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Crystal ball says Cortez Masto hangs on, Sisolak doesn’t and Dems retain two of three House seats

Jon Ralston
Jon Ralston
Opinion
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Let me start this biennial venture into brave foolishness with a remembrance of things past.

I engage in this Proustian exercise to make myself feel better as I make election predictions, not shirking from my annual tradition, in the most puzzling and difficult year since I began. This practice has been, for the most part, an oracular triumph.

I was correct in 2020 about Donald Trump losing Nevada and even foretold of costly Democratic legislative losses — the election denier cabal has never explained how THAT happened two years ago. I was prescient in 2018 in foretelling Jacky Rosen’s Senate ascent and Steve Sisolak’s gubernatorial win, among a host of other bullseyes. I predicted the blue wave of 2016 and the red wave of 2014, although I missed how two heavily favored Democrats would lose, too. And in 2010, while the national conventional wisdom said Harry Reid was as likely to win as a skyscraper appearing in Searchlight, I said he would.

I remind myself and my readers of all of this because I like to think I know more about Nevada elections than @bill94876431 or @someguyfromanotherstate on Twitter, but this year, maybe Bill and Some Guy could do better. Here I go again, half a league onward, into the valley of death — or at least the abyss of uncertainty.

(I know; no one feels sorry for me at all.)

So:

I think pundits should make predictions based on data, which is important; on experience, which can provide insight; and by gut, which is born of the first two. I also think one needs to provide a rationale for why one’s crystal ball says what it says.

Here is my theory of the case:

The early voting numbers don’t indicate a red wave, just the possibility of one if everything breaks right for Republicans. This is not like 2014, when all the early voting data confirmed a red wave – I knew after a couple of days – and it was just a question of how many boats would be lifted by the red tide.

This year, the Democrats have a slight advantage with more mail to come enhancing that edge. The Democrats are in the game — a game they have no right to be in, considering President Biden’s subterranean numbers and sticker shock everywhere Nevadans shop. The Reid Machine, even with Harry gone, is a real thing, folks; it was built a decade and a half ago or so, and it is still around, this time a ship sailing into what may turn out to be a perfect storm.

The real mystery is what Election Day turnout will look like: Are tens of thousands of Republicans really waiting for Tuesday, or are Clark Democrats ready to flood the zone? And will inclement weather deter Election Day voters while neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays the postmen from the swift completion of their appointed rounds?

The two top of ticket races – U.S. Senate and governor – are very difficult to pick. I would not be surprised by any outcome — both incumbents win, both incumbents lose or a split decision. I am even more at sea in the governor’s race than the Senate contest for a variety of reasons – see below – but mostly because I can logically chart a path for Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto to hang on, but it is not so simple to find one for Gov. Steve Sisolak. She has a weaker opponent, probably will run stronger in populous Clark and may just win Washoe. Sisolak may have been harder to tie to Biden – although Sheriff Joe Lombardo’s campaign has done its best with those tricky sign pairings – but the COVID hangover, his weakness in the rurals and the adverse environment make finding a road to victory more difficult. Oh, it’s there — if non-major party voters tilt Democratic and if Lombardo has not consolidated the GOP base because Joey Bag of Hydroxychloroquine has poisoned the well. I would not be surprised at all to see the governor get re-elected.

If Clark turnout increases enough because of thousands of mail ballots yet to be counted this week, thus diminishing the rural GOP landslide, Washoe County will be The Biggest Little Cincher. It could change everything.

Before I get to all my predictions, my theory of the case in the down-ballot races is simple: I don’t believe Nevadans, if they are paying attention, will act against their own interests. At least I hope not. There are three manifestly unqualified people running for important state offices, all three of them obviously dangerous and whose election would be inimical to Nevada’s interests. I don’t think it matters at all that they are Republican; I see no evidence they believe in any principle except conspiracies and grievances they have conveniently concocted.

Having said all of that, I can dither no more:

--U.S. Senate: Red wave or not, candidates and campaigns matter. Adam Laxalt is an abysmal candidate who has lived on his last name for credibility and fundraising since he moved here a decade ago. Anyone with an R after his or her name would be competitive this cycle, and his automaton-like performance, where he can disgorge puerile talking points to thrill the faithful and avoid any serious questioning (a candidate for governor and Senate who never debated!) has been something to behold. Laxalt’s campaign has been desultory and depressing. Cortez Masto is not exactly Rita Moreno on the campaign trail, but she has been disciplined and on message, and her media has been sharp and memorable. Laxalt may win the rurals 2-to-1 or better, but she will hold the Clark base and may even win Washoe. Prediction: Cortez Masto, 47 percent; Laxalt, 45 percent; others, 4 percent; none of the above, 4 percent.

--Governor: Sisolak may be the best fundraiser the state has seen outside of Harry Reid, he has had to weather and be second-guessed about a pandemic no one could have foreseen and he has used the power of the country’s most powerful governor’s office to his advantage during the election to, as P.J. O’Rourke once said, bribe people with their own money. The emergence of the Northshore scandal probably cut him, perhaps enough to cost him the race even though he did his best to distance himself from it. Sisolak has been relentless and ubiquitous. But it probably won’t be enough because people are still mad about COVID restrictions and a governor is the most visible person for people to vent their spleens about all the ills of the world when a president is not on the ballot. Lombardo has not shown himself to be a formidable candidate or especially well-versed on state issues, but his campaign team has been excellent, making him appear gubernatorial even where he was not well known outside of Southern Nevada. I remain dismayed and repelled by the sheriff’s metamorphosis from insisting Trump was not a great president and calling him a “sound” president to a few hours later labeling him a “great” president and then standing next to him at a rally a few days later and fawning over him as the “greatest” president. That was a sad, slow-motion demonstration of what a Republican candidate feels he must do to survive in the Age of Trump. Still, Sisolak only garnered 27 percent in the rurals against Laxalt in 2018; it’s hard to believe he does any better after four years as an incumbent, and he may do worse. Lombardo may slice just enough into the Democratic Clark County base (Why do you think the GOP wanted a southern sheriff so much?) that even if the governor wins Washoe, it may not be enough. Prediction: Lombardo, 48 percent; Sisolak, 47 percent; others 2 percent; none of the above, 3 percent.

--House: In a normal year, all of the Democratic incumbents would be safe — the districts all have substantial Democratic registration edges. This is not a normal year, and polling shows they could all be competitive. I think Rep. Steven Horsford survives because he has a subpar opponent, an election denier who has not run a credible campaign, and he is in the safest district: Horsford, 52 percent; Sam Peters, 48 percent. I know people who think Dina Titus will lose, but despite her anger about her new district being vulnerable, she has worked tirelessly and will hang on against a generic foe: Titus, 51 percent; Mark Robertson, 48 percent; Ken Cavanaugh, 1 percent. Finally, Susie Lee has proved herself a prolific fundraiser, and she has needed every penny in the state’s swing district made slightly less swingy in reapportionment. Lee has had to deal with brutal ads dealing with stock trades that surely drove up her negatives. April Becker, after a failed state Senate bid and brief election denialism, has quietly run a solid, credible race, which may just be enough in this environment: Becker, 51 percent; Lee, 49 percent.

--Other constitutional offices: I think the Democrats hang on in three of the five. The two who won’t: Lt. Gov. Lisa Cano Burkhead got a raw deal, being tethered to a top of the ticket in a midterm and without the resources. Stavros Anthony has become a perennial candidate, but the R next to his name should be enough: Anthony, 48 percent; Cano Burkhead, 45 percent; others, 4 percent; none of these candidates, 3 percent. No one cares about the controller’s office, which probably shouldn’t exist. Andy Matthews was a backbencher assemblyman and election denier, but he has run a clever campaign and will be helped by a generally good GOP year against ex-Assemblywoman Ellen Spiegel, who was pushed out of the secretary of state’s race and into oblivion: Matthews, 49 percent; Spiegel, 44 percent; Jed Profeta, 2 percent; none of these candidates, 5 percent. The other three constitutional offices feature a trio of GOP candidates, who range from a deranged conspiracy kook (Jim Marchant for secretary of state) to a cartoonish villainess who has no place in public office (Michele Fiore for treasurer) to an always-fuming, seemingly unhinged attorney (Sigal Chattah for attorney general). These are three people who, if you could look at them with nonpartisan eyes, look like extras in a Wes Anderson film. Marchant is truly dangerous, spouting all kinds of QAnon and election denier nonsense, and I have to believe even though Cisco Aguilar was too invisible and too restrained until the end, should win: Aguilar, 47 percent; Marchant, 43 percent, others, 5 percent; none of the above, 5 percent. Fiore is considered a joke outside of the MAGA bubble, someone who is under investigation by the FBI and whose campaign disclosure reports are highly questionable and yet she seeks to replace Zach Conine, one of the finer public servants the state has ever seen who actually cares about the job and, you know, understands it. Putting Fiore in charge of the state bank account would be like hiring Willie Sutton as a bank guard: Conine, 50 percent; Fiore, 45 percent; others, 2 percent; none of these candidates, 3 percent. Chattah once said the African-American attorney general, Aaron Ford, should be hanging from a crane, didn’t know the details of Nevada’s abortion law and constantly puts out volcanic tweets. Ford should have been vulnerable in this cycle, having barely won in 2018; he’s fortunate to have someone so out there competing against him, and he has run an excellent campaign to expose her: Ford, 49 percent; Chattah, 45 percent; John Kennedy, 2 percent; none of these candidates, 4 percent.

--Legislature: The Democrats are going to control both houses again. I think they stay at 12-9 in the Senate and lose a couple of seats in the Assembly to go to 24-18. No, I will not tell you which ones — it’s hard enough picking the big races!

--Ballot questions: The minimum wage will pass, the sickening transphobic campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment will not be its downfall and the open primaries/ranked-choice voting measure will eke out a victory even though linking those two ideas is as disingenuous as the campaign has been.

Finally, a cautionary note: Some of these races – maybe many of them – may not be decided on Election Night. Mail ballots can keep coming in to be counted until Saturday, and they probably will heavily favor Democrats, if the pattern holds.

Everyone running knows this, so if anyone in a close race declares victory Tuesday evening, they are doing it because they fear what may happen. It will be a Trumpian attempt to cry fraud when none exists, and I only ask you do one thing:

Remember their names.

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