Voices: How Nevada is changing politically — and dramatically — after Roe

Senator Cortez Masto speaks to abortion rights activists  (Getty Images)
Senator Cortez Masto speaks to abortion rights activists (Getty Images)

Of all of the endangered Democrats up for re-election in 2022, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto is perhaps the least known. Despite the fact she served two terms as Nevada’s attorney general, was hand-picked by the late Harry Reid to succeed him in 2016 and ran the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the 2020 cycle that saw her party take control of the chamber (if only just), the first Latina Senator does not cut the same profile as her paradoxically soft-spoken but big-mouthed predecessor.

In a state that narrowly voted for Joe Biden and where he has only a 43 per cent approval rating, being an anonymous Democrat is a risky situation, since the lack of a unique brand means it will be harder for her to draw distinctions with an unpopular president. And Nevada has been trending rightward in recent years, driven mostly by working-class Latinos moving to the GOP.

But Cortez Masto might just have found a lifeline last month when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade.

Pro-choice sentiment is incredibly popular in Nevada – 62 percent of its residents support a woman’s right to abortion – and elective abortion is legal up to 24 weeks in the state, though the procedure can be performed afterward in cases of life or health risk, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Cortez Masto’s Republican opponent Adam Laxalt – himself a former state attorney general and the grandson of the late former governor and senator Paul Laxalt – has sought to use the fact that abortion is legal in the state to make it a non-issue in the race. But Cortez Masto clearly sees an opportunity to capitalize on it.

On Thursday, she and fellow Democratic Senator Patty Murray tried to pass legislation that would have allowed for travel across state lines to seek an abortion. As she told me on Wednesday, she proposed the legislation because multiple states are moving fast to limit a woman’s right to seek an abortion, variously criminalizing those who do or making it possible to bring civil actions against them or against providers in states where abortion services are in fact available.

Clearly, Cortez Masto will have known that the legislation would never pass via unanimous consent. Sure enough, Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma, one of the Senate’s most conservative Republicans, objected, effectively killing the bill.

But afterward, the Nevada Democrat – not known for her verbosity – delivered a fiery floor speech defending the legislation. “Ultimately,” she said, “we made that decision as a state — if women want to travel to my state to seek services, and providers want to provide services, and employers want to help them travel, to let them do that.” She also took exception to bad-faith critics who referred to the move as trafficking pregnant women: “That is so offensive. But I am not surprised, because in this day and age, some of these radical ideas coming out of this Congress miss what is happening across the country.”

Cortez Masto clearly thinks protecting abortion rights is a chance for her to define herself — not unlike Reid did in 2010 when his opponent Sharron Angle said pregnancy from rape was a chance to turn a “lemon situation into lemonade”. Reid’s pro-choice reaction to that contributed to a victory won when many thought the then-majority leader was dead on arrival.

Surveys in the Silver State have often earned pollsters a bronze or worse — in other words, they’re known to be completely off the mark — so actual numbers are scarce. But a recent KLAS TV-The Hill-Emerson College poll found that Cortez Masto leads Laxalt by 44 to 41 per cent. And on Thursday, she reported she had raised a whopping $7.5m – a war chest that looks like she hit the jackpot at the Bellagio.