On the surface, Nevada seems to validate the otherwise somewhat unsuccessful hypothesis of the 2002 book “The Emerging Democratic Majority.” Authors John Judis and Ruy Teixeira predicted that Nevada would become a light-blue state as Democrats held onto their unionized, working-class base and demographic change brought new Democratic voters into the fold.

Although Democratic nominee John Kerry narrowly lost to George W. Bush in Nevada in the following presidential election, Barack Obama carried the state by a whopping 12.5 percentage points in 2008, and Democrats have won the state in every presidential election since. Nevada’s senators, Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, are both Democrats, as is its governor, Steve Sisolak, and three of its four U.S. representatives.

So, Nevada is usually a pretty reliable state for Democrats, right? Well, not so fast. Cortez Masto, up for reelection this year, is narrowly trailing in the polling average against her Republican opponent, Adam Laxalt, the state’s former attorney general.1 Our forecast has this race at about as close to 50/50 odds as it gets. 

And just to be clear about the stakes here, Nevada couldn’t be much more important in determining which party controls the Senate. It is Republicans’ most likely pickup opportunity, according to FiveThirtyEight’s forecast2 — and the GOP’s second-best target, Georgia, took a big hit this week after new allegations surfaced that Republican nominee Herschel Walker paid for his then-girlfriend to get an abortion in 2009.

The math is fairly simple. If Democrats pick up a seat in Pennsylvania, where Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is favored to win, Republicans will need two pickups to gain control of the Senate, and Nevada and Georgia are the easiest targets. If Fetterman loses, they’ll need one of the two. According to our interactive,3 Republicans’ chances of flipping the Senate shoot up to 56 percent if they win Nevada but are just 11 percent if they don’t. So let’s take a deeper look.

Nevada isn’t that blue

Consider Nevada’s presidential, congressional and gubernatorial elections since 2000, as the following table shows.

In Nevada, narrow Democratic wins are punctuated by big losses

Democratic margin of victory or defeat for presidential, U.S. Senate, U.S. House and gubernatorial elections in Nevada, 2000 to 2020

Cycle President Senate, Class I Senate, Class III House* Governor
2000 -3.5 -15.4 -18.1
2002 -25.9 -46.2
2004 -2.6 +25.9 -11.0
2006 -14.4 +4.8 -4.0
2008 +12.5 +8.1
2010 +5.7 -5.6 -11.8
2012 +6.7 -1.2 -0.4
2014 -17.4 -46.7
2016 +2.4 +2.4 +0.9
2018 +5.0 +5.4 +4.1
2020 +2.4 +2.3

*Results for U.S. House elections reflect combined results from all congressional districts in Nevada.

Sources: Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, Nevada Secretary of State

Several things stand out. First, although Democrats have a four-election winning streak in presidential races, their record in congressional and gubernatorial elections is checkered. Sisolak was the first Democrat elected governor there since 1994. And even though Cortez Masto’s Class III Senate seat was in Democratic hands for some time thanks to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Rosen’s Class I seat was held by Republicans between 2001 and 2019. House races in Nevada have been swingy, meanwhile. As recently as 2014, Republicans won the state’s combined popular vote for the U.S. House by 17.4 points.

And with the exceptions of Obama and Reid — and we’ll come back to what they had in common in a moment — Democratic wins in Nevada have been narrow. Hillary Clinton’s 2.4-point win in 2016 was similar to her national margin of victory in the popular vote — and Joe Biden’s 2.4-point win in 2020 was less than his 4.5-point national popular-vote win. Sisolak and Rosen, meanwhile, won their gubernatorial and Senate races by 4 and 5 points, respectively, in 2018, but both of them underperformed the national political environment that year, which favored Democrats by almost 9 points. Whether you call Nevada blue, red or purple is something of a semantic question. But it certainly hasn’t been a reliable state for Democrats.

Nevada isn’t a great fit for the new Democratic coalition

Paired together as tipping-point states this year, Nevada and Georgia are moving in opposite directions.

Georgia has a sizable share of Black voters and a multiethnic coalition of increasingly college-educated voters in Atlanta and its suburbs. The Black vote there has held up relatively well for Democrats, and they’ve been gaining ground with college-educated professionals in almost every election. If you tried to create a state in a lab where Democratic fortunes improved even as they had problems elsewhere, Georgia would be about as good a formula as you could get.

Nevada, on the other hand, ranks 44th in the share of adults with a college degree, right between Oklahoma and Alabama. Its Black population is below the national average but increasing. It does have a considerable share of Hispanic and Asian American voters, but they are often working-class — subgroups that Democrats have increasingly struggled with in recent years.

Of course, Nevada is sui generis, with several economic and demographic attributes that aren’t that common in other states. On the one hand, it has a massive workforce in the gaming (gambling), leisure and hospitality industries. To give you some sense of the scale, just one hospitality and entertainment company, MGM Resorts International, employs 77,000 people in Nevada, roughly as large a share of its workforce as Ford Motor Company employs in Michigan. These are mostly working-class and middle-class jobs, often unionized, often held by employees of color. But Nevada doesn’t have as many jobs in culturally progressive industries like media and technology.

On the other hand, Nevada is a major destination for out-migrants from other states who are attracted to its warm weather,4 lack of state income tax and laissez-faire lifestyle. Only 26 percent of Nevada residents were born in Nevada, easily the lowest of any U.S. state. Nevada has traditionally had a big third-party vote — it was one of Ross Perot’s better states, for instance.

This latter group of voters can also be relatively apolitical. If people migrate to Colorado for its crunchy, progressive politics, and to Florida for its YOLO conservatism, the prevailing attitude in Nevada is live-and-let-live, which sometimes borders on political apathy. Political participation is relatively low. Its turnout rate in 2020 was 65.4 percent, lower than the 66.8 percent in the U.S. overall — which is unusual because swing states usually have high turnout. By comparison, for instance, turnout was 71.7 percent in Florida in 2020 and 76.4 percent in Colorado.

Turnout could be Democrats’ saving grace

Let’s return to that question I teased earlier. What did Obama and Reid, the two big Democratic overperformers in Nevada, have in common? For that matter, what about Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who never got to compete in a general election in Nevada but performed extremely well in the state’s Democratic caucuses in 2020?

Well, Reid, Obama and Sanders relied heavily on organization, turnout and the state’s union-backed Democratic machine. It’s hard to know whether Cortez Masto — and Sisolak, who is also in a very tight reelection race — will be able to pull off the same. But if you have two large voting blocs in Nevada, and the more conservative of the two is somewhat politically apathetic, turnout at least potentially works to Democrats’ advantage.

Indeed, this may be a race where Democrats need the turnout edge because the other dynamics of the campaign don’t work in their favor. Though he’s an election denier who served as one of then-President Donald Trump’s Nevada campaign chairs in 2020, Laxalt has a relatively traditional resume as the state’s former attorney general — an exception among Republicans in competitive Senate races this year — and in recent polling, he has decent personal favorability ratings.

Although abortion is a strong issue for Cortez Masto in a relatively irreligious state like Nevada, voters in the Silver State rank the economy as their top issue. It’s understandable in a state that was hit hard by the housing bubble and that relies on highly cyclical industries like the casino business, which suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the turnout front, a CNN/SSRS poll yesterday had both good and bad news for Cortez Masto, depending on how you squint at it. In the survey, she led by 3 points among registered voters but trailed by 2 points among likely voters. Polls among likely voters are usually more reliable, and so the +2 number for Laxalt is the one in our polling average and forecast. But it does suggest a gap that could be closed by a strong turnout operation.

Reid, for instance, won comfortably in 2010 despite trailing in the polling average. Cortez Masto may need a little bit of Reid magic to hold onto her seat.