All eyes on the sil­ver state

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Ge­orge Will

LAS VEGAS — Ne­vada, which calls it­self the “Bat­tle Born State,” ac­tu­ally was born pre­ma­turely be­cause of Repub­li­cans’ anx­i­ety. Now, 152 years later, it again is a sub­ject of their anx­i­ety.

En­ter­ing 1864, Abra­ham Lin­coln and his party were in­tensely, and rea­son­ably, in doubt about his re­elec­tion. So, scram­bling for ev­ery elec­torate vote, Repub­li­cans de­cided to con­jure three from thin air — thin desert air. They be­gan the process of ad­mit­ting Ne­vada to the union, even though the 1860 cen­sus said its pop­u­la­tion was 6,857, far short of the 60,000 os­ten­si­bly re­quired for state­hood. Nine days be­fore the elec­tion, the Repub­li­can­con­trolled Congress made Ne­vada a state (al­though Gen. Sher­man’s Sept. 2 cap­ture of Atlanta prob­a­bly guar­an­teed Lin­coln’s vic­tory).

On elec­tion night 2016, the na­tion’s at­ten­tion might be fo­cused on Ne­vada, where Repub­li­cans have their most promis­ing, and prob­a­bly their only re­al­is­tic, chance to cap­ture a Demo­cratic Se­nate seat. Harry Reid, Se­nate mi­nor­ity leader, is re­tir­ing, and Repub­li­cans’ hopes of re­tain­ing their ma­jor­ity might de­pend on Joe Heck re­plac­ing Reid.

He is a strong can­di­date for his party, as his op­po­nent is for hers. Cather­ine Cortez Masto is a former two-term state at­tor­ney gen­eral who won re-elec­tion even against the 2010 anti-Demo­cratic wave. She would be the Se­nate’s first Latina.

Heck, an emer­gency room physi­cian and a bri­gadier gen­eral in the Army Re­serve, is a third-term con­gress­man from the Las Vegas met­ro­pol­i­tan area, where 75 per­cent of Ne­vada vot­ers live. His district, where he de­feated his 2014 Demo­cratic op­po­nent by 24.6 points, is 19 per­cent His­panic and 16 per­cent Asian-Amer­i­can.

The state’s non-His­panic white pop­u­la­tion was 79 per­cent in 1990 and is now 54 per­cent. There are about 70,000 more reg­is­tered Democrats than Repub­li­cans, down from 90,000 in 2012, when Barack Obama beat Mitt Rom­ney here by 67,806 votes.

Ac­cord­ing to the Al­manac of Amer­i­can Pol­i­tics, Ne­vada was the fastest-grow­ing state in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and from 2000 to 2007, be­fore the econ­omy cratered. Since 1990, the pop­u­la­tion of Hen­der­son, a Las Vegas sub­urb, has quadru­pled to 286,000, the size of Cincin­nati. Heck says many peo­ple come to Ne­vada, which has no in­come tax, in flight from Demo­cratic gov­er­nance in con­tigu­ous Cal­i­for­nia — but some come with, and re­tain, Demo­cratic at­ti­tudes.

Only 24 per­cent of Ne­vadans were born in the state, the low­est per­cent­age of any state, which is one rea­son Ne­vada was dev­as­tated by the sub­prime mort­gage cri­sis, which left 62 per­cent of Ne­vada home­own­ers “un­der­wa­ter” — ow­ing more on the mort­gages than their homes were worth. To­day, only 24 per­cent are, but Cortez Masto is pick­ing at the scab of the post-2008 trauma with ads ac­cus­ing Heck of putting the “big banks be­fore Ne­vada fam­i­lies,” partly be­cause he has re­ceived con­tri­bu­tions from the fi­nan­cial in­dus­try.

Heck notes that Trump’s can­di­dacy has en­er­gized Ne­vada Repub­li­cans. He says their Fe­bru­ary cau­cuses on a Tues­day evening at­tracted more par­tic­i­pants than the 2008 and 2012 cau­cuses com­bined. Which is good for Heck, un­less it isn’t: Trump might sim­i­larly en­er­gize the His­panic 17 per­cent of the elec­torate against Trump, with Heck as col­lat­eral dam­age.

Ne­vada has a senator from each party and a split (three Repub­li­cans, one Demo­crat) House del­e­ga­tion. Polls show a close con­test be­tween Heck and Cortez Masto. To­day, there are 54 Repub­li­can sen­a­tors, seven of whom are in dif­fi­cult re-elec­tion races: Ari­zona’s John McCain, New Hamp­shire’s Kelly Ay­otte, Penn­syl­va­nia’s Pat Toomey, Ohio’s Rob Port­man, Mis­souri’s Roy Blunt, Wis­con­sin’s Ron John­son and Illi­nois’ Mark Kirk. John­son and Kirk are cur­rently trail­ing by five or more points. If Hil­lary Clin­ton be­comes pres­i­dent, Vice Pres­i­dent Tim Kaine will vote with Democrats to or­ga­nize a 50-50 Se­nate. Repub­li­cans, need­ing 51 seats for con­trol, must have a net loss of no more than three.

If, in Oc­to­ber, Clin­ton seems headed for the pres­i­dency, Heck may need to con­vince many Ne­vadans who are tepidly for Clin­ton to vote strate­gi­cally — sup­port­ing him so a Repub­li­can Se­nate can re­strain her. Reid is de­ter­mined to keep his seat Demo­cratic, but Heck says that in 2014 Reid’s cel­e­brated turnout ma­chine was “an ut­ter dis­as­ter.”

In 1908, the Sil­ver State (an­other Ne­vada nick­name, a legacy of the long-since-de­pleted Com­stock Lode) voted for a third and fi­nal time for the Demo­crat’s pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Wil­liam Jen­nings Bryan, who fa­vored free coinage of sil­ver. Since then, only once (in 1976, when it fa­vored Pres­i­dent Gerald Ford) has Ne­vada not sup­ported a win­ner. Which is an­other rea­son the na­tion will be watch­ing Ne­vada late on Nov. 8.

Ge­orge Will is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at georgewill@ wash­post.com.

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