vegas where much of the Democratic push is organized, a mariachi band played, and soon former Vice President Joe Biden took the stage. He removed his aviator sunglasses and his navy blazer, decried the current state of politics and accused Trump of making a mockery of global diplomacy.
“I’m so tired of Democrats walking around saying, ‘Woe is me. Things are so bad.’ I’ve had it up to here,” Biden said.
“Folks, it’s time to get up! Lift our heads up!” he shouted. “Remember who the hell we are. Take back the Senate and change the world as we know it. Now, now, now, now.”