By Tim Reid
LAS VEGAS – The campaign website of Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto does not mention the word “inflation.” Voters will not find it on her Twitter feed, or in any of her ads as she faces a tough re-election battle for her U.S. Senate seat in Nevada, a contest that could determine which party controls Congress.
In an election year when opinion polls show inflation as the top concern for voters, Cortez Masto is gambling that tiptoeing around the subject, while playing up her role in delivering COVID relief to Nevadans, will allow her to survive a brutal political environment.
Analysts say her playbook, which also involves attacking her likely Republican opponent over his support for curbing abortion rights, is probably the best hope a Democratic candidate has of surviving at a time when U.S. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, has low approval ratings and inflation is at a 40-year high.
“If you ask her a question about inflation, she will want to talk about anything else, and especially about the abortion issue, because like many Democrats she sees that as a winning issue while inflation is an impossible issue,” said Jon Ralston, a veteran Nevada political commentator.
Whether such a strategy can succeed is an open question. In a dozen interviews with voters in Las Vegas, 11 said they usually voted for Democrats. Yet only one said they were definitely going to cast their ballot for Cortez Masto this November. Most were undecided, dismayed by high inflation and blaming Democrats for not doing enough to lower prices.
Nevada is one of a handful of toss-up Senate races this November that will decide control of the upper chamber now controlled by Democrats.
The party in power nearly always suffers at the ballot box in the first midterm election after a new president is elected. Democrats fear with inflation added into the mix this year, results – particularly in the House of Representatives – will be bad.
In ads on TV and across social media platforms, Cortez Masto emphasizes the billions of dollars she helped secure for Nevadans in pandemic relief. During the height of the COVID outbreak, the state – which relies heavily on tourism and gambling revenue – was essentially shut down.
That relief included unemployment benefits, cash payments, special federal relief for the travel and gaming industries, and bailouts that helped nearly 120,000 Nevada businesses.
In April 2020, Nevada had an unemployment rate of more than 28%, one of the highest in the United States. Last month that had fallen to 5%, with jobs and gambling revenues in Las Vegas back to pre-pandemic levels. It’s an economic recovery Cortez Masto claims a key role in.
Up until May 8, the latest data available, Cortez Masto had already aired TV ads over 4,600 times, compared to fewer than 1,000 by her Republican opponents.
Campaign aides to Cortez Masto acknowledge that the word “inflation” is absent from her ads, tweets and public statements. But they stress that she frequently talks about her efforts to lower the cost of drugs, housing, gas, and healthcare, and so is implicitly addressing inflation.
For instance, in March she introduced a bill to lower insulin costs, and she has secured carve-outs from federal spending packages to help create jobs in the state.
“She knows the challenges Nevadans still face, including inflation,” said Josh Marcus-Blank, a Cortez Masto campaign spokesman.
HELP A DISTANT MEMORY
Billy Vassiliadis, a longtime Democratic political adviser in Nevada, believes Cortez Masto is pursuing the right strategy.
“She was instrumental in getting a lot of relief. She has capital to draw on,” said Vassiliadis, who is not advising the campaign.
One of Cortez Masto’s ads features a Las Vegas hotel housekeeper called Gladis Blanco. “When COVID first hit, there was a lot to worry about,” Blanco says. “I was very worried about making a living when no-one was coming to Nevada. Catherine Cortez Masto led the fight to protect Nevada and made sure we got the help we needed.”
That help is a distant memory for Vanessa Hernandez, 29, who works at the Bellagio hotel and casino on the Las Vegas strip.
She was laid off for over a year during the pandemic shutdown. She received unemployment payments and cash payments from the Biden administration during that time, a lifeline.
Yet that relief, which Cortez Masto says she helped deliver, has been all but forgotten by the mother of four who says today’s high prices are brutal for her on her $21.27 hourly wage. She normally votes Democratic but is undecided this year, unsure if Cortez Masto and the Democrats can lower costs.
“Who can you trust now? They say one thing and do another,” Hernandez said in an interview at her home.
Priscilla Morales, 31, a barber, voted for Biden. She’s unsure if she will vote for Cortez Masto in November.
“Inflation is a huge issue for everyone,” she said outside her home. “It’s very unfair. I come from the working class. I want to see politicians have control over it.”
Above-average inflation is a problem impacting many countries, caused by a surge in demand and lack of supply in the wake of the pandemic, as well as the Ukraine conflict affecting food and energy costs. But Republicans and some economists accuse Biden and his fellow Democrats of exacerbating the situation in the United States with high levels of government spending and regulation.
Cortez Masto’s likely Republican opponent, former state attorney general Adam Laxalt, is blaming her and Biden for inflation. It’s the Republicans’ main line of attack across the country.
“Catherine Cortez Masto has been nothing more that a rubber stamp for Biden’s agenda pushing prices to record highs,” Laxalt said in a statement to Reuters.
In TV and Facebook ads Cortez Masto is attacking Laxalt over his support for restrictions to abortion rights and his efforts to overturn Biden’s 2020 victory over Donald Trump, who has endorsed Laxalt in this election.
There is another word that Cortez Masto rarely mentions as she campaigns: Biden. His approval rating fell last week to 36%, the lowest level of his presidency, driven by discontent over his handling of the economy.
“She’s doing everything she can not to talk about the Biden administration,” said Ralston, the political commentator. “But to untether herself from Biden is going to be very, very difficult.”
(Reporting by Tim Reid in Las Vegas, editing by Ross Colvin and Rosalba O’Brien)