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Las Vegas at center of tight contests for Senate, governor

Nevada may shape the nation's political future. Much of the focus is on Las Vegas, the gambling mecca that drives the state's economy and is home to three quarters of the state's population.

LAS VEGAS (AP) — In a meeting hall just north of Las Vegas Boulevard, where casino-resorts tower like gleaming beacons of amusement, Ted Pappageorge laid out a darker, urgent call for action before next month’s election.

Pappageorge, leader of the heavily Latino casino workers’ union, told the hundreds of union members this past weekend that Nevada’s endangered Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak and U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto have been “warriors” for workers whose jobs were hit hard by the pandemic while the Republicans who may defeat them in November are “extreme.”

“We’re going to fight back. Are you ready to fight?” Pappageorge said to cheers and claps as the bartenders, cooks, servers, and room cleaners prepared to knock doors and get out the vote on behalf of Nevada Democratic candidates, according to a video of the event.

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Across town at the same time, at a strip mall in a retirement community where golf carts share the street with cars, Joe Lombardo, the Republican candidate for governor, told a crowd of about 100 people: “This election, you have to ask one question: Is your life any better today than it was four years ago?”

“No!” the audience yelled in response. “That’s the common answer,” Lombardo said.

The dual rallies launched an intense two-week period of early voting in a state that may shape the nation's political future. Much of the focus is on Las Vegas, the gambling mecca that drives the state's economy and is home to three quarters of the state's population. If Democrats are to pull off victories, they have to drive up turnout here to compensate for the GOP's strength in rural communities that dominate the rest of the state.

Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, has about 1.3 million registered voters.

So far, the numbers present a mixed picture. Early in-person turnout in Las Vegas was light over the weekend, with only about 19,000 voters casting ballots in-person the first two days. But mail balloting, a process favored by Democrats, was stronger, with about 41,500 votes cast. About 20,000 of those votes were from registered Democrats, compared with about 10,600 from Republicans. The remaining were cast by nonaffiliated or third-party voters.

The governor’s mansion and the seat held by Cortez Masto, the first Latina in the U.S. Senate, are considered two of the Republican Party's best chances to flip statewide offices around the country. Her opponent is Republican Adam Laxalt, whose name is well-known as a former attorney general and grandson of former Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada.

The winners could be determined by the unique social and economic circumstances in Las Vegas.

Rising costs that are being felt globally are packing a double punch here. The city’s heavily working-class population is pinched by higher prices for groceries, and gasoline remains above $5 a gallon. As well, higher costs around the U.S. and the world mean tourists may spend less when they visit, if they even do.

Republican Jeffrey Burns, a property manager and chef in Las Vegas, said he voted “Republican all the way” because everything that the Democrats in control are doing “is just so completely backwards.”

He said he wants Laxalt to be a conservative Republican in the Senate and stop approving “the spending of tons and tons of money like Masto does.”

Burns said he wants the U.S. to be energy independent and sees high gas prices as a clear sign of problems but supply chain shortages are still noticeable.

“Like, I go to get eggs," Burns said. "And there’s just no eggs. And it’s like, why are there no eggs? That’s just weird.”

George Trachtman, a Democrat and lawyer who lives in the town of Enterprise, said he voted for Cortez Masto and Sisolak. Trachtman said economic conditions are not as bad as they're being portrayed.

“If I go to the Strip, I see tons of people there just having fun and enjoying themselves,” he said. He added that he went to a shopping mall the day before and couldn’t find a parking space because it was so packed.

“It doesn’t seem like a recession or that we’re headed in that direction," he said. “And I understand interest rates are going up so things are going to slow down. But right now, things seem like they’re better than what's being reported.”

Perhaps no state was hit harder economically by the pandemic than tourist-dependent Nevada, where casinos were shuttered for two and a half months and unemployment at one point topped 28% — the worst in the country and the worst in any state since the Great Depression.

More than two years later, unemployment is much lower at 4.4%. But that's the third-worst in the U.S., better only than Illinois and the District of Columbia. Casino winnings, a key economic indicator, are up significantly, as are visitor levels and convention attendance, but those have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Three casinos that never reopened are being razed, and about 10% of the Culinary Union’s 60,000 members are still out of jobs.

The union’s members transform every two years into a political force here, calling voters and knocking doors on behalf of Democratic candidates, especially in the city’s multilingual and working-class neighborhoods.

Their union hall has become a must-stop for Democrats, especially once ballots start being cast.

“I know what this fight is about,” Cortez Masto told the crowd. “It’s about good-paying jobs. It’s about affordable health care. It’s about assuring we can retire with dignity.”

“They backed us up when we needed them,” Pappageorge said of the Democratic candidates flanking him. After his remarks were translated into Spanish, he added: “We’re going to back them up now.”

Across the city, Republicans were decidedly upbeat as they predicted a “red wave” was coming to Nevada.

The GOP’s nominees rolled up to a palm tree-dotted shopping center in a large bus bearing the name “Laxalt” and climbed out as the song “Only in America” from country duo Brooks & Dunn played and the crowd of about 100 people clapped and cheered. Though several in the crowd wore "Trump” hats, no one mentioned the name of the former president.

Laxalt mocked Cortez Masto for not holding campaign appearances with President Joe Biden and said the state “cannot afford one more week of the Joe Biden-Catherine Cortez Masto economy.”

“People are as upset as they’ve ever been with what’s happening to America,” he said. “We have one opportunity here in the midst of a red wave for a transformation election, to transform our state, to take back our country. That’s what your job is for the next two weeks."


By MICHELLE L. PRICE Associated Press

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