Trump’s visit to small-town Nevada underscores importance of rural voters to state Republicans

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CNN

When former President Donald Trump landed in Minden, Nevada on Saturday to campaign for a Republican slate of candidates, he landed in a city of just under 3,500 people, or about 0.1% of the population of the state.

It’s a small stop for the former president, who saw stronger-than-expected turnout in rural parts of the country like Minden at the White House in 2016. But it underscores how important rural counties are to Republicans. of Nevada, such as Senate candidate Adam Laxalt. and gubernatorial candidate Joe Lombardo in the critical midterm elections.

“We believe rural Nevada is the key to rolling our state backwards,” Laxalt said during a stop late last year in Winnemucca, a mining town of fewer than 8,000 in the county’s north. of Humboldt.

Nevada, which Trump has lost twice, represents one of the biggest tests for Democratic midterm power in 2022. The party holds all but one of the Nevada statewide positions, and Democratic presidential candidates have carried the state in every election since 2008, backed by the might of late Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid’s so-called Reid Machine. But those Democratic margins have shrunk, and after shutdowns around the coronavirus pandemic drastically affected Nevada’s tourism-centric economy, Republicans see a strong chance of making gains in the state, dangling hopes on the Lombardo’s attempt to overthrow Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak and Laxalt’s challenge to Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez Masto.

A CNN poll released Thursday found no clear leader in either race: Laxalt and Lombardo had the support of 48% of likely voters compared to 46% for Cortez Masto and Sisolak.

The same poll was littered with warning signs for Democrats. Forty-four percent of registered voters in Nevada said the country would be better off if Republicans controlled Congress, compared to 35% who said it would not. More Republican voters in Nevada said they were extremely motivated to vote – 62% compared to 52% for Democrats. And 41% of voters said the economy was the most important midterm issue, which Republicans used to hammer Democrats.

Nevada has been home to one of the most dramatic and politically significant urban-rural divides in recent years. And that split could prove even more crucial in November, given the closeness of the Senate and gubernatorial elections.

Rural voters make up a tiny fraction of Nevada’s electorate, with the state’s major urban centers – Clark County, home to Las Vegas, and Washoe County, home to Reno – accounting for nearly 90% of the population of Nevada, which has some 3.1 million inhabitants. According to a study by Iowa State University, Nevada’s rural population fell from nearly 20% of the state in 1970 to less than 6% in 2010.

Nevada’s urbanization has long allowed the state’s Democratic candidates to run on a strategy: increase the vote totals around Las Vegas, win narrowly or at least stay competitive in the Reno area, and lose big in the Rural Nevada. Cortez Masto, the first Latina elected to the Senate, followed this strategy in 2016 when she lost every county in Nevada except Clark but still won a first term by more than 2 points.

In recent years, that strategy has paid off even more as Washoe County, the state’s second-largest, leaned toward the Democrats. Democratic presidential candidates have won Washoe County in the past four presidential elections, while Sisolak and junior state senator Jacky Rosen both won the county in 2018.

This put more pressure on Nevada Republicans to not only close the gap in Clark and Washoe counties, but also to increase turnout in rural areas as much as possible.

Whether this “rural-first” strategy can still lead to gains is an open question, according to David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“It’s a huge part of the Republican playbook, but every year it gets smaller and smaller,” he said of the GOP’s attempts to get rural voters to vote. “It’s about cutting Clark’s margin. What happened is that even though Trump did it last time, Washoe is becoming more liberal. … It’s a bit of a mole game for the Republicans.

Laxalt knows the pressure it faces. When he successfully ran for state attorney general in 2014, he became the only statewide candidate in decades to lose Clark and Washoe counties, but won the election by narrowly defeating Democrat Ross Miller.

Laxalt did what a statewide Republican candidate had to do in Nevada in this race: He held the margins at Clark and Washoe – losing the former by less than 6 points and the latter by 1 point – and posted strong margins in the rest of the state. .

Laxalt also knows that this is not a perfect strategy. Nevada’s increased urbanization has put a strain on this rural-focused strategy, as evidenced by Laxalt’s 4-point loss to Sisolak in 2018. In that run, Laxalt again lost Clark and Washoe, but this time with wider margins, including losing the Las Vegas area by almost 14 points.

Laxalt, on several Nevada campaign tours during his Senate campaign, stressed the importance of the region to his success. At the same time, he had to distinguish between making false claims about the validity of the 2020 election, including Republican concerns about the vote count in Clark County, and the need to increase rural turnout. . Laxalt did this by raising baseless questions about the Clark County election while emphasizing to rural voters that their votes matter.

“At the end of the day, rural Nevada can provide 75,000 voting cushions, so rural Nevada still matters,” he told an audience in Fallon in late 2021. “Rural Nevada is discouraged. They think Vegas is all that matters. Not true. Blocking votes in rural Nevada still makes a huge difference.

Brian Freimuth, a spokesman for Laxalt, said in a statement that the Republican’s effort “is the most attended campaign in the state” and has “hosted events in every rural county, dozens of rural meetups, a livestock drive and events with ranchers and farmers.

“People in rural Nevada know that Adam’s record on water rights, the Second Amendment, sage grouse, and fighting the excesses of the federal government make him the best candidate in this race,” Freimuth said.

Cortez Masto, arguably the nation’s most vulnerable Democratic Senate incumbent, has devoted much of her campaign to linking Laxalt to Trump. Laxalt, who was co-chairman of Trump’s 2020 campaign in Nevada, played a pivotal role in filing election lawsuits seeking to overturn the presidential result in the state, which Biden won by 2 points. These lawsuits did not change the outcome of the elections.

Cortez Masto also sought to reduce Laxalt’s advantage in rural areas.

A former state attorney general herself, she embarked on a rural tour of Nevada in August, campaigning in communities such as Ely, Elko, Winnemucca and Fallon — all with populations under 20,000.

“When I became your U.S. Senator, it was just as important for me to get out there and talk to the people of Nevada, because here’s the thing: For me, it’s all about succeeding and this rising tide is lifting us all,” she said. in Ely. “At the end of the day, your party affiliation, your experience is about making sure your families succeed, your businesses succeed, we’re all in this together.”

Cortez Masto has been endorsed by several rural Republican leaders, such as former Winnemucca Mayor Di An Putnam and Ely Mayor Nathan Robertson, who said in a statement that the incumbent “will continue to work hard in the Senate to defend the important questions for everyone in rural Nevada.”

In response to a CNN question about Trump’s rally with Laxalt in rural Nevada, Cortez Masto spokesman Josh Marcus-Blank said, “No one has done more to overturn the election of Donald Trump. in 2020 than Adam Laxalt, and he is again rewarded. ”

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