Inside three crucial battleground races
By any measure, the stakes for this year’s midterm elections are high. Will Republicans maintain their hold on Congress and continue to advance President Trump’s policies? Or will the Democrats retake one or both chambers and thwart the president for the next two years? Nowhere is the outcome more contested than the American West, where at least 14 congressional seats and three Senate seats are up for grabs. Historically, opposition parties tend to pick up seats in midterm elections, and a set of trends — the increase in voting-age Latinos, a surge in female candidates, among others — is buoying the Democrats’ chances. In Orange County, the party hopes to flip four congressional seats in districts that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. In Arizona, Democrats have a chance to win a Senate race for the first time in a generation. And in Nevada, a moderate Democratic congresswoman is neck and neck with an incumbent Republican senator.
By Ben Christopher, Amanda Fortini, Haley Cohen Gilliland, and Andy Kroll
Photographs by Jessica Chou
Artwork by Dan Gluibizzi
Scenes from one of the most fiercely contested races in California
Pounding the pavement with canvassers, campaign managers, phone-bankers, longtime voters, and first-time volunteers working on the congressional race between Young Kim, a Korean American Republican, and Gil Cisneros, a Latino Democrat, in California’s 39th.
We’re running against a guy who has millions more to spend. Because we’re out-gunned financially, we have to outwork him on the ground. We go to pretty much any community event we can go to. We’ve gone around and met with every city manager in the district. We’ve met with water boards.
— patrick mocete, campaign manager for young kim
Every campaign has mailers. We have been intentional about translating them, getting Tagalog and Vietnamese translations, Chinese and Korean translations that we can distribute and give to people. For social media, the Korean American community uses KakaoTalk. Our Korean staffer has an account.
— nic jordan, communications director and deputy campaign manager for gil cisneros
People who have never knocked on a door before might be a little nervous to do it. They think they’re going to get in a big argument, and they don’t want to argue with a Republican or whatever. First of all, we’re not going to talk to Republicans. We’re going to talk to Democrats. We’re going to talk to “decline to state.” Sometimes the data might be wrong, and we end up at a Republican’s door, and we say, “Oh, thank you very much. Have a nice day.”
— steve pierson, swing left academy program manager
The whole point of phone-banking is that you’re trying to hook them to answer your question. So if you sound like a robot, they don’t really want to talk. Typically, old people are the nicest. They always wish me a nice day.
— william butler, volunteer for young kim
For years, there have been just Republicans on the Diamond Bar City Council, and I firmly believe that’s why we’re such a successful city. There’s no liberals on there.
— trisha bowler, membership chair of diamond bar republican women federated
People will tell me, “How could you be a Republican Hispanic woman? Don’t you think you’re selling out your people?” And I say, “I have three children who are going to be going to college. All my blood, sweat that I did, you want me to give it to somebody else?”
— elvira moreno, president of the north orange county republican club
I’m not gonna pretend like I don’t have any Republican friends, because I do. And when I talk to friends, I usually look at their social media posts, and if I see them complain about Trump, I go and tell them, “You know what you need to do, and you need to show up and vote.” But I don’t hammer them. If they are somehow racist, then we are unfriending.
— beverly heasley, volunteer for gil cisneros
How the once deep-red state of Arizona could become a toss-up
To better understand why Republicans may be losing their hold on Arizona, we asked two veteran strategists, one from each party, to share their insights on the inner workings of the state’s politics and electorate. Chuck Coughlin has spent three decades serving as a consultant and adviser to Republican politicians in the state. Lisa Fernandez has run and advised campaigns at nearly every level of Arizona politics. Both have a lot to say about how this year feels different.
ANDY KROLL: You’ve got an open Senate seat. You’ve got Republican Governor Doug Ducey on the ballot. You’ve got competitive House aces. You’ve got ballot measures on renewable energy, taxes. How do you see this election year?
LISA FERNANDEZ: Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema is in a position to be the first Democrat to win an open Senate seat in 40-plus years. We have a Republican-controlled Legislature and a Republican governor, but the state is trending more progressive. With the increase in Arizona’s population, the increase in Latinos, I think Democrats are a force to be reckoned with in 2020, and 2018 is a stepping stone.
CHUCK COUGHLIN: I see two highly dysfunctional parties that are narrating to smaller and smaller bases and primary electorates that tend to be more and more partisan and divided. Joe Arpaio successfully acted as a spoiler for Kelli Ward in the Republican primary for the open Senate seat and allowed Congresswoman Martha McSally to win. If it weren’t for that, it would have been a much more competitive race.
On the Democratic side, you have a Senate candidate who has all but ignored her progressive base but has been running a campaign that is fairly appealing to a great many people. Anecdotally, I run into people who haven’t known her — firemen and other people — who are like, “I really like her.”
FERNANDEZ: The biggest thing is our rapidly growing Latino community. With things trending the way they are, we’ll be a majority-minority state by 2030. There’s a fight within the Democratic Party: Are we going after these young Latinos as being the new wave of the Democratic Party, and if we do that, are we leaving behind white moderate voters?
KROLL: I want to focus on the Senate race just for a second. On the one hand, Sinema’s putting out ads where she’s speaking to the camera in Spanish. At the same time, she’s not talking about abolishing ICE, which is something you hear in other primaries around the country. What does her campaign tell us about where the state’s Democratic voters are?
FERNANDEZ: Her candidacy is saying that you still have to be a moderate to win statewide and win a Senate seat here in Arizona. I think abolishing ICE is an extreme measure of hyperpartisan politics and not the way immigration is viewed in Arizona.
KROLL: Turnout in the primaries set a new record for the state. What does that mean for November?
FERNANDEZ: Democrats are in a really good spot if this excitement and engagement continues. However, the electorate was still overwhelmingly older in the primaries — 50 percent of them were age 64-plus. We’ll see if during the general election more younger voters are turning out.
COUGHLIN: There were a lot more contested races on the Democratic side than have historically been contested. They fielded candidates for nearly every race on the statewide ballot and fielded many more primary challengers in state races. The question is then how does that energy translate in the general?
KROLL: Chuck, what happens to that splintered Republican electorate
in the general election?
COUGHLIN: They stay with McSally because Trump will be supportive of her. Do we bring Trump out here? There’s fairly substantial portions of the electorate that find him unacceptable from a character standpoint. The Democrats are going to try to tie her tightly to Trump.
KROLL: Governor Ducey named former U.S. Senator Jon Kyl to fill John McCain’s seat. What consequences will it have in November?
COUGHLIN: It’s an extremely safe pick. It makes perfect political sense in this environment for Kyl to come forward and say, “I’ll serve for this session,” which ends in January. Then Ducey and Kyl put their arms around a prospective nominee whose name will be on the ballot in 2020.
FERNANDEZ: I agree with Chuck — it is a safe pick for Ducey. To me, what’s telling is that he needed to make a safe bet. I think that tells us that Ducey knows this is going to be a tough election in November.
KROLL: So, Arizona: battleground state or no?
FERNANDEZ: Clinton came within 91,000 votes of beating Trump here. She did one and a half points better here in Arizona than she did in Ohio, and we all know the money that was spent in Ohio. There wasn’t much of an investment here. It was done pretty late in the game, and even with those factors against us, it was still a close race. I think that in itself has helped set the narrative that anyone who wants to be competitive on the presidential side in 2020 is going to have to go through Arizona.
COUGHLIN: Agree. Different reason, though. There’s definitely a demographic shift happening in the state. We’re ground zero on immigration. It’s the most important issue on a federal level out here. Mexico is our largest trading partner.
KROLL: As of August 2018, Arizona had 1.1 million Democrats, 1.26 million Republicans, and 1.22 million registered as “other.” How do you explain the rise of the “other”?
FERNANDEZ: There’s been a rise in the “other” for the last decade. They’re majority white, but there are Latinos, men, women, young, old, a lot of people who don’t want to associate with one party. They are voting with a party a good portion of the time — they just don’t want to associate with party politics.
COUGHLIN: I think this is why this is a battleground state, because we have a bunch of new voters. How do we get these people to participate? There’s a great opportunity here to see who does a better job of that.
Mobilizing a new generation of voters in Nevada
Behind every political candidate — every stump speech, every handshake, and the endless cavalcade of visits with voters who might be swayed — you will find someone scheduling the meetings, writing the talking points, and generally making sure, to tweak a cliché, that the cars, buses, and planes are running on time. For Jacky Rosen, the first-term congresswoman from Nevada who is campaigning for Senate against Republican incumbent Dean Heller, that person is Mariela Hernandez, her deputy campaign manager. “I’m making sure everyone’s needs are being met and, obviously, that the congresswoman’s needs are being met, that she’s getting lunch and all that stuff,” says Hernandez.
On a Saturday afternoon in mid-August, at a nondescript Las Vegas business park — the kind of place a disreputable lawyer or a shady cellphone-repair joint might set up shop — I arrive to find Hernandez standing in front of the Nevada Democratic Party’s temporary field office. Hernandez is here for a “canvass launch,” a gathering to thank volunteers for knocking on doors for Rosen; she is, as she puts it, “staffing Rosen” for the day, which essentially means shadowing her. It is 106 degrees, and I’m surprised to see Hernandez lingering outside. “I’m waiting to meet Congresswoman Meng” — the day’s guest speaker — she says.
Grace Meng represents New York’s 6th District and is also the vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee. Meng and Rosen are friends in Washington, but surely the reason Meng has flown across the country is that this is a pivotal midterm race — the Democrats are two seats short of a Senate majority. Heller is the only Republican senator up for reelection in a state that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, and political journalists like to call him the “most vulnerable Republican in the Senate.”
The field office consists of two cinder-block rooms separated by a doorway hung with streamers — a reminder that politics is not a glamorous business. In the small interior room, around 40 organizers and volunteers are packed together. The crowd skews toward 20-somethings and retirees: those with an excess of idealism or time. As we wait for the congresswomen to appear, I hear talk of Nevada’s political makeup. “It’s real purple,” an older woman says. The state has gone Democratic in five of the last seven presidential elections and the last three in succession.
For this reason, it’s often said that Nevada is turning blue. What’s more accurate is that Clark County — home to Las Vegas and roughly 1 million of Nevada’s 1.6 million voters — is slouching toward that hue. This shift has been driven by a host of factors, among them the high unemployment rate and decimated housing market after the 2008 recession as well as the state’s burgeoning Latino and Asian American/Pacific Islander populations (29 percent and nearly 10 percent, respectively).
Still, much of the state, particularly the large rural swaths outside of Las Vegas and Reno, has historically been red and remains so. As recently as 2014, Nevada’s congressional delegation was two-thirds red. Brian Sandoval, the state’s popular two-term governor, is a Republican. Rosen herself hails from a swing district that went for Trump — she flipped the seat, beating her opponent by just over a point. Republican efforts in the state have been fueled by two powerful billionaire casino mogul donors, Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn, both of whom have close ties to Trump. In 2016, Adelson and his wife, Miriam, gave more than $50 million to Republican congressional candidates via super PACs and have donated tens of millions in this election cycle. Wynn was finance chair of the Republican National Committee until January, when he resigned in the wake of sexual-harassment allegations.
Although the Democrats have 65,000 more registered voters, progressives don’t reliably turn out at midterms. (“If we can get that number below 50,000, we can’t lose,” Heller said in audio leaked from a Republican luncheon.) Heller, who’s been in elected office for nearly 30 years and has never lost a race, also has the advantage of name recognition. Recent polls have shown an exceedingly close race, with the two candidates within a few points of each other.
“I know it’s hot,” Rosen, who has emerged from the backroom, says, the understatement of the century. “But it’s heating up — not just the temperature — this election’s heatin’ up. There’s about 80 days to go, my friends. And we have our work cut out for us.” Rosen has a calm, focused, down-to-earth manner. She was the president of her Henderson synagogue, the largest in Nevada, and she often touts this life experience as preparation for politics, along with a waitressing stint at Caesars Palace, her work as a software consultant, and the years she spent navigating paperwork and bureaucracy as a caretaker to two sets of aging, ailing parents.
Rosen was recruited by Harry Reid, whose grassroots and voter-registration operation, the fabled “Reid Machine,” is, in part, what turned Nevada purple — and is still going strong, despite the senator’s retirement. It’s easy to see why the congresswoman was tapped: She’s an uncontroversial candidate, a vanilla Democrat — pro-choice, pro-environment, pro-immigration, pro-Obamacare, in favor of expanding background checks for gun purchases — with a mere one-term voting record to scrutinize. An integral arm of Reid’s organizing effort on the ground is the Culinary Workers Union, which has 57,000 members and represents, as its website reads, “the guest room attendants, cocktail and food servers, porters, bellmen, cooks, and kitchen workers” that make Las Vegas run. During the 2016 election, 150 union members were given a political leave of absence. They made phone calls, talked to fellow employees at casinos on the Strip, and knocked on more than 250,000 doors; they are again out in force.
Hernandez, who is 37, was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and raised in Las Vegas; she began as a desk assistant in Reid’s Southern Nevada office in 2005 and worked for him as an operative in various capacities — including as a staffer in his D.C. office and on his 2010 reelection campaign — until he retired in 2015. She is also chair of a Reid-backed group called Latino Victory Nevada, the local chapter of the Latino Victory Fund, a national PAC geared toward identifying, recruiting, training, financing, and electing Latino candidates. “The long-term goal,” Hernandez tells me at one point, “is really helping to create the people pipeline, not just for Latino candidates but for Latinos who are interested in working on campaigns.”
Rosen, who underscores each point with her hands, continues: “I just was talking to some folks today, and they asked me a question. I’m going to ask it of you…. Tell us what Senator Heller is a champion for.”
“Trump!” a voice in the audience says. During the past two years, Heller’s reputation has become knotted up with Trump’s in ways that displease both the left and the right. During the 2016 election, Heller, long known as a moderate, was critical of Trump, saying he was “vehemently opposed” to him and that he “denigrates human beings.” But he has gone on to vote in line with the president 92 percent of the time and does not seem to miss a photo opportunity at his side.
If there’s one issue that brings Heller’s predicament into focus, it’s health care. Heller upset pro-Trump Republicans by initially opposing the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which was perceived as undermining the president’s agenda — a super PAC run by former Trump campaign staffers put out ads against him. The senator then went on to anger Democrats by voting for a version of the bill that would have repealed the individual and employee mandates but preserved Medicaid expansion, the so-called “skinny repeal.” (More than 200,000 Nevadans have received Medicaid since the passage of the ACA, and Governor Sandoval had put pressure on him to protect it.) Heller, who rarely gives interviews, told USA Today that his aim was always “to protect Medicaid expansion here in the state of Nevada and at the same time get rid of the mandates,” but his shifting stance was perceived as waffling.
Both candidates have critics on the left when it comes to immigration. Nevada has one of the largest immigrant populations in the country — nearly 20 percent of its residents. Another 17 percent are native citizens with at least one parent born elsewhere. There are also more than 13,000 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients in Nevada and 210,000 immigrants who remain undocumented. “One thing that’s seen here quite a bit in Nevada is that you have families of mixed status,” Hernandez, whose parents came from Mexico and were naturalized through the 1986 amnesty bill, tells me. “I have cousins who are Dreamers and cousins who are undocumented.” Heller has said he supports DACA but also that he will not get behind any immigration bill the president won’t sign. Rosen, for her part, upset progressives by voting in July for a resolution in support of ICE, one of only 18 Democrats to do so.
Rosen introduces Meng and remarks that in Washington they “live in the same building and have potlucks.” Meng smiles wryly. “We have a little section on the House floor, mostly women,” she says. “Sometimes we let men sit with us.” The wilting crowd laughs. “This day job of ours is less than 20 percent women.” Loud groans.
“We need to do so much more to elect women to the House and to the Senate,” Meng says, “and here we have this amazing opportunity.” Rosen is part of a historic surge in the number of female candidates this midterm cycle: 589 women filed to run for the House, Senate, or as governor, with roughly 40 percent winning their primaries in the 45 states that have held them. Nevada, too, is poised to make history; it could be the first state in the nation to elect a female-majority state legislature.
When the speeches end, the attendees swarm around Rosen, waiting to talk to her, shake her hand, take a photo. Hernandez hovers at her side, acting as factotum, iPhone photographer, and human file cabinet: collecting business cards, phone numbers, and names.