Henderson, Nev. — “I don’t believe that what somebody else says about a specific demographic is going to come back and hurt me,” says Representative Joe Heck, the likely Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Nevada.
It’s a statement that many Republicans hope is true, as it could well determine their party’s success or failure at winning this open Senate seat. The race pits Heck against former Nevada attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto, and it is a big one for Republicans. It’s their best, and potentially their only, pickup opportunity in a year when Republican incumbents are playing defense in Senate battlegrounds across the country.
But Nevada is a state with a large Hispanic population. And many Republicans worry that Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, could, with his steady stream of comments denigrating Hispanics, kneecap Republicans on the ballot with him in November. Nevada is a swing state, and a Senate race was always expected to be close. But if Trump alienates too many Hispanic voters, Nevada Republicans could be among the worst wounded: Hispanics are 28 percent of the population in Nevada, according to U.S. Census data, and were 19 percent of the Nevada electorate in the 2012 presidential election, per exit polls.
Despite potential headwinds, the Nevada Senate race has become a focus for Republican donors and outside groups alike. With so many vulnerable incumbent Republicans this cycle, it could well determine whether the GOP keeps its Senate majority. “It could be the deciding race for control” of the Senate, says veteran Nevada GOP consultant Sig Rogich. It’s a sentiment echoed by a number of Republican strategists, and even by Heck himself.
But for Republicans, this isn’t just another Senate seat: It’s Harry Reid’s seat. And though Reid is retiring of his own accord, Republicans would like nothing more than to seize control of the seat that the former Senate majority leader and Republican bogeyman has held for 30 years. Reid handpicked Cortez Masto to be his successor, announcing he would back her on the day he announced his own retirement, before she herself announced she would run. And Republicans would love to see Reid fail.
Despite potential headwinds, the Nevada Senate race has become a focus for Republican donors.
Winning Reid’s seat would have both “symbolic and substantive value,” says Rob Engstrom, the political director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is running ads backing Heck. That combination might explain why Heck has drawn such attention from donors. A number of groups, including the Chamber, Americans for Prosperity, and Ending Spending, have already spent money to back Heck this cycle and plan to continue doing so. Earlier this year, he spoke to a group of donors assembled by mega donors Paul Singer and Todd Ricketts; he was well received, per a source in attendance.
Republicans are betting that Heck, with a compelling biography and a track record of successfully holding a district Obama narrowly won in 2008 and 2012, a district that is 19 percent Hispanic, can successfully dodge any headwinds. But there’s no question Trump makes the task more difficult.
Trump “needs to tone it down” when it comes to how he talks about Hispanics, says Peter Guzman, the president of the Latin Chamber of Commerce in Las Vegas, in an interview with National Review Wednesday afternoon.
He acknowledges that Trump’s rhetoric could have an impact on the willingness of Hispanic voters to support Republicans up and down the ticket. The business owners who are members of his chamber, he says, are “absolutely” still willing to listen to Trump — some, he says, quite like the way he talks about the economy. But there needs to be a change in tone in how he speaks about Hispanics. He needs to “talk with more dignity,” Guzman says. “Because we are talking about people, families.”
Guzman is personally backing Heck. The two have a relationship dating back more than a decade, and Guzman says he respects how accessible Heck has been, and how willing he has been to listen to input from constituents. It is those types of relationships that Heck says he believes will insulate him from whatever else is happening with Trump or the national environment.
“We don’t show up just two months before an election. We are there all the time, at important events within those communities. If I’m not there personally, my official staff is there. And we have Spanish speakers, Mandarin speakers, Tagalog speakers, that go to these events to let them know that Joe Heck cares about them and their issues,” Heck says.
He says voters never ask him about whatever Trump has said most recently, “because they know who I am personally. Because we spent the last six years building relationships. And those relationships will endure whatever is said by anybody else.”
Cortez Masto would be the first Latina senator ever, a powerful biography — even more so, potentially, with Trump at the top of the ticket. At an event with supporters Tuesday at El Tarasco, a Mexican restaurant tucked into a strip mall in Las Vegas, she never mentions Trump’s name. But the issues he might raise for Republicans are ever present at the event. It is a Hispanic neighborhood, and most of the businesses have their names written in Spanish. The crowd in El Tarasco, both Cortez Masto’s supporters and people who walk in to purchase one of the Technicolor frozen desserts behind the counter on this 100-degree day, switch easily between English and Spanish as they chat with one another and with Cortez Masto.
She tells the small crowd in the lime-green-and-yellow-walled restaurant that she and her sister are the first in her family to attend college, after her parents immigrated from Mexico. She says she wants to solve “the issues that we deal with every day,” and says she is particularly passionate about passing comprehensive immigration reform. She promises to be a bipartisan problem-solver. After short remarks, she and the entourage walk across the street to the local community center to vote early in the primary, in which she is running uncontested.
On Thursday, Heck’s campaign invites reporters to a series of events here in Henderson, the second of which is a roundtable discussion about increasing the number of Hispanics who go to medical school to become doctors, and increasing access to and quality of health care for those in the Latino community. Heck, himself a former emergency-room doctor, has introduced a bill that would direct grant funding to help Hispanic students prepare for or attend medical school. Speaking at Touro University, he notes the importance of having “culturally competent physicians,” who can both understand the culture and speak the language of the patients they’re treating. He recalled how averse his Italian grandparents were to going to doctors, and that even then, “they would only go to Italian doctors.” Heck later tells National Review he speaks “medical Spanish,” but not much more: “I can get through an emergency-department exam in Spanish. . . . I would not try to use my Spanish as a tourist.”
It’s still unknown just how much of an impact Trump will have on down-ballot Republicans. And Cortez Masto will also have to contend with an unpopular nominee at the top of the ticket. “The dislike and mistrust is definitely high for both,” says Guzman, regarding Latin Chamber members’ feelings toward the nominees of both parties. But while Hillary Clinton’s candidacy has largely followed a predictable blueprint, Trump has left Republicans and Democrats alike shrugging their shoulders at what could possibly come next.
Thursday, on that front, was no different. Two hours after Heck spoke to National Review in his campaign office, the Wall Street Journal published an interview in which Trump declared that a federal judge presiding over a lawsuit against Trump had an “inherent conflict of interest” because he is “of Mexican heritage.”