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Nevada Republican primary to test power of Trump, GOP

Several key races will, come November, add to the test of whether the Silver State is indeed true blue.

(CN) — Nevada is a blue state. At least that’s the conventional wisdom as of late. 

But recent trends combined with a look at Nevada’s history indicates a swing could be in the offing. The state has not gone for a Republican candidate since it handed George W. Bush five electoral votes in 2004. Before that, it helped elect Democrat Bill Clinton twice. Prior to that it sent its electoral votes to George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan twice, once again proving it is not overly hostile to Republican ideas and candidates.

Sure, the Silver State voted for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, but it also voted for Richard Nixon — twice.

Voter oscillations are not a bug but a feature of the state with its all-important six electoral votes that boasts 3 million people and a population that is growing at one of the fastest rates in the nation.

So the upcoming primary season and general election will serve as important litmus test for Democrats' ability to hold power at the national and state level or whether Republicans can make incursions into those strongholds.

“It depends on where we see the shift,” said Mike Noble, a pollster with OH Predictive Insights out of Arizona. “In the suburbs, you could see it swing the other way. Nevada leans left, don't get me wrong, but the current environment looks pretty pro-Republican so they could get back some gains in a state they have been losing.”

It’s heartening news for the Republicans vying to represent the party in the U.S. Senate. While the field is crowded it appears to be a two-horse race between Adam Laxalt, the former Nevada attorney general and Sam Brown, a small business owner and former Army captain who was wounded in the Iraq War. 

The Republican Primary in Nevada is slated for June 14, where candidates will vie to represent their parties in the general election on Nov. 8. 

The two major races in Nevada are for the U.S. Senate, which is expected to be competitive given the struggle for the balance of power in the upper legislative chamber, and for governor. 

In the Senate race, the current polling favors Laxalt, the grandson of former Governor Paul Laxalt and something of political royalty in the Silver State. Laxalt has 45% of poll respondents, while Brown has marshalled 30%, according to a poll administered by Oh Predictive Insights and the Nevada Independent

“Laxalt is not a shoe-in, but he is in a very good position,” Noble said. “Whatever Sam Brown’s strategy is, he better turn on the jets.”

But Brown has continued to outperform expectations by proving an articulate candidate and a capable of campaigner. But is there enough daylight between the two candidates?

During the May 9 debate between Laxalt and Brown, the first time the two candidates faced off against each other, Brown struggled to differentiate himself from Laxalt, who has received the all-important endorsement from Donald Trump.

Trump still looms over Republican politics in Nevada. 

For example, Brown hit Laxalt during the debate for not doing enough as attorney general to investigate voter fraud issues during the 2020 general election and further said he did not do enough to file timely election fraud claims on behalf of the Trump administration.

“Election integrity is one of the areas where Adam has failed us,” Brown said. “In 2020, we relied on you and by your admission, your lawsuits were filed too late.”

Laxalt said the attack was “pretty comical” and represented a misunderstanding of his power as attorney general to challenge election results, given it's under the purview of the secretary of state.

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Still, Laxalt was one of the most prominent voices claiming Trump’s loss to Joe Biden was the result of election fraud, a claim that has repeatedly failed to gain traction with the Nevada secretary of state or the federal courts. 

Without evidence, Laxalt said large-scale voter fraud had occurred, later saying that approximately 3,000 voters who did not live in Clark County cast ballots in the race.

Analysis of the list later indicated some of the names that the Trump campaign accused of “criminal voter fraud” had cast their ballots from military bases or diplomatic posts.

Biden beat Trump by 33,596 votes in Nevada, according to the state’s final tally, so the list wouldn’t have changed the result regardless. 

While perpetuating the voter fraud excuse for Trump’s loss to Biden may provide electoral capital during the Republican primary, it might become a hindrance come November, when one of them will have to beat incumbent Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto.

“The Trump side of the aisle is extremely important during the primary but it’s a question about whether it becomes a liability in the general election,” Noble said. 

The approximately 18% of voters who are undecided could be turned off by unfounded claims of election fraud, Noble said. But he also noted pocketbook issues like gas prices, general inflation and other economic conditions could supersede dishonesty about voter fraud come election time. According to the poll, 39% of respondents said the economy is the number one issue, with 26% of respondents saying the border is most important. Education came in at 14% and health care and abortion issues polled at 4%, respectively. 

Inflation and the economy were certainly top of mind to many Nevadans who said they were eager to vote in the Republican primary. 

“I am very concerned about the economy and gas prices,” said Linda Abell, a Republican voter who was walking through downtown Reno this past week. 

She said Biden has botched the economy and made inflation worse by increasing government spending via stimulus early in his administration.  

For registered Republican Don Lucas, “The border is my number one issue,” he said as he was walking in downtown Reno. “It is ridiculous what is going on down there.”

Noble’s polling backs up the anecdotal evidence, with the economy ranking as the number one issue by far and the border coming in second. Education and health care, usually strong issues for the Democrats, rank toward the bottom of voter concerns at the present. 

Biden is also polling poorly at the moment, and there is concern his negative ratings  could be a drag on Democratic candidates in down-ballot races. 

“Concerns for the issues is favoring the GOP,” Noble said. “But it could always change a little bit depending on the political environment.”

Shelley Henderson, a Republican voter who was shopping in North Reno, said she expects Laxalt to win but would vote for Sam Brown to encourage him to continue to pursue a political career. 

“I just want to give the other people votes, so even if they lose, they will realize they have support,” she said.

Henderson also said she intends to vote for Joey Gilbert, a conservative firebrand and former boxer in the Republican primary for Nevada governor. Gilbert joins a crowded field that includes former Senator Dean Heller in the bid to face off against Democratic incumbent Steve Sisolak for the highest seat in the Silver State. 

“His opponents favor background checks and I think the Second Amendment is important,” Henderson said of Gilbert. 

The front-runner for the Republican nomination for governor is Joe Lombardo, the Clark County sheriff who received the endorsement of Donald Trump and has amassed a significant war chest of more than $3 million. 

According to a separate poll administered by OH Predictive Insights and the Nevada Independent, Lombardo is running away with the race. He is favored by 35% of the respondents with the next closest candidate, Gilbert, receiving 15%. Heller has 11% support. 

“With Lombardo being at 35% in a cluttered field; it’s his race to lose,” Noble said. 

While Lombardo received the coveted Trump endorsement, he has distanced himself from assertions that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

“For me, Lombardo would be a good change, especially because he is not a career politician,” said Shannon Smith, a resident of North Reno who calls herself a moderate Republican and does not believe the election was stolen. 

“The election was real,” she said. “A lot of these people are nuts.”

But the moderate candidate, Dean Heller, did not help himself with voters by castigating Trump early and often after he was elected in 2016. 

He once said he was “99% against Trump, which has since considerably dented his political fortunes within the Republican Party. 

If Lombardo emerges victorious he will look to take advantage of other trends that appear to favor the Republican Party at the moment. Pollsters have increasingly noticed that the Latino vote could be drifting to the GOP. It started among Cuban expatriates in Miami who went hard for Trump in 2020, and Hispanic voters in Texas have shifted right in recent elections. 

The question becomes whether that extends to other states in the American West like Nevada, where Hispanics are the fastest-growing demographic in Nevada (30%).

“Latinos have long been perceived as being baked in for the Democrats,” Noble said. “But recent polling has indicated that not only is this group not monolithic, but they are very moveable.”

Voting preferences tend to vary according to country of origin, first generation versus second generation and geographic area. 

“Latinos are treated as this monolithic bloc,” Noble said, adding that in the future both parties will have to work to win their increasingly valuable votes. 

Nevada could be a test case for this future as former U.S. Senator Harry Reid, who recently died, had repeatedly advocated for the state to go first during the primary season due to its more diverse constituency, compared to heavily white majority states like Iowa and New Hampshire. If trends continue, both parties could have interest in testing how their ideas are playing in states like Nevada, which serve as a proxy for other rapidly growing states in the American West like Arizona and Utah. 

The upcoming Republican primary will be an imprortant one to assess this trend, the power of Trump endorsement and whether Republicans can make inroads in a state that appeared recently to be inexorably trending blue.

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