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Democrats keep control of U.S. Senate with Cortez Masto’s victory in Nevada

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat, ensured her party will keep control of the Senate after she defeated Republican Adam Laxalt, the state’s former attorney general.

The race was called Saturday by the Associated Press.

“It’s official: Democrats will maintain control of the U.S. Senate!” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) tweeted, thanking donors, volunteers and and voters. “You made this victory possible!”

Regaining the chamber was “a resounding endorsement of Democrats’ Senate majority,” said Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, chair of the Senate Democratic campaign arm, in a statement on Saturday. “These historic results in race after race speak for themselves, and they reflect the strength of our candidates, the popularity of Senate Democrats’ message to the American people, and a rejection of the extremism espoused by the GOP.”

Democrats will have the opportunity to build on their majority next month in Georgia, when Sen. Raphael Warnock faces off against GOP challenger Herschel Walker. Warnock narrowly outran Walker in the general election. But he failed to surpass 50% of the vote, forcing a runoff under state law.

Walker ran 5 percentage points behind Gov. Brian Kemp, a fellow Republican who made a successful reelection bid — pointing to a significant number of voters who backed the incumbent governor but not Walker.

Now that control of the Senate has been determined, it may be difficult for Walker to rally those voters to show up, said Jessica Taylor, a Senate campaign analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report with Amy Walter.

“It’s a turnout game, and Republicans failed the turnout game last time because [then-President] Trump was trying to overturn the election results,” Taylor said, pointing to the GOP’s loss of two Senate runoffs in Georgia after the 2020 election.

Trump is poised to loom over the upcoming runoff as well, teasing a possible announcement for a 2024 presidential run next week.

President Biden, with his party holding the Senate, preserves his ability to confirm judicial nominees and Cabinet secretaries.

Ronald Klain, Biden’s chief of staff, celebrated on Twitter by typing the number of seats Democrats now hold — 50 — and 14 exclamation points.

Keeping the Senate was considered a slightly easier task for Democrats than retaining control in the House. National dynamics — such as presidential approval ratings and economic concerns — exert less force on statewide races; in 2018, for example, Republicans picked up two Senate seats even as Democrats gained 40 seats to win control of the House.

Still, with high inflation and a dissatisfied electorate, the battle for control of the Senate was a toss-up for much of the cycle. Democrats were boosted by dominant fundraising and voter outrage after the Supreme Court reversed decades-old federal protections for access to abortion. They also benefited from GOP opponents who were popular with Trump supporters but less so with the general electorate.

Taylor said she would never have imagined at the beginning at the cycle that the Democrats could find themselves on the cusp of picking up a Senate seat.

“When we look at history and the current political climate and economic indicators, it is shocking that Democrats may not have lost a single incumbent,” Taylor said.

Nevada’s contest between Laxalt and Cortez Masto — viewed as the Senate’s most vulnerable Democrat in the lead-up to Tuesday’s midterm election — was so close in part because the state’s voters are closely divided between the two major parties. Democrats had less than a 4-percentage-point registration edge over Republicans as of Nov. 1.

On paper, Nevada looks like a solid-blue state. All but one of its statewide offices are held by Democrats; the party has majorities in both state legislative houses and in its congressional delegation. Democratic presidential candidates have won the state since 2008, when Barack Obama prevailed with a double-digit victory.

But Democrats’ winning streak in Nevada belies the grind-it-out nature of many of their victories. Powered by the vaunted “Reid machine” — the political turnout operation built by the late Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, the state’s longest-serving senator — Nevada only narrowly tilted in the party’s direction in the 2016 and 2020 presidential races. Cortez Masto won her first term in 2016 by under 3 percentage points.

Democrats have relied on working-class voters of color, especially union members, to bolster their margins in close elections. But the party’s struggles to win over people without college degrees, and a rightward drift among Latino voters, made Nevada especially challenging terrain.

The state’s workforce is transient, and many voters’ livelihoods depend on visitors eating, drinking, gambling and otherwise cavorting on the Las Vegas Strip and its environs — a tourism industry that has yet to fully rebound after being curtailed by the pandemic. The state’s unemployment rate and gas prices remain among the highest in the country.

Democrats across the nation, including Cortez Masto, campaigned on the Supreme Court ruling that overturned nationwide abortion rights earlier this year. But relative to other states, concerns over the issue may have been more muted in Nevada, where the electorate in 1990 codified into state law the right to abortion until 24 weeks into pregnancy.

Cortez Masto, 58, a former state attorney general, is the daughter of a four-term Clark County commissioner. She made history in 2016 as the first Latina elected to the Senate.

Laxalt, 44, is a former state attorney general who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2018. The grandson of a Nevada governor and senator who was a confidant of President Reagan, Laxalt co-chaired Trump’s 2020 campaign in the state. Trump campaigned with him on Nov. 5.

“This is another place where we saw Trump having more of an impact,” Taylor said, noting that Laxalt was part of the legal team that tried to help the former president overturn the 2020 election results.

Election denialism was unpopular with voters in the state; Jim Marchant, the GOP secretary of state candidate who was among the most vocal purveyors of voting conspiracies, appears to be losing to Democrat Cisco Aguilar.

But Republican gubernatorial candidate Joe Lombardo successfully ousted Democratic incumbent Steve Sisolak. While Lombardo was endorsed by Trump and appeared with him at rallies, he also tried to distance himself from the former president at times, describing him as a “sound president” in a debate after declining to call Trump “great.” Lombardo’s position as the sheriff of Clark County, the state’s population hub, also enabled him to run a campaign more focused on crime.

Each of Nevada’s nearly 2.2 million voters received mail ballots, which will be tallied as long as they were postmarked by election day and received by election officials by 5 p.m. Saturday.

This was the first midterm election since the death of Reid, a Democratic kingmaker with an unparalleled grip on the state’s politics, and an iconic figure in Washington. Nearly every visitor who flies in to Sin City lands at the Strip-adjacent airport bearing Reid’s name. The former Senate majority leader was Nevada’s longest-serving senator.

Times staff writers Nolan D. McCaskill in Washington and Hannah Fry in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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