With time running out before voters hit the polls, the race for Sen. Harry Reid’s soon-to-be-vacant seat in the club of 100 has been heating up. Speaking to a crowd of about two dozen inside the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center, Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto hit a number of talking points last Wednesday, Sept. 28, calling for an increased minimum wage, equal pay for equal work and a more affordable higher-education experience.
“I don’t think that, if you want to be a student, you should have to mortgage your future to get an education,” Cortez Masto said. “I’ve talked to students from across this state who’ve told me that you decide on what degree you’re going to get by how much college debt you’re going to accumulate. I think it’s backwards.”
The former Nevada attorney general is running against Republican Joe Heck, representative for Nevada’s 3rd congressional district. Both candidates launched their campaigns relatively early last year, but in the months leading up to Election Day the campaign has turned increasingly negative.
Cortez Masto has been the subject of a barrage of attack ads this summer that allege all sorts of malfeasance during her tenure as attorney general. One super PAC ad, which was found to be half-true by PolitiFact, claims that Cortez Masto allowed a backlog of thousands of rape kits to remain untested between 2006 and 2014.
When asked after the event about the allegations, Cortez Masto was quick to defend herself and point a finger back at her Republican opponent.
“It is a distortion of my record,” Cortez Masto said. “They want to deflect from Congressman Heck’s record, which, as you see in Congress, voted against more funding for rape kits and more funding for victims of sexual assault.
Things haven’t been rosy for Heck on the other side of the aisle either. A slate of union-backed ads, which PolitiFact found to be mostly false, accused the congressman of supporting the privatization of Social Security, calling him a “threat” to the future of entitlement programs. He’s also faced criticism over his ties to the Republican mega-donor Koch brothers, who have poured millions into Senate races nationwide.
All in all, millions were spent over the summer by a host of different PACs, super PACs and other organizations in a negative ad blitz on both sides. It’s left a sour taste in voters’ mouths, as both candidates’ unfavorable numbers had almost doubled by mid-September, according to a poll from Monmouth University.
For her part, Cortez Masto called the negative ads a deflection from Heck’s record and remained confident that her unfavorables wouldn’t have that large an effect on her campaign.
“He’s been there six years; he’s part of the mess in Washington,” Cortez Masto said. “At the end of the day, I think voters will see through it all and they’ll vote for the candidate that’s gonna fight for them.”
More than that though, the polling shows what is essentially a toss-up. A poll of likely voters last week from the Las Vegas Review-Journal found the two statistically tied, as Heck’s two-point lead falls within the 3.5 point margin of error. It’s been a common theme in this race, as Heck just barely edges out Cortez Masto, but he never holds a definitive lead.
Democrats could possibly win back control of the Senate this year, but if they do, it’ll be by a slim margin. Right now, Republicans hold the chamber with 54 members. According to FiveThirtyEight’s Senate election forecast, Democrats stand to win four of those seats back in Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, but could lose Nevada, leaving the Senate locked in a 50-50 tie.
If that were to happen, the vice president steps in to be the tie-breaker. With Democrat Hillary Clinton holding a slight advantage after rival Donald Trump’s poor week in the news, odds are Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine will end up the 101st vote. But with five weeks left before Election Day, there’s still room enough for the dreaded “October surprise,” and only time will tell who will come out on top on Nov. 8.
Jacob Solis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.