GOP hopefuls gain edge on Cortez Masto, Sisolak as voters' mood over economy sinks
Price spikes and waning support for President Biden helps buoy Republicans in key midterm election battleground
Nevada’s top Democratic officeholders are trailing Republican rivals for vulnerable seats at the governor’s mansion and U.S. Senate, according to a Suffolk University/Reno Gazette Journal poll released on Tuesday.
The early April survey of 500 likely midterm election voters counts among the first to show how far U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Gov. Steve Sisolak might sink under the weight of rising gas prices and inflation.
The latter issue, respondents said, was by far the most important on their minds, followed by jobs and the state of the economy. Only 35% of those polled approved of President Joe Biden’s job performance — 6 percentage points below the first-term Democrat’s already dismal nationwide approval rating.
Analysis: Meet the top two Republican contenders looking to face Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto
All of which helps explain why Cortez Masto and Sisolak are now polling behind candidates once considered long-shots to take their jobs.
Cortez Masto lost both of the survey’s head-to-head challenges against Republican favorites Adam Laxalt and Sam Brown, despite heavily outspending them on the campaign trail.
Brown, a U.S. Army veteran and newcomer on the Nevada campaign scene, topped Cortez Masto by less than 1 percentage point. Laxalt, Nevada’s former attorney general, was favored by a roughly 3 percent margin. Both are within the poll's margin of error of 4.4 percent.
“Any time an incumbent polls under 50%, he or she is deemed vulnerable because they are established brands,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston. “Moreover, when incumbents poll at or below 40% it is much worse, because it is very difficult to convince undecideds to vote for you when they remain undecided despite telling us that they are very interested in voting in this election.”
Pollsters painted a similar picture in Sisolak’s race, where the first-term Democrat is underwater against three of five top GOP contenders for his job.
That list includes North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, a recent Republican convert who is yet to top 15% support in his own primary election, but managed 40% when pitted against Sisolak.
The incumbent governor tied with ex-U.S. Sen. Dean Heller at 39% and lost to Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, the longtime front-runner for the GOP’s gubernatorial nomination, 39% to 37%.
Poll respondents did opt for Sisolak when presented with ex-boxer Joey Gilbert, a Reno-based criminal defense attorney considered a fringe hopeful in the Republican primary race. Sisolak also managed a 12-point win in a hypothetical race against Republican venture capitalist Guy Nohra, another outsider bet for the nomination.
Almost all of those gaps fell well within the poll’s 4.4 percentage point margin of error, offering some hope to Democratic campaigns anchored by Biden’s failure to curb inflation and ease pain at the pump.
Nevadans' outlook is grim
But that’s about where the good news stops for Democratic incumbents.
Around 50% of those surveyed said the Silver State is on the wrong track — almost double the tally who said so in September 2018. Roughly the same proportion said they wanted their vote to change the way Biden was taking the country.
Some 40% said their standard of living is worse, and nearly the same share said the state was in poor economic shape.
Related:Sisolak praises economy rebound, promises to not raise taxes in State of the State speech
All of those figures are up by double digits since the last midterm election in 2018, when Democrats rode a blue wave into a near-supermajority at the statehouse, while retaking the governor’s mansion for the first time in two decades.
Few of those elected during that cycle face any real primary election opposition, and can spend the next seven months bracing for the possibility of a red wave in November.
Most campaign experts still consider the races at the top of Nevada's general election ballot to be a toss-up.
James DeHaven is the politics reporter for the Reno Gazette Journal. He covers campaigns, the Nevada Legislature and everything in between. Support his work by subscribing to RGJ.com right here.