The consensus going into the final weekend of the midterm campaign is that the Democrats are poised to retake the House on the strength of a massive “blue wave.” FiveThirtyEight, for instance, gives the Democrats an 85 percent chance of winning a House majority, with an average flip of 38 seats. Even Donald Trump, for all of his efforts to warn his base about the dangers of handing the levers of power to a Democratic “mob,” has bowed to reality. At a rally in West Virginia, he acknowledged that the Democrats will likely take the House.
But a dramatically different race seems to be playing out in the Senate. FiveThirtyEight gives the Republicans an 84 percent chance of keeping control. Even though there is no denying Trump’s dreadful approval ratings are an albatross around the GOP, the race for Senate control is being fought in Republican-leaning territory.
When you look at the increasingly limited scenarios for a Democratic takeover of the Senate, every realistic scenario goes through Nevada, where Republican incumbent Dean Heller is hoping to win a second full term. However, he is the only Republican Senator representing a state where Hillary Clinton got all of the electoral votes, and has a fight on his hands against freshman Democratic Congresswoman Jacky Rosen.
Heller may have gotten some very unwelcome news on the final night of early voting in Nevada. All indications are that Rosen has banked a modest lead–but one large enough that Heller will likely need to run the table on Tuesday in order to keep his job. And part of that will likely entail overcoming a modest-sized wave in Las Vegas.
Whenever you want to know about politics in what has become one of the most powerful swing states in the nation, the man to turn to is Jon Ralston. His real-time monitoring of early voting has, in many cases, provided a more accurate picture of the state of play going into Election Day than polling.
In 2010, for instance, nearly every poll showed then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was finished. But Ralston’s tracking of early voting showed the Democrats had banked a 25,000-vote lead in Clark County, home to Las Vegas–enough for him to prevail on Election Day over Sharron Angle. In the last three presidential elections, the Democrats ran up enough of a margin in Clark County that Ralston was able to deposit Nevada’s electoral votes–five in 2008, six in 2012 and 2016–into the Democrats’ bank account.
How can one county make so much of a difference? Well, Nevada is one of the most centralized states in the nation. While 2.9 million people live there, 1.9 million of them live in Clark County–twice as many people as the rest of the state combined. The next-largest county, Washoe–home to Reno–has only 421,000 people. No other county-level jurisdiction in the state has more than 60,000 people, and ten counties have fewer than 25,000 people. The capital, Carson City, is an independent city with 55,000 people.
After working at several Las Vegas and Reno television stations and newspapers, Ralston has launched a news site of his own, The Nevada Independent, where he has continued his insider analysis of Nevada politics. Early on, Ralston reasoned that Democratic strategy centered around running it up in Clark and keeping any deficit in Washoe down to a manageable level. The Democrats have pulled almost even with the GOP in Washoe in terms of registration, making this historically deep-red county a swing county at the national level. However, it still tilts Republican at the state level.
When the totals from the final day of early voting came in, they revealed that the Democrats absolutely crushed it. They ran up a 47,000-vote lead in Clark County, well above their most optimistic hopes. Originally, Ralston estimated that the Democrats would need to bank at least a 35,000-vote lead in and around Las Vegas to feel good about their chances going into Election Day, and a 40,000-vote lead to make the red team nervous.
How were the Democrats able to blast through expectations? It was mainly due to monster turnout.
How big, you ask?
In many cases, polling places in the Las Vegas area had very long wait times, as chronicled by Ralston and the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Katelyn Newberg.
More tellingly, the Democrats actually won Washoe County by just over 1,700 votes after Ralston expected the Republicans would be ahead. The Las Vegas totals alone would be enough to give the GOP heartburn. But with the Democrats winning the two biggest counties in the state by almost 50,000 votes, Ralston believes the GOP will have its work cut out for it on Tuesday.
The fact that the Republicans lost Washoe should really make Heller nervous. He only won a full term in 2012 only because he pounded Shelley Berkeley in Washoe by a 51-39 margin–over 20,600 votes, far exceeding his statewide margin of just over 11,500 votes. But if he goes into Election Day behind in Washoe, he will need to absolutely run it up on Election Day to win.
Ralston also thinks Heller will need to win independents “by a lot” in order to keep his job. How much? Well, Ralston assumed that both Heller and Rosen will hold on to roughly 90 percent of their own bases and peel off five percent of the other’s bases. He estimated that Heller will likely need to win independents by more than ten points in order to hang on.
The bottom line, as Ralston sees it?
Republicans need a really good day Tuesday to stop Democrats from at least a pastel blue wave and it may get to navy blue if the Dems hold their own on Election Day. It appears that these elections are breaking for the Dems at the end.
And there aren’t many places where the Republicans can put up sandbags to hold that wave back. Remember, Clark and Washoe between them have 2.3 million people–over 87 percent of the state’s population.
The resulting “urban firewall” for the Democrats is a big reason why Ralston tabs the Senate race as “likely Democratic”–while nearly every pundit believes this race to be a pure coin flip. He also thinks the potential wave could be enough to make Steve Sisolak Nevada’s first Democratic governor in 20 years, assuring that the Democrats will have a place at the table for redistricting after the 2020 census.
If Ralston is telling the truth, we may already know there will be a blue wave in at least one state–and it could be big enough to capsize at least one Republican Senator.
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