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With early voting a month away, does congressional balance rest on Nevada?

Steve Sebelius and Ken Miller
Kristen DeSilva/KNPR

Steve Sebelius and Ken Miller at KNPR on Sept. 23, 2022.

Early voting is less than a month away, and the balance of power in Congress could rest solely on Nevada.  

Polling has Nevada’s top congressional races just about even. But can we trust polls anymore? At the same time, with four weeks left, what schemes are campaigns using to gain the advantage? 

Jobs, the economy and inflation are top issues for voters this year, said Steve Sebelius, the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s politics editor.

“Those are the things that affect people the most directly in their everyday lives. They're worried about, can they afford food? Can they afford gas to go to work? To do all the things that they need to do?”

He thinks that’s partially why the latest polls have Adam Laxalt at or ahead of Catherine Cortez Masto in the Senate election. Sebelius said the governor’s race between Steve Sisolak and Joe Lombardo will also be close. 

In Nevada, he thinks issues like abortion access may not weigh as heavily in the minds of voters. 

“Because of our unique statutory protections. But it does motivate people. It does get people out to the polls, it does scare people,” he said. “That's why you're seeing all these ads. ‘So and so wants to put you in jail if you get an abortion,’ ‘So and so wants to take away your abortion rights.’ And in statewide races, that really is a nonstarter, because there isn't anything –even if somebody was the most pro-life person who did want to ban abortion in all instances– they couldn't do it, not without a vote of the people.“

While polling is still trustworthy, it has gotten harder, according to Ken Miller, an assistant professor of political science at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The most recent Trafalgar Group poll shows Laxalt with 47.1% versus Cortez Masto with 43.1%, but the poll only had a 1.45% response rate.

“People don't pick up the phone anymore. People don't respond to emails, they don't respond to texts,” Miller said. “So you're going to get biases in the results that you get based on who's interested in cooperating.“

This week is National Voter Registration Week (and if you still need to register, you can do so by clicking here). 

Sondra Cosgrove, a history professor at College of Southern Nevada and longtime political observer, has been helping students register. But then they ask: How do I research candidates?

“What we plan on doing is, as soon as we know that everybody's sample ballot is out, start doing Zoom meetings and meetings on campus, just to see if we can sit down with them and help them to do searches and find out if the person is an incumbent. Or can you find out what their voting record was last legislative session? Are they being endorsed by certain organizations that you might agree with? As new voters, they just don't know some of those tricks that you can use. And so they're going to need a little bit of help on that,” she said.

Something that may be harder for new voters to find is possible extremist ties. A report from The Nevada Independent’s Tabitha Mueller and KUNR’s Bert Johnson found there’s about 1,000 dues-paying members of the Oath Keepers in Nevada, including two candidates and one sitting county commissioner. 

“In Southern Nevada, Assembly District 20, you have candidate Stan Vaughan, there's the Independent American gubernatorial candidate Edward Bridges, and then the Republican Nye County sitting Commissioner Donna C. Cox. And all of these individuals have paid membership dues to the Oath Keepers in the past,” Mueller said. 

Vaughan denied having ties, she said, but he had given a eulogy for someone who was at the Bundy standoff. Cox never responded to them. 

“I think any organization that you voluntarily affiliate with is fair game for voters to evaluate when they're making their decisions,” Sebelius said. 

Are the candidates talking about housing, or water? 

Mueller pointed to the Culinary Union’s efforts to implement rent control in North Las Vegas, an issue that’s now facing the county. Meanwhile, Steven Horsford proposed a new law that would fine out-of-state investors, but it hasn’t moved forward.

“It's definitely in discussions, but candidates haven't been saying too much in terms of policy positions .... Although we have heard candidates saying, ‘I do believe that housing as a human right’ as sort of this flashpoint for voters,” she said. 

As for water, there has been talk of environmental concerns when it comes to new home construction. In Northern Nevada recently, candidates discussed building up instead of building out. 

“We've also seen a big push for cutting back on grass and lawns, right?” she said. “And we saw that the bill went through the legislature last year in Southern Nevada, and a lot of people are saying, ‘Why do we have to have grass? Why can't we push for zero escaping or very limited water usage for our landscaping?’“

And something else voters will encounter: Three ballot questions

The first question would create an Equal Rights Amendment in the Nevada constitution, Question 2 would raise the minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2024, and Question 3 would change how we vote by implementing ranked-choice voting. 

“We want to make sure that the person who gets elected has a majority support … because I actually think the majority of people are very moderate, very practical, and right now, they're frustrated,” Cosgrove said.

What the voters are saying

Mimi from Henderson called in on Friday morning. She’s “completely undecided.”

“My vote is really dependent on how I believe our elected representatives can represent us, and will represent the interests of Nevadans at both the Capitol and as well as in Carson City during the legislative session. I don't really consider … I'm not an issue voter. I don't look at abortion or the economy, I'm thinking what will benefit Nevadans during the terms of their service? That’s what matters to me.”

Steve from Las Vegas is a 71-year-old veteran. 

“My main concern is that we have an ex-president that's propagating seditious lies that undermined our democracy. I sworn allegiance to the Constitution, and we have politically-ambitious, self-centered individuals in that Republican Party that support, or don't really refute, that seditious lie. So it's my duty and my moral obligation to vote. … I believe the Republican Party leadership needs to be spanked hard at the polls for what they've done, other than the one lady who is on the January 6 committee who gave up her government position to support the truth, and that's what our young men in battle do. We give up our lives to defend democracy. And we have self-centered representatives that just will cater to people for their own political gain, rather than stand up for the truth of something that really affects our democracy.”

Andrew from Henderson is registered Republican but plans to vote Democrat. 

“There will always be new issues. So you really need to decide upon a person that's going to fight for your best interests on the issues. They'll be completely different. So if you don't have a good character, then it doesn't matter what the issue is, they'll all be bad decisions for you. And just kind of fed up with the lack of information about these candidates, as was mentioned earlier, besides the shouting, have no idea what they're standing for. So there's almost no point in voting because it seems to be irrelevant.”

Steve Sebelius, politics editor, Las Vegas Review-Journal; Sondra Cosgrove, professor of history, College of Southern Nevada; Ken Miller, professor of political science, University of Nevada, Las Vegas;  Tabitha Mueller, reporter, The Nevada Independent

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Paul serves as KNPR's producer and reporter in Northern Nevada. Based in Reno, Paul specializes in covering state government and the legislature.
Kristen DeSilva (she/her) is the audience engagement specialist for Nevada Public Radio. She curates and creates content for, our weekly newsletter and social media for Nevada Public Radio and Desert Companion.