Cortez Masto helped Dems flip the Senate. Now she needs to defend her turf.

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Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto has twice made history for Democrats: She steered her party’s campaign arm as Democrats narrowly won the majority last year, and she is the first and only Latina in the Senate.

Now, the 2022 midterms threaten to erase both feats.

Nevada, with its hard-hit, hospitality-centered economy, exemplifies the most critical challenges Democrats face in their fight to keep the Senate majority. They need an economic revival that leaves behind the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic and brings down one of the highest state unemployment rates in the U.S. The state will also test the party’s appeal to Latino voters: President Joe Biden carried the Latino vote handily in 2020, but Donald Trump made big inroads in Nevada and other swing states that Democrats hope was a blip, not the beginning of a trend.

Throw in a midterm election environment with Democrats in control of the White House, and it amounts to a difficult reelection test for the first-term senator just as she’s getting her first taste of her party in power in Washington. Cortez Masto is warning Democrats to take her race seriously.

“I stepped down as attorney general after term limits in 2014, and I watched that midterm election. And, literally, Democrats lost just all the seats,” Cortez Masto said in an interview, before pointing out that she stopped the bleeding in her 2016 race, defeating a Republican congressman.

“Now we’re going into another midterm. And, so, I am watching that,” she added. “I am also very, very cognizant of the fact that in the last election, Joe Biden won Nevada by just over 2 percent. It’s a purple state.”

Indeed, Democrats have pulled off a string of recent statewide victories in Nevada, but that’s obscured just how competitive the state has been as other battlegrounds took center stage nationally. Biden’s 2-point win in 2020 was roughly the same margin Hillary Clinton and Cortez Masto earned four years earlier. During the blue wave election of 2018, Democrats won the big statewide races by 5 points each.

Cortez Masto doesn’t have a challenger yet, but Republicans are recruiting Adam Laxalt, the former state attorney general who lost a run for governor in 2018. If he runs, Laxalt could receive broad support from the GOP, including both Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, erasing the primary concerns that plague Republicans in other battleground states.

Republicans’ top Senate targets next year include states like Arizona and Georgia, where Democratic senators who just flipped their seats in 2020 are up for reelection, and New Hamsphire, where the Republican governor is a possible recruit. But early ad spending has also targeted Cortez Masto.

Sen. Rick Scott attends a news conference about the coronavirus relief bill.

“The Biden agenda’s going to be so unpopular — it’s going to be like 2010 and 2012 and 2014,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the chair of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm. “If we have a good candidate, we’re going to win.”

Cortez Masto is well-known and tested, having gone 3-for-3 in statewide elections. And she has $4.7 million in the bank as of the end of March, second-most among Democratic incumbents in the swing states. But not only is midterm history against her, a far-left activist backed by the Democratic Socialists of America took control of the state Democratic Party earlier this year, creating internal strife that Republicans are already trying to exploit.

Cortez Masto isn’t among the senators most likely to be seen on cable news or the Sunday shows making headlines. Instead, she listed off Republican senators she’s worked with, like Chuck Grassley, Lisa Murkowski and Rob Portman, and highlighted critical issues like COBRA health care payment subsidies tucked into coronavirus relief legislation and grants to keep Nevada’s tourism industry afloat.

Geoconda Argüello-Kline, secretary-treasurer for the Culinary Union, which has a critical political operation in the state, said Democrats “cannot take this race for granted” and praised Cortez Masto’s leadership during the pandemic.

“Half of our union, we’re still not back to work,” said Argüello-Kline, adding that the COBRA subsidies are “really helping them.”

The senator will also have to mobilize the state’s Latino voters. Though Biden won the Latino vote, a huge factor in his victory in the state, Democrats saw their share of the Latino vote drop 8 percentage points in 2020 compared to four years prior, according to a recent study from the Democratic data firm Catalist.

Cortez Masto pointed out that Latino voters “predominantly” supported Biden in the election, just as they backed her in 2016. But she said she’ll work early to organize in those communities to ensure they turn out in Democrats’ favor next year.

“If you’re going to ask voters to vote for you, you have to show up, and you have to engage,” she said.

Nathalie Rayes, president of Latino Victory Fund, said Cortez Masto’s strength was being “continuous” and “deliberate” in outreach to the community.

“Representation matters,” Reyes said. “She brings that distinct voice into the Senate and we need to make that sure she stays in the Senate representing all of us.”

For Republicans, the focus is on Laxalt, who replaced Cortez Masto as attorney general in 2014 before losing the governor’s race four years later. Still, he earned praise from both wings of the GOP and could have high-level support for his run.

Nevada state Attorney General Adam Laxalt speaks at the Southern Hills Republican Women's Club in Henderson, Nev., on Aug. 28, 2018.

Jason Miller, a senior adviser for Trump, said Laxalt would be a “strong America-First candidate” if he chooses to run for office next year.

Josh Holmes, a top adviser to McConnell, said he was “bullish” on Nevada as a pickup opportunity: “I think with the right recruit, and clearly Laxalt is that recruit, it’s competitive on day one,” he said.

While Laxalt hasn’t taken any public steps toward running, he has tended his national political profile. His annual “basque fry” event this summer will feature Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, two potential 2024 candidates, among other high-profile draws.

“You have a lot of people that came out to vote for the first time for Donald Trump in 2016 and especially again in 2020,” said Cotton, who is close with Laxalt and has encouraged him to run. “I think Adam can appeal to a lot of those voters and also win all of the Republican voters that he won in 2014 and 2018 as well.”

Laxalt didn’t tip his cap on a timeline for a decision in a statement to POLITICO.

“We know firsthand the challenges these campaigns put on a family, just as we are mindful of the need to have strong, principled leaders serving in public office,” Laxalt said. “I will continue to have these conversations with friends and supporters, and I will make a decision regarding a future run at a time most appropriate for my family and me.”

As she jumps from Senate Democrats’ campaign chair into her own reelection, Cortez Masto said the lesson she drew was showing up early and engaging voters. Even though they flipped the chamber, some Democrats were frustrated in November after losing a handful of Senate races where they ran behind Biden. But Cortez Masto said they faced unique challenges and praised the “innovative campaigning” in the pandemic.

“I really wouldn’t have changed anything there,” she said, adding: “We flipped the Senate, and we were able then to pass the American Rescue Plan, which is crucial and a lifesaving, really, piece of legislation for my state.”

Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, who won reelection last year and took over as DSCC chair, praised Cortez Masto’s tenure and said it would “return big dividends for her in this race,” emphasizing her focus on early organizing and field operations. Those have been keys to Democrats’ success in Nevada, driven by a strong state party working hand-in-hand with former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and then Cortez Masto, his successor.

But that may look different in 2022. Cortez Masto has sought some distance from the state party and its new leadership.

“One, I believe in capitalism, and I think the economy should work for everyone,” she said when asked about the state party and her reelection effort. “Two, the strength of what Democrats have in the state of Nevada is our coordinated campaign and our grassroots. That’s not going to change at all.”

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