George F. Will: All eyes on the Silver State

George F. Will

George F. Will

LAS VEGAS — Nevada, which calls itself the “Battle Born State,” actually was born prematurely because of Republicans’ anxiety. Now, 152 years later, it again is a subject of their anxiety.

Entering 1864, Abraham Lincoln and his party were intensely, and reasonably, in doubt about his re-election. So, scrambling for every electorate vote, Republicans decided to conjure three from thin air — thin desert air. They began the process of admitting Nevada to the union, even though the 1860 census said its population was 6,857, far short of the 60,000 ostensibly required for statehood. Nine days before the election, the Republican-controlled Congress made Nevada a state (although Gen. Sherman’s Sept. 2 capture of Atlanta probably guaranteed Lincoln’s victory).

On election night 2016, the nation’s attention might be focused on Nevada, where Republicans have their most promising, and probably their only realistic, chance to capture a Democratic Senate seat. Harry Reid, Senate minority leader, is retiring, and Republicans’ hopes of retaining their majority might depend on Joe Heck replacing Reid.

He is a strong candidate for his party, as his opponent is for hers. Catherine Cortez Masto is a former two-term state attorney general who won re-election even against the 2010 anti-Democratic wave. She would be the Senate’s first Latina.

Heck, an emergency room physician and a brigadier general in the Army Reserve, is a third-term congressman from the Las Vegas metropolitan area, where 75 percent of Nevada voters live. His district, where he defeated his 2014 Democratic opponent by 24.6 points, is 19 percent Hispanic and 16 percent Asian-American.

The state’s non-Hispanic white population was 79 percent in 1990 and is now 54 percent. There are about 70,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, down from 90,000 in 2012, when Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney here by 67,806 votes.

According to the Almanac of American Politics, Nevada was the fastest-growing state in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and from 2000 to 2007, before the economy cratered. Since 1990, the population of Henderson, a Las Vegas suburb, has quadrupled to 286,000, the size of Cincinnati. Heck says many people come to Nevada, which has no income tax, in flight from Democratic governance in contiguous California — but some come with, and retain, Democratic attitudes.

Only 24 percent of Nevadans were born in the state, the lowest percentage of any state, which is one reason Nevada was devastated by the subprime mortgage crisis, which left 62 percent of Nevada homeowners “underwater” — owing more on the mortgages than their homes were worth. Today, only 24 percent are, but Cortez Masto is picking at the scab of the post-2008 trauma with ads accusing Heck of putting the “big banks before Nevada families,” partly because he has received contributions from the financial industry.

Heck notes that Trump’s candidacy has energized Nevada Republicans. He says their February caucuses on a Tuesday evening attracted more participants than the 2008 and 2012 caucuses combined. Which is good for Heck, unless it isn’t: Trump might similarly energize the Hispanic 17 percent of the electorate against Trump, with Heck as collateral damage.

Nevada has a senator from each party and a split (three Republicans, one Democrat) House delegation. Polls show a close contest between Heck and Cortez Masto. Today, there are 54 Republican senators, seven of whom are in difficult re-election races: Arizona’s John McCain, New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, Ohio’s Rob Portman, Missouri’s Roy Blunt, Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson and Illinois’ Mark Kirk. Johnson and Kirk are currently trailing by five or more points. If Hillary Clinton becomes president, Vice President Tim Kaine will vote with Democrats to organize a 50-50 Senate. Republicans, needing 51 seats for control, must have a net loss of no more than three.

If, in October, Clinton seems headed for the presidency, Heck may need to convince many Nevadans who are tepidly for Clinton to vote strategically — supporting him so a Republican Senate can restrain her. Reid is determined to keep his seat Democratic, but Heck says that in 2014 Reid’s celebrated turnout machine was “an utter disaster.”

In 1908, the Silver State (another Nevada nickname, a legacy of the long-since-depleted Comstock Lode) voted for a third and final time for the Democrat’s presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, who favored free coinage of silver. Since then, only once (in 1976, when it favored President Gerald Ford) has Nevada not supported a winner. Which is another reason the nation will be watching Nevada late on Nov. 8.

Email: georgewill@washpost.com

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