LAS VEGAS — On a recent September evening, amid clattering plates of sizzling chorizo and queso fundido, Latina business owners packed into a popular Mexican eatery to talk about the stakes of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s losing her seat.
One by one, seated as a portrait of Mexican feminist icon Frida Kahlo holding a smoldering cigarette hung in the corner, they took the microphone to tell their stories.
“I felt so desperate,” the restaurant’s owner, Vanessa Barreat, said of having nearly lost her business at the height of the pandemic in 2020. She paused and held her nose in an unsuccessful attempt not to cry. Barreat built up the business at La Vecindad restaurant with her husband, an artist who created the colorful mural decor. “I didn’t know how I was going to pay the rent.”
Barreat credited Cortez Masto for helping her secure small-business assistance to help her business survive the economic hit.
Cortez Masto, who became the first Latina ever elected to the Senate in 2016, needs such women if she is to survive Tuesday’s election, which remains on a knife’s edge. Cortez Masto, Nevada’s senior senator, is locked in a dead heat with Republican Adam Laxalt in a contest that Republicans say is their best opportunity to pick up a seat and go on to win control of the Senate. In Nevada, Latinos are expected to make up 1 in 5 voters in the midterms. And Cortez Masto’s campaign and allied groups say Latinas hold her political salvation in their hands.
While a recent Univision poll showed Cortez Masto holding a generous lead among Latinos, other surveys have been mixed, and Republicans have increasingly made a bigger play for those voters.
Cortez Masto’s campaign has targeted Latinos generally for months, but she and Somos PAC, a major Latino group in the state, have specifically targeted Latinas, believing such women, like those gathered at La Vecindad, could very well play a major role in tipping the election. That’s on top of work by the Culinary Union, the most influential labor group in Nevada, 60% of whose membership is Hispanic, which has deployed an army of canvassers into the field to persuade voters to support Democrats on Tuesday.
The pro-Cortez Masto forces have worked to reach Latina voters through events like these, in conversations while canvassing in neighborhoods, in millions of dollars’ worth of ads targeting women and in messaging about abortion, work conditions, affordable housing and child care.
The strategy to target Latinas began months ago in the spring, before Cortez Masto even knew whom she’d be up against in the general election. Then, Somos PAC, a Democratic-aligned group that advocates for Cortez Masto, began an air assault against Laxalt on Spanish- and English-language TV.
Working women — heads of household who help steer their families’ decisions and are leaders in their communities, workplaces and churches — are precisely the type of voter who Cortez Masto and Somos PAC say will help sway more of the electorate in her direction. Many of the women at Barreat’s restaurant spoke about the inspiration they drew from seeing the first Latina achieve the milestone of becoming a U.S. senator, a message Cortez Masto’s supporters are betting will resonate with those voters on Election Day.
“My daughter wants to go to law school and become a senator because we have a Latina who’s done it,” says Cecia Alvarado, an immigrant from Costa Rica who is the Nevada executive director for Somos PAC, choking on her words. “That’s my American dream, as an immigrant, to make sure my daughter has the opportunity to go to a good college, to go to law school.
“Everyone else thinks that a Latina is just someone that doesn’t have an education, that has a lot of kids [and] that are stay-at-home moms. The rest of the community doesn’t see us as someone who can become a senator.”
One of the flurry of Spanish-language ads targets Laxalt as “extreme” because of statements he made after the news leaked before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
At the event at La Vecindad, Somos PAC aired new ads on a large screen, one of them featuring Barreat. The targeted audience was apparent: “We deserve a senator who cares for women and trusts women,” the narrator says.
Cortez Masto is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants. Her campaign aired its first ad on Spanish-speaking TV on March 15 with a biographical spot outlining her family’s ties to Mexico.
“She don’t look Latina, but the way that she talks to you, the way she listens to you, the way she looks at you when you’re talking, it makes you feel like she cares. And that’s how we are,” Barreat said. “She made me feel comfortable.”
Cortez Masto’s struggle to keep her seat is a reminder that holding turf can be tougher than taking it, a lesson familiar to the group of small-business owners.
“I always heard about her, but I never thought she’d care about a small, little person who is trying to do a business,” Barreat said later in an interview. “It means a lot, especially for Latinos. It’s the first time for me that I see people in Washington care about small business.”
Winning over the hearts of Latinas is one thing; getting them to the polls Tuesday is another. Groups on both sides for weeks have seen signs of low turnout among Latinos amid fierce economic headwinds facing Democrats. And while Latino voters nationally have said they believe Democrats do a better job handling abortion, they prefer Republicans’ handling of the economy, according to a September NBC News/Telemundo poll. Democrats have tried to counter that by talking about rent control, as well as abortion. Hispanic voters listed abortion as the second most important issue after inflation, according to a Washington Post/Ipsos poll published last month.
Like Democrats, Republicans are aggressively competing for Latino votes, with one national Senate group sending teams of canvassers to the state to talk to Latinos whom they’ve identified as persuadable.
In a recent rally in Reno, Laxalt told the crowd he felt confident about stealing that vote from Democrats.
“Hispanic voters are leaving Senator Masto just [like] Joe Biden for the same reason everybody else is,” Laxalt said. “Their policies are failing our great country, and they’re failing the state of Nevada.”