Nevada's diverse landscapes and lifestyles guide voters ahead of the midterm elections
Battle Mountain is quiet on a Sunday afternoon in mid-October. On a water tank off Interstate 80, a sign declares the town of 3,600 the gateway to Nevada’s outdoors. Few cars drive past the Owl Club or the other shops along Battle Mountain’s main street. But Nevadans and out-of-state visitors glide in and out of Roller Coaster Fireworks, where politics are unavoidable.
Earl Cassorla, a co-owner working the register, encourages a customer from California to sign up for his conservative mailing list. The lawn adjacent to his store is flooded with signs for Republican Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt and local conservative politicians. Behind the register, Cassorla sells half-dollar coins with President Trump’s face.
His brother Steve Cassorla, the other owner (both are originally from Rochester, New York), walks in and takes a seat by the door. Steve talks about Burning Man, describes the attitude of Battle Mountain as “live and let live,” and decries the traffic in Reno and Las Vegas, while wearing a hat with the mascot for the Las Vegas 51s, the city’s AAA baseball team.
“They want the wall above Mexico,” he says. “We want the wall above Vegas.”
His comments underscore the cultural dynamics of Nevada, where a seven-hour car ride separates its two major population centers — Las Vegas and Reno — and where the federal government manages roughly 85 percent of land. The state’s boundaries contain a neon-lit city that glitters in the nighttime sky and a national park so remote that its crystal clear, dark skies attract a yearly astronomy festival.
While slot machines, poker tables and gaming bars power the urban economies, more traditional western activities such as mining, agriculture and ranching keep the rural communities afloat. And then there are the environmental differences: scorching summers and red rocks in the south and frigid winters with Ponderosa Pine-covered mountains in the north. The state tourism commission has capitalized on this dichotomy, unveiling a slogan several years ago that speaks to its variety: “Nevada: a world within, a state apart.”
So it’s only natural that when an election rolls around, residents don’t vote as one homogenous bloc. What’s good for Elko may not be great for Henderson, and what works for Boulder City may not go over well in Carson City.
Reporters from The Nevada Independent recently spent time traversing Nevada’s rural two-lane roads and major highways to talk with voters across the state — in hotels, retirement communities, bars, coffee shops and more. These are the people campaigns are trying to woo before the midterm elections, which, in Nevada, include tight Senate and gubernatorial races as well as big-money ballot questions. Their observations, gripes and hopes paint a nuanced portrait of the Nevada electorate.
Conventional political theory certainly holds true in some respects: Rural voters tend to have more conservative viewpoints, while urban voters generally swing left of center. But even in the tiniest of Nevada locales, there’s room for people on both sides of the political aisle. And whether they identify as Democrat, Republican, nonpartisan or something else entirely, most agree on one thing: The political climate has grown increasingly nasty.
On a slow Monday afternoon along a quiet stretch of U.S. 95, Sherry Huffman and Deborah Cuney-Sharp nibble on their lunch inside the Goldfield Emporium. A business card touting an Assembly candidate who had knocked on the door a day earlier sits on the table.
Even in Goldfield (population: 260), residents can’t escape politics. That’s OK with the self-proclaimed best friends who moved to this rural town within the past year. The way they tell it, their move was more of a calling. They drove past the sleepy town en route to Tonopah, fell in love with it and decided to bid goodbye to their respective lives in Las Vegas and Southern California. Five months ago, they opened this store that’s stocked with specialty foods, craft supplies, collectibles and other doodads.
“I may have lived here before in another life,” says Huffman, who previously lived in both California and Las Vegas. “Nevada is home. California is not my home anymore.”
Huffman says she and her husband never could have afforded buying a house in Las Vegas. Goldfield made that dream possible. They bought a house for $50,000 on more than an acre of land and now have 23 chickens, three turkeys, seven ducks, eight rabbits, three pigs and three cats. Cuney-Sharp also bought a house for herself and her dog and two cats.
“It’s the last of the Wild West,” Huffman says. “Nowhere else can you go and experience living like this.”
The closest gas station is 25 miles away in Tonopah. The closest medical care? A two-hour drive north to Hawthorne or south to Pahrump.
It wasn’t always like this. Goldfield’s population peaked at more than 20,000 in 1907, fueled by a gold rush that gave this western outpost its name. In its heyday, the boomtown boasted hotels, athletic clubs, restaurants, theaters, shopping and sporting events. In fact, it’s the site of the world’s longest boxing match, which went a whopping 42 rounds in 1906.
The entertainment options are slimmer these days. Huffman and Cuney-Sharp say they look forward to the town’s community dinner every Thursday, which includes everything from sweet tea to dessert. But they like the quieter pace and the freedom it brings. It’s the kind of place where no one minds if several stray dogs wander inside their store.
But for all these two have in common, they don’t see eye-to-eye on politics. Cuney-Sharp, a Republican in California, changed her voter registration to Democrat when she moved to Nevada. She considers Nevada Republicans “a little bit stiff.” Huffman, on the other hand, sees herself as more of an independent.
“I was Republican for years,” Huffman says. “I just want the right person. I don’t really care what party anymore. I don’t really think it matters.”
Huffman cast a ballot for Trump in the 2016 presidential election, despite thinking the billionaire’s bid for the Oval Office was a joke at first. Overall, the 61-year-old is pleased with her decision. She thinks he’s making strides in Washington, D.C., even if his personality sometimes overshadows those accomplishments.
“He is his real self,” she says.
Her friend shakes her head. Cuney-Sharp, 69, says she voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“We’re best friends! What the hell?” Huffman says jokingly. “We have not discussed this, Deb.”
“I thought for sure she’d win,” Cuney-Sharp says.
“Oh, I’m so glad she didn’t,” Huffman replies.
But as of mid-October, the women hadn’t determined which candidates would earn their votes in the midterm elections — the first major test of the Trump presidency. They don’t have a clear favorite in the state’s gubernatorial and Senate races. Both say they need more time to study the candidates, especially given the barrage of attack ads they hear on the radio.
“I’m on the fence,” Huffman says. “You hear good and bad. What do you believe and what’s going to be good for Nevada?”
Across the street, the owner of a gift shop called Wild Inspirations hasn’t made up his mind either. Mike Eidson, who retired to Goldfield with his wife several years ago, says he’s not “a big political person,” but he supports Trump. He credits the president’s economic policies with boosting tourist traffic that benefits his business, which sits along U.S. 95.
“The traffic on the highway has almost tripled,” he says, “and more people are stopping.”One person Edison says hasn’t stopped by in roughly two years is Republican Sen. Dean Heller, who’s running for re-election against Democrat Jacky Rosen. It disappoints him.
“If he’s campaigning, he needs to stop in the rural areas,” says Eidson, who notes that most of Nevada’s rural counties vote Republican. “They make up a big chunk of the vote.”
His observation about statewide voting trends is right on target: While Democrats have proudly touted Clinton’s 2016 success in Nevada, her victory was razor thin and only propelled by the urban counties that include Las Vegas and Reno. She snagged 47.9 percent of the votes statewide, and Trump received 45.5 percent. But the billionaire businessman who cast himself as the outsider who would clean up the nation’s capital, build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and put America first won all 15 rural counties in Nevada.
The small towns in those counties have their own way of life — a certain cadence that, in some ways, is the opposite of the the major metropolitan areas. Take, for instance, a recent Sunday evening in Tonopah.
Shortly after 5 p.m., a line of pumpkin costume-clad youngsters bursts through the lobby of the Mizpah Hotel with a boombox in tow. As Halloween music blares from the speakers, the dance group snakes through the lobby and restaurant, delivering an impromptu performance for employees and guests alike.
Tabitha Reid, 39, started the dance group several years ago after moving to Tonopah — a mining community in Nye County that sits halfway between Las Vegas and Reno — with her husband and five children. She describes it as a place filled with “down-to-earth, loving people” who support each other, illustrated by the dance group’s warm welcome at the hotel.
“They really come together when there’s a need,” she says.
Bridget Hughes, 63, and Cynthia Sanders, 52, agree with that description. Hughes moved to Tonopah from the Los Angeles area in 2017 after years of visiting the mining town; Sanders moved to town six months ago. Now, they’re roommates and co-workers at a bookstore on Main Street.
The friends say Tonopah has all the problems you might see in a large city — such as drug addictions and school budget woes — just on a smaller scale. But it also has an identity all its own and people always willing to lend a hand.
“I never even owned a flannel shirt until I moved here,” Sanders says, “and now I have 15 in my closet.”
The town that rallies behind its high school football team and any family experiencing tragedy also largely rallies behind conservative politicians. Bob Perchetti, owner of The Clown Motel, estimates that at least 55 percent of Tonopah residents favor Trump, himself included.
Perchetti grew up here and identified as a Democrat until the 1990s, turned off by the Clinton era of politics. He has been a registered Republican since then.
The 80-year-old says Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt and Sen. Dean Heller will get his votes in the midterm elections. He said Laxalt, whom he described as “pretty straight and narrow,” has visited Tonopah many times over the years as attorney general. (Perchetti says he was friends with the attorney general’s grandfather, Paul Laxalt, a former Nevada governor and U.S. senator.)
“Adam, I think, would make an excellent governor,” he says. “I like his family and his kids.”
When the conversation turns to brothel owner Dennis Hof — a Republican Assembly candidate until his sudden death earlier this month — Perchetti doesn’t dispense the same enthusiasm. He thinks brothels serve a purpose but would prefer not to see the sex industry and politics mix.
“I would be happy if a brothel owner wasn’t running for any state office,” Perchetti says the day before Hof passes away inside the Love Ranch South brothel. “It doesn’t give the county a good name.”
And Perchetti is all about preserving the livelihood of his beloved Tonopah, which he says has about 3,500 residents. He fears what might happen to the western Nevada city if the Interstate 11 project bypasses it, yanking traffic that would otherwise pass through and maybe stop.
“I’ve loved Tonopah,” he says. “The desert has a lot of beauty to it that people don’t see.”
Donna Waltrip knows that type of beauty. The 48-year-old calls Tonopah home but previously lived in other small Nevada towns, including Elko and Battle Mountain. She can’t fathom living in a bustling city and, like Perchetti, also strongly supports Trump.
“He’s not all talk,” Waltrip says inside the Mizpah Hotel, where she works as a bartender. “I love the fact that he’s pissing people off because he’s doing what he promised to do.”
But the frequent attack ads have left her unsure how to vote in the midterm elections. She’s a registered nonpartisan in a family of Republicans.
“It just gets old and immature,” she says of the political bickering in the lead-up to the Nov. 6 election. “It’s like they’re in kindergarten.”
Four weeks before Election Day, and the peaks of Northeastern Nevada are capped with snow. About 40 miles past Elko, Clover Valley rests at about 5,500 feet above sea level. It sits just outside the town of Wells and is three hours closer to Salt Lake City than it is to Reno. Cattle graze near rows of trees turning brown and red with the changing season.
When motorists enter the valley, they’ll see the “Trump” name bulldozed onto the hillside. But closer to the road, on the valley’s floor, the campaign signs are not for a particular candidate. Most signs are about an issue: Question 3.
Elko County is Trump country. It’s Gold country. It’s Laxalt country. It’s also — at least according to the number of lawn signs — No on 3 country.
“We’ve got the signs up there and then on [U.S. Route] 93 we’ve got a few more,” says Scott Egbert, a rancher and the board president of Wells Rural Electric, the area’s energy co-op.
Egbert jokes that he wished someone had bulldozed “No on 3” onto the hill.
Even in times of high partisanship and tribalism, the ballot question to break up NV Energy’s monopoly on the state’s power supply has muddied political and geographic lines. The ballot measure to create a competitive electric market is opposed by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Sisolak and supported by his opponent, Laxalt.
One Tuesday night at The Star, an iconic Basque restaurant in Elko, a patron shouts: “This is a No on 3 bar.” Another patron, a Trump supporter, chimes in, “That’s right. No on 3.”
“When in doubt, vote no,” another patron responds.
It’s clear, then, that voters who are likely to choose Laxalt at the ballot box might not back his position on the energy question. Nowhere is this more apparent than in rural Nevada, where Republicans lead in registration. In most counties, voters backed Trump with about 75 percent of the vote in 2016.
Most rural electric cooperatives, which sell energy to remote towns that NV Energy could not reach, have also come out against Question 3. If voters let the Legislature restructure the state’s energy market by passing Question 3, the co-ops worry they will be left behind. The ballot measure does not exempt them from an overhaul of the state’s energy market.
Egbert worries Question 3 could put the co-op model in jeopardy, leaving rural Nevadans with higher rates or facing more uncertainty in how they get their power and whom they buy it from.
And he thinks the ballot measure is affecting how people look at this election. Because they are doing more research, he says, they are doing more research on all of the candidates.
“People that normally could care less, they realize that this might hit them in the pocketbook,” he says. “All of the sudden they get interested. There will definitely be people coming out to vote that normally wouldn’t."
“In fact, I’ll just say this,” he adds. “I think Question 3 could have an impact on the governor’s race, to some extent… I think there will be some impact — I don’t know how large — with the governor’s race. I don’t know about too many of the others right now. But that one is really tight and really important.”
The sentiment — that the governor’s race is important — is common in Northeastern Nevada, where there are Laxalt signs at most street corners, but far fewer lawn signs for Heller and Rosen. In Wells, about 15 minutes from Clover Valley, Elko County Commissioner Demar Dahl opens the door to a semi-truck with a livestock trailer. It has a large Laxalt campaign sign on the side. “Protect Nevada,” the sign reads, an echo of Laxalt’s argument that voters should elect him to prevent a Democrat legislature from enacting laws that turn the state into East California.
Dahl tries to coax his dapple-grey cattle dog named Trump out of the car.
“He’s bashful, not like the other Trump,” Dahl says.
This is Dahl’s first stop on a statewide cattle drive fundraiser for the Laxalt campaign. Dahl had called on ranchers from around the state to donate one or two head to the campaign, a show of support for the attorney general, who has cast himself as the best candidate for rural Nevada. On that Tuesday in October, Dahl stops across Interstate 80, picking up about 30 cattle to sell at a Fallon auction the next day. The proceeds of the sales will go toward the Laxalt campaign.
About a half-dozen ranchers meet him at his next stop at the Elko County Fairgrounds to load up a truck that now has about 20 head in it. Everyone there is talking about the governor’s race. While watching Dahl corral the cattle, Lee Hoffman, who runs the Elko County Republican Party, argues that a Sisolak governorship would be detrimental for rural communities.
“The future of rural Nevada in particular is at stake in this race,” Hoffman says.
He says Sisolak, who has spent little time in Elko during the race, would not understand the particular needs of rural Nevada — and ranchers — when it comes to issues like water.
The Humboldt River runs through most of Northeastern Nevada, and 2018 was a particularly dry year across the basin. Water is always on everyone’s mind, but particularly this year.
“There wasn’t even enough water to fight over this year,” says Tom Barnes, a rancher in a tan cowboy hat this morning and the incoming president of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association.
As Dahl jumps a gate, Elko County Commissioner Rex Steninger helps him round up the cows.
“Hey, hey, hey, hey,” Steninger says to a rowdy bull.
Once the truck is loaded, Steninger and Dahl climb up the gates and out of the pen.
“You’re going to have a full truck by the time you get to Fallon,” Steninger says.
“I hope so,” Dahl replies.
“I do too,” Steninger says.
Wells, a small community of about 1,250 people, is nestled between Elko and the state’s eastern border with Utah. “Everyone knows everybody,” says one Wells voter who asked that her name not be disclosed because she didn't want her acquaintances to know her political leanings.
“People get a little cranky during the elections,” she says.
A few days earlier, Trump had announced that he was coming to Elko to rally his base. When Trump made his bid for the presidency official, he described Mexican immigrants as “rapists” who were “bringing crime” and “bringing drugs.” The president has continued using hard-line rhetoric to talk about immigration. Earlier this year, his administration implemented a “zero tolerance policy” that resulted in the separations of young children from their mothers.
“Here in Wells, because most of our population is Hispanic, everything he said terrified them,” the Wells voter says on a Tuesday morning in October.
Rarely does she talk about politics in public.
“People respect you more if you don’t talk about it,” she says.
Although many see Elko as a homogenous voting bloc, about 25 percent of the county is Hispanic, and even in a rural area far from the border, immigration remains a key issue.
About an hour east of Wells, casinos line the main highway of West Wendover, a small town that straddles the Utah border. Where the Elko and Wells economies are largely reliant on mining and ranching, the West Wendover economy depends more on what drives Las Vegas: gaming.
Even within the more conservative parts of Elko County, West Wendover is seen as something of an anomaly, a blue bubble in an otherwise deep red area. The city’s mayor, Daniel Corona, is a progressive Democrat who grew up in West Wendover and campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008.
“We have a majority-minority population,” Corona says in an interview from his office in City Hall.
Of West Wendover’s nearly 5,000 residents, more than 60 percent of the population is Hispanic. That’s why Corona says he has been active in speaking out on national immigration policies.
“Immigration has been crucial to the city of West Wendover,” he says. “We wouldn’t be where we are if it wasn’t for immigrants. Our casinos were built on the backs of immigrants. And they continued to be staffed by immigrants. There hasn’t been an ICE raid in a long time but when there is, this place is like a ghost town because people just disappear. And it shows you what would happen if the mass deportation that people talk about actually does happen.”
“Even out in the rurals, this is an issue,” he adds. “It’s not just West Wendover that has a large undocumented population. It’s places like Wells, Elko and I think even Winnemucca does. And those are folks working on farms or in the mining industry. And so I think it’s an issue that affects our whole state. It doesn’t just focus on the urban cores.”
But if rural demographics are not as homogenous as people think, the lifestyle is distinct from Las Vegas or Reno — and in that way, the rural counties comprise a distinct section of the state.
“Once you are out of the Clark County, Washoe County area, [things] are very similar,” says Chris Johnson, the mayor of Elko. “If we don’t have something here, then we make it. We enjoy the remoteness, being outside, more of that pioneer type of environment and that’s very common. And I know that’s going to be common no matter where you go in any smaller community in Nevada.”
The importance of the rural vote hasn’t taken the spotlight off the state’s largest population center. The who’s who of America’s elite politicians have made Las Vegas a destination point this election cycle.
In just the last six weeks, Trump, Obama, former First Lady Michelle Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham have visited the tourist mecca to rev up their bases and — they hope — turn out voters. So far, people are showing up in force, with roughly 20 percent of registered voters casting ballots during the first week of early voting.
Renee Ruggeroli and her 20-year-old son, Brock, are among those who participated early in the midterm elections. They visited a voting center Wednesday at Downtown Summerlin, where they cast ballots for Republican candidates, including Heller and Laxalt.
Ruggeroli, 50, who describes herself as libertarian, says the way Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was treated during his confirmation process compelled her to vote in the midterm elections. Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who accused him of sexual misconduct, testified before a Senate committee in September.
“What they did to him was terrible,” says the mother of two sons. “I wouldn’t want them treated the way he was treated.”
Across town, 49-year-old Gene Hawley offers a different take while grading his students’ assignments at a downtown Las Vegas coffeeshop. He’s the band director at Garside Junior High School.
Hawley, who cast his ballot the first day of early voting, backs Sisolak for governor and Rosen for Senate. The registered Democrat doesn’t question Blasey Ford’s accusation against Kavanaugh.
“Anybody that’s been through a traumatic experience can tell you that you will not remember every details,” he says. “Something happened. There is no doubt in my mind.”
Hawley is the type of voter Democrats are hoping to turn out en masse this election cycle. The former New Yorker — he grew up in Queens — refuses to say Trump and president in the same sentence. While he concedes that some of Trump’s trade policies may prove helpful in the long run, Hawley’s not a fan of the man himself or his emphasis on manufacturing jobs, which he doesn’t see lasting in the technology age.
“He’s just a blowhard,” he says. “He’s a snake-oil salesman.”
In Nevada’s other urban area — Reno — Nicole Barnes also veered toward a Democratic candidate. Barnes describes herself as an independent who usually doesn’t vote by party, but she says candidates’ party affiliations in the Senate race heavily influenced her vote.
“I did vote for Jacky Rosen,” Barnes, a business management major, says outside a voting center on the UNR campus. “Part of that was not my typical way of voting but it was more to combat some of the things that are going on with the Trump administration that I don’t agree with as far as policies concerning tariffs and economic issues.”
Barnes says she views voting as a centerpiece of the American political process.
“For me personally, I do look into things, and I want to exercise my right to assert my opinion,” she says, as voters file into the student union.
It’s a sentiment shared by first-time voters such as Raul Ruiz, a Rancho High School student who will turn 18 on Nov. 1. He plans to vote for Democratic candidates on Election Day and has asked his mother to participate, too.
“I feel like this election is more about the party over the person,” he says, listing education and immigration as two key issues.
But turnout likely will be greatest among older Americans, and in Mesquite — a fast-growing city 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas — they’re gearing up for the midterm elections. Ed Koch, 76, moved to Mesquite, which boasts a large retirement community, nearly six years ago to escape the daily grind of Southern California. On his second night in his new home, he knew he had made the right choice.
“I realized I’m not apprehensive anymore,” he says while spending an afternoon at a Sun City Mesquite clubhouse. “I get home, and I don’t have to be anywhere.”
That’s not to suggest he isn’t busy, though. Ask him about retirement, and he’ll rattle off a list of resume-worthy positions: He was the former president of the bocce ball club, the ping pong club and a trivia club. He also spent a couple of years helping with the Mesquite Little League.
The vibrant social scene in the retirement community keeps political disputes at bay. Koch estimates that he doesn’t know the political preferences of 70 percent of his friends here. His rationale about talking politics is simple: “If you’re at a big party, don’t offer it up.”
Still, Koch is by no means tuned out of the national and local political conversation. He’s leaning toward Laxalt in the governor’s race and favors Heller as well. Fed up with politics in the run-up to the last presidential election, Koch didn’t cast a ballot in 2016. But he supports Trump now and, after fully researching the candidates, plans to vote in the midterm elections.
“This is big all the way around,” he says.
Other seniors in Mesquite are brushing up on their election knowledge, too. Shirley Schroeder, 78, recently attended a candidate forum for the Mesquite City Council races. She’s more interested in the local races, noting that she wants to see issues such as affordable housing and health care addressed in Mesquite.
The registered nonpartisan says she may not even vote in the top-ballot races. Schroeder says she is tired of attack ads that provide little or no insight into what the candidates actually want to do in office.
“I’m not sure I like any of those,” she says, referring to the candidates in the gubernatorial and congressional races. “It’s a dirty election.”
But then she stops and reconsiders. There’s still time — time to research and time to think.
“I’ll get there,” she says.