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After losing three straight times, are Republicans as invested in Vegas House seats?

Gabby Birenbaum
Gabby Birenbaum
CongressElection 2024ElectionsGovernment

After Democrats held on to all three Las Vegas-based House seats for two consecutive election cycles, national Republicans again took aim at flipping the seats in 2022, with one key GOP PAC pouring more money into the districts of Rep. Susie Lee (D-NV) and Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV) than any other in the country.

But while Republicans ultimately did win the House, with a net gain of nine seats, the path to the gavel did not run through Las Vegas. Lee won re-election by 4 percentage points; Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV) by nearly 5, and Titus by more than 5, despite even our boss / Nevada’s Nostradamus Jon Ralston predicting Lee would lose her seat.

After so many unsuccessful pulls at the electoral slot machine, have national House Republicans moved on from Las Vegas?

Not quite. 

The three Las Vegas seats are still on the list of 37 pickup opportunities identified by the National Republican Congressional Committee, and two Republican operatives who work on Nevada races, granted anonymity to speak freely, are optimistic about the prospect of several self-funded candidates who could emerge as challengers.

But with both parties increasingly homing in on seats in New York and California, Republicans with knowledge of the races also said they expect less national GOP investment in the Nevada House races compared with last cycle.

Congressional Leadership Fund, the Kevin McCarthy-backed (R-CA) super PAC that pumped more than $6 million into Lee’s race last cycle, has yet to announce its initial spending, despite having done so by this point last year.

That may not necessarily translate to lower spending totals — given the costly and crowded Las Vegas media market and the fact that fundraising only increases every cycle. 

But between competing for ad space and air time with the presidential race and the U.S. Senate race — not to mention the frustrating results from last cycle in a midterm historically linked to big losses by the incumbent president’s party — Lee, Titus and Horsford are likely not going to be as significant of a target for Republican leadership as last cycle.

What’s different

The 2022 cycle was the first assessment for both parties of Nevada Democrats’ redistricting plan adopted in 2021, operating under the strategy that three districts with narrow-ish Democratic majorities was a more favorable map than maintaining the traditionally deep blue Congressional District 1 and two extremely competitive districts. By shifting some suburban areas with more independent and Republican voters into Titus’ safely Democratic district, Democrats gambled that they could shore up Lee’s and Horsford’s margins while still protecting Titus. 

The maps paid off — and now Republicans must consider if they want to keep putting money into testing them.

While intense spending and campaigning is already underway in swing districts around the country, the Nevada House primary races have been “kind of sleepy right now,” in the words of one Republican strategist. Only one candidate, Congressional District 4’s David Flippo, has reserved television ad time with less than a month to go before mail ballots are sent out around the state.

Still, that doesn’t mean they’re giving up on the seats. In Lee’s race in particular, Republicans are excited about GOP candidate Marty O’Donnell, a video game music composer who is working with the consultants who engineered Gov. Joe Lombardo’s (R) successful gubernatorial bid.

O’Donnell is in a crowded primary with former Treasurer Dan Schwartz, a fellow self-funder, tax analyst Drew Johnson and former state Sen. Elizabeth Helgelien. All but Helgelien have loaned their campaigns hundreds of thousands of dollars, with Schwartz leading the pack at $800,000 (though Lee’s cash on hand remains significantly greater than any potential opponent).

In Congressional District 1, repeat 2022 candidate Mark Robertson and self-funded restaurateur Flemming Larsen are squaring off to take on Titus, while in Congressional District 4, Horsford will likely face either Air Force veteran Flippo or former North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, who has the distinction of having won elected office before and boasts an endorsement from Lombardo. 

In Congressional District 1, Larsen actually has a larger war chest than Titus, though most of his $1.5 million is loaned. Powered by a $500,000 loan from himself, John Lee technically outraised Horsford in the first quarter of 2024, but Horsford retains a significant cash on hand advantage and the benefit of having contributions rather than loan money that can be pulled back at the discretion of the candidate. 

Given that the presidential election will lead to higher turnout, Republicans are hopeful that voters who sat the 2022 midterms out might finally turn out and help oust Lee, who has won three straight terms in a seat that has been competitive since its creation in 2002, although its boundaries have changed slightly over the years.

“Biden is more unpopular now than he was in 2022,” a Republican strategist familiar with the race said, adding that the conventional wisdom of high turnout boosting Democrats might no longer be true. “We haven't completely grappled with the idea that higher turnout helps Republicans.”

On the Democratic side, meanwhile, operatives believe a superior ground game and well-established incumbent candidates will keep the three districts in their win column.

Political analysts who run major ratings so far seem to agree. The Cook Political Report rates Lee’s race as “Lean Democrat,” when she used to occupy the “Toss Up” category; Horsford and Titus are considered “Likely Democrat.”

House Majority PAC, the high-spending outside group connected to Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), made the first move of the cycle by reserving over $6.8 million in ad spending for the fall in Las Vegas, including earmarking more than $750,000 for Spanish-language content.

The ad buy signifies both the costly nature of the Las Vegas market, the fact that there are three seats in the area and its continued importance to Democratic ambitions — the group is only spending more in Los Angeles, New York City, Portland and Detroit. 

Democratic strategists are confident they’ll retain the Las Vegas seats — and believe the incumbents are particularly effective and well-disciplined in their messaging, compared with members in other states. 

One Democratic strategist said that none of the potential Republican candidates concern them, and that once outside Republican spending does come in, they expect the GOP’s focus to be in other states.

“They're probably not going to spend as much [in Nevada] as they are doing elsewhere,” the strategist said. “That's going to be really indicative of them kind of conceding that they're not going to win these seats.”

Editor’s note: This story appears in Indy Elections, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2024 elections. Sign up for the newsletter here.


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