LAS VEGAS — On a warm October afternoon in Las Vegas, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was joyfully fuming from an outdoor stage, shaking her fists and branding Donald Trump “a selfish little sleaze ball” — and that was before Democrats pounced on the revelation of his predatory language about women from a 2005 recording.
The Democratic faithful in the audience last week rated Warren as “a pistol” and “a rock star” — her speech as “awesome.”
But what rally organizers really hope they remember is the less-explosive address that preceded it from Catherine Cortez Masto, the elegant but somewhat shy former Nevada attorney general who’s been a slight underdog in polls in one of the tightest Senate races in the country.
“Most people that I know, that are even Democrats, don’t know much about her. But they’ve seen the ads,” said 40-year-old Las Vegas resident Mark Mercer, referring to ubiquitous commercials condemning Cortez Masto as corrupt.
“Common people that are just seeing that stuff — it’s going to be tough for her,” he said.
Cortez Masto, 52, is seeking to take the mantle from pugnacious and polarizing Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, 76, her stylistic opposite who’s reluctantly retiring after 30 years following an exercise accident that crushed part of his face and left him blind in one eye.
The open seat is considered the only one Republicans can realistically flip to their side in a year they are playing defense. With control of the Senate at stake, Reid’s allies and enemies, including the conservative Koch brothers, are pouring cash into the contest, with more than $42 million spent on TV ads so far.
A wall-to-wall stream of commercials accuse Cortez Masto of chasing ride-hailing service Uber from Nevada, ignoring a backlog of untested rape kits, globe-trotting on junkets and inking sweetheart deals during her eight years as attorney general.
Polls in Nevada generally show Hillary Clinton ahead of Trump and almost always show U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, 54, Cortez Masto’s Republican opponent, leading. Reid dismisses the polls, pointing out that they wrongly predicted his demise in 2010.
“All of them are wrong,” he declared in a recent call with reporters. “Clinton’s going to win Nevada, Cortez Masto is going to win Nevada.”
But Reid is leaving nothing to chance, dispatching some of his key Washington staffers to Nevada for the final stretch, while a slate of heavy-hitting Democrats is stumping at her side. In addition to Warren, Clinton will campaign with Cortez Masto in Las Vegas on Wednesday, while Vice President Joe Biden is joining her Thursday.
Democrats have been handed a timely gift in the 2005 tape of Trump bragging about women letting him kiss and grope them in a secretly recorded conversation.
While Heck never appeared in public with the GOP presidential nominee and occasionally said he disagreed with Trump’s positions, he had been unflinching in his endorsement, even telling a reporter that he trusted the nominee with the nuclear codes.
But Friday’s revelations were apparently the last straw. Heck joined an avalanche of elected Republicans in rescinding his endorsement and calling for Trump to step down, telling a crowd of volunteers preparing to knock doors for him that he could not support someone who didn’t live up to a code of honor and respect.
Most took Heck’s reversal in stride, but a few erupted into loud boos, calling Heck a traitor. Democrats have trumpeted the reaction as a sign that Trump loyalists will punish Heck in the race.
Nevada’s other senator, Republican Dean Heller, argues that Heck didn’t have a choice and that he can overcome the backlash. Heck is a three-term congressman, medical doctor and brigadier general in the Army Reserve who cuts a regal profile in ads urging viewers to “send a soldier” to the Senate and answers policy questions with surgical precision.
“Of course Heck can win this race, and he’s going to win this race,” Heller said.
It’s expected to come down to whether Democrats can turn out the less-consistent voters in their base and capitalize on their registration advantage of 6 percentage points. Hispanics, who account for 28 percent of the state’s population and lean overwhelmingly Democratic, will be key.
Republicans got out early in Spanish media markets, putting a positive spin on a mixed Heck immigration voting record, including votes for and against a program that defers deportation for young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.
Organizations in the Koch brothers’ network have planted more than 30 paid staff in Nevada, with a special focus on their Hispanic outreach group, the Libre Initiative, which seeks to chip away at the Democrats’ lead.
Cortez Masto, who is of Italian and Mexican descent and could be the first Latina in the U.S. Senate, never misses an opportunity to point out Trump’s derisive comments about Mexicans. She’s marched in pickets with the Culinary Union, an immigrant-heavy organization of hospitality workers with a formidable field game that’s decided Nevada elections in the past.
Allies think labor and others in the Democratic “machine” will kick into high gear to defy the polls and keep Reid’s seat with his party.
“It’s not as if anyone can really replace Harry, but she would be a great senator, in the mold of Harry — in the footprint of someone who really, really fights for people,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “I hope she’s going to win. We’re going to work really hard to help her win.”