RENO — Flanked by two generations of pro-choice activists, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto made the pitch she hopes will help her notch a victory and help secure Democratic control of the Senate in a tough election year.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Adam Laxalt will be a vote for a federal abortion ban,” she said of her Republican challenger last week at the University of Nevada Reno. “If we aren’t vigilant and if we aren’t fighting back and if we aren’t vocal about it and using all of our voices, it is going to happen.”
When Roe v. Wade fell this year, Democrats urged voters to back their candidates in November so they could codify broadly popular abortion protections into federal law and stop any GOP attempt to do the opposite. They believed that outrage at the Supreme Court decision from voters across the political spectrum could keep Republicans from winning control of Congress in midterm elections that historically favor the party out of power.
The abortion theme allowed endangered Democrats such as Cortez Masto, who has devoted ads in English and Spanish as well as numerous campaign stops to the issue, to open narrow leads in polls over their Republican challengers for much of the summer.
But less than three weeks before Election Day, Laxalt has closed the polling gap with Cortez Masto in this perennial battleground state, as persistently high inflation has emerged as a dominant issue. That ominous development for Democrats raises doubts about the closing power of a message they are campaigning on nationally, and, in Nevada, also risks costing the party its narrow Senate majority with a loss by Cortez Masto.
“The environment is something that she cannot control,” said Chris Moyer, a Democratic strategist who worked for former Nevada senator and majority leader Harry Reid, “and there are factors, pertaining to the economy in particular of late, that are top of mind for a lot of voters.”
The tight race in Nevada underscores a tough reality for Democrats and abortion rights advocates: While voters appear quick to back abortion rights in a referendum, such as the one that passed this summer in deep red Kansas and is expected to pass in Michigan in November, they may be more finicky with Democratic candidates, who are contending with a host of other pressing issues.
“If you could build a moat around abortion, gun violence, and Jan. 6 and keep all other issues out, then it would be very, very plausible if not likely that Democrats would have a good election. But other things do intrude,” said Charlie Cook, founder of the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter.
Cortez Masto, a 58-year-old former Nevada attorney general, is no stranger to a tough race. She eked out a 2.4 percentage-point win in 2016, when Donald Trump won the White House. Now, she is seeking reelection in a state whose tourism-dependent economy has yet to fully recover after the pandemic shutdowns, and where gas prices remain far above the national average. Those conditions have put Democrats — who control most elected statewide and congressional seats — on the defensive.
In an interview, Cortez Masto declined to say whether the economic malaise has hurt her chances, but acknowledged her race is tight.
“They’re always close,” she said. “That’s Nevada.”
She has cast herself as a workhorse, bipartisan senator and threaded pocketbook concerns throughout her campaign. Her first reelection ads centered on pandemic aid and she touts Democratic legislation to lower the costs of prescription drugs and insulin.
And as she criss-crossed the Reno area over two days last weekend — which has seen major industrial growth but also steep increases in housing costs — she was emphatic that both the economy and abortion rights remain central to her message.
“I don’t think it’s one over the other. It is the kitchen table issues, it is the repeal of Roe vs. Wade and its impact here,” Cortez Masto said, moments after exhorting members of the state’s mighty labor unions to knock on doors for her with a speech that focused on economic themes. “Everywhere I go, somebody approaches me about it.”
The campaign is hoping abortion rights can help Cortez Masto attract independent voters and even moderate Republicans, and she frequently speaks of how the 1990 referendum that protected abortion rights here got support from across the partisan divide. She has campaigned alongside Republicans to make that point. She and other Democrats are seizing on their opponents’ positions on abortion and the 2020 election — Laxalt made dubious allegations about fraud and irregularities as he fought Trump’s loss here — to paint them as too MAGA for this purple state.
“We have a lot of great Republicans here,” said Representative Susie Lee, a Democrat who is locked in her own tough reelection battle outside of Las Vegas. “They don’t want that extremism representing them.”
Laxalt, himself a former state attorney general, has moved to neutralize the issue, writing in an op-ed in August that claims he would support a national abortion ban are “false.” Asked in September about Senator Lindsey Graham’s proposal for a nationwide ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, his spokesman sidestepped the question, saying simply that it had no chance to pass. Trump has held rallies with Laxalt and the other Republicans on the ticket twice in Nevada.
“Everybody’s worried about inflation, everybody’s worried about the price of gas here in Nevada, which is pretty high right now,” said Judith Whitmer, the chair of the Nevada State Democratic Party. “So that’s something that we have to talk about, we have to address.”
On Friday night, at a Mexican restaurant in Reno where Cortez Masto met voters over tortilla chips and queso, Molly Vatinel, 59, said it was “mind-boggling” that Laxalt was doing so well in the polls given his position on abortion and other issues she cares about. But Aaron Sims, a Democrat who is running for a state Senate seat south of Reno, said he hears less from voters about abortion now than he did over the summer.
“A couple of months ago, it was a little bit more on the forefront . . . now, the biggest thing is the economy,” he said. “People are still definitely talking about it, but it’s, ‘Do I have money to fill up my tank? Do I have money to pay the bills?’ ”
The next morning, the long line of cars inching toward the cheap-for-the-area gas pumps at Costco, where a gallon of regular cost $5.16 on Saturday, seemed to illustrate his point. In the parking lot across the street, Amy Coombs was loading her car with the wholesaler’s wares.
An educator and an avowed Reid fan who has voted for Democrats and Republicans in the past, Coombs agreed with Democrats that women should be able to make their own decision about whether or not to give birth, but she is not sure she wants to back the party that has overseen rising costs of gas and groceries in her state.
“Democrats have had a monopoly for quite a while,” she said.
In the Reno suburb of Sparks, canvassers with the Culinary Workers Union were working to convince voters to let them keep it. Enriqueta Layune and Carl Antonio Woods approached Ramon Barrera as he shot hoops in his driveway with a young boy, and asked him about his plans to vote.
“I don’t really pay attention to it — all I know is that everything’s going up,” Barrera said, although he agreed to vote after Layune pressed her case about women’s rights in Spanish.
“They’re looking at the economics,” said Kristie Strejc, a Circus Circus bartender who was also canvassing with the group, “and they think, Hey, you know, why isn’t this fixed?’ ”
Lissandra Villa Huerta of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.