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Nevada campaigns see Latinos as key to winning elections

Progressive activist LaLo Montoya estimates he's knocked on 10,000 doors around Las Vegas in the months leading up to Election Day. "I know that what I'm doing is with the right intentions and with my heart on my sleeve, and I'm hoping to motivate and inspire people when I do this," he told NPR.

Montoya is an organizer for PLAN Action, a progressive state-based group that focuses on helping low and moderate income families. Like many Democrats in Nevada, he's on edge. "I'm nervous about everything, I think we do our best but there's so much misinformation that we're going up against."

Republican candidates are in a dead heat with Democratic incumbents for governor, Senate, House and several state-wide offices in large part by making fresh inroads with Latino voters. In the final days of the 2022 campaign, Nevada is proving to be the most competitive state in the country.

Latinos in Nevada historically vote Democratic. Donald Trump won 35% of the Latino vote here in 2020, and lost the state by about 2 points. However, small inroads with this voting bloc by Republicans could swing tight races in their favor. "We believe that we're going to have a red wave here in Nevada because we are focusing on the issues that concern Latinos," said Jesus Marquez, a conservative activist in the state who is advising Republican Adam Laxalt's campaign against incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto, the first Latina to serve in the Senate.

Republican campaigns are heavily focused on the economy in a state hit hard by inflation. Even Democratic voters like retiree Mike Sanchez concede life is pretty punishing right now in this predominantly working class state, with skyrocketing housing costs and the second highest gas prices in the country. "It's high all over. You go anywhere and it's a problem," Sanchez said.

With this economic climate as a backdrop, Democrats believe threats to abortion access can help tip races in their favor. Nevada is one of 16 states that protects abortion rights under state law. It was the single motivating factor for Namir Sanchez, a 31 year old first time voter who voted early at a local community college. "It seems like Democrats are way more open-minded," Sanchez said. But here's what makes Nevada hard to predict: Like a plurality of the state's voters Sanchez is an independent. And she split her ticket between Democrats for governor and U.S. House, an independent candidate for U.S. Senate, and then Republicans for all local offices down the ballot because she thinks the GOP will do a better job supporting police.

"Because Democrats just kind of seem like they're not helping them out," she said. "They're not going to make people want to like join the (police force) by like demoting their pay."

Ruy Teixeira is a liberal scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who has studied shifting demographics and how they can change politics. He says Democrats face a two-fold problem with Latinos right now: the party is not meeting their economic needs in real-time, and many feel socially alienated from the party's values. "The Democratic Party has become a much more culturally liberal party, pretty much down the line: race, gender, crime, immigration, what's taught in the schools, you name it."

Nevada is not just critical to the balance of power in this election--which party wins the Senate race, for instance, will almost certainly determine which party controls the chamber next year--but a potential bellwether for how competitive Republicans can be with this voting bloc in future elections. "I think it's going to be a trend that is going to end up with the Latinos coming up and saying: 'Okay, we know Democrats should no longer take our vote for granted.' I think that is something that is here to stay," said Marquez.

Democrats likewise see Latinos at the heart of their party's future. Democrats in the state are lobbying the Democratic National Committee to change the presidential nominating calendar to make Nevada the new first-in-the-nation state for 2024.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.