Nevada’s split GOP, sluggish job growth drive tight Senate race

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UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 8: Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., arrives in the Longworth House Office Building for the House Republicans' election to nominate the next Speaker of the House on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

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JUDY WOODRUFF: From the press, we turn to Nevada for the “NewsHour”‘s latest on-the-ground report.

Chasing the Dream

A split amongst Republicans, paired with sluggish growth in construction, means that jobs are front and center, and a key Senate race is now in play.

John Yang reports. It’s part of our continuing series on poverty and opportunity in America, Chasing the Dream.

ANNOUNCER: When news breaks, we talk about it.

ANNOUNCER: This is News Talk 840 AM.

JOHN YANG: The sun rises over the Nevada Desert, one day closer to the election.

HEIDI HARRIS, “The Heidi Harris Show”: Why don’t we just change the name to groper in chief?

JOHN YANG: And Heidi Harris is talking to the biggest audience of any Las Vegas morning radio talk show host. A hot topic, the very tight Senate contest between Republican Joe Heck and Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto.

HEIDI HARRIS: I tried to watch Heck and Masto. I tried to watch it. I did.

REP. JOE HECK (R), Republican Senate Candidate: Therefore, I cannot in good conscience continue to support Donald Trump.

JOHN YANG: Heck shook up the race when he jumped off the Donald Trump bandwagon after the now-infamous “Access Hollywood” tape surfaced, one of more than a dozen Republicans in tough congressional races to withdraw their support.

Now some Trump supporters say they’re dumping Heck, like this caller to the Heidi Harris show.

CALLER: It’s time to send a message. We put Donald Trump there for a reason, and that’s how I feel. I will be voting for Donald and the ballot questions, but not for Joe Heck.

JOHN YANG: Harris, a reluctant Trump supporter, says she hears that a lot from listeners.

HEIDI HARRIS: I don’t know that many of them are going to vote for her instead of him, Catherine Cortez Masto, but I think they’re going to stay home and not vote for Heck, which essentially gives her a free vote.

JOHN YANG: With early voting beginning Saturday, it’s become a big campaign issue. Heck was pressed on his about-face last week in a televised debate. He said it was a personal decision.

REP. JOE HECK: As an emergency department doctor, I have taken care of far too many women who’ve been victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. And I have great empathy for anyone who ever had to experience such a tragedy. My wife was a victim of domestic abuse in a prior relationship.

JOHN YANG: Cortez Masto wasn’t buying it.

CATHERINE CORTEZ MASTO (D), Democratic Senate Candidate: Let’s call this for what it is. Congressman Heck was worried about his political career.

JOHN YANG: It was Heck’s last public appearance before leaving for a week-long Army Reserve assignment at the Pentagon, where he’s General Heck.

Nevada’s desert and mountains can feel remote, but its politics are surprisingly typical. Since 1908, it has failed to vote for winner of the White House just once. And this year, it may decide who controls the Senate. Analysts say it’s the Republicans’ best shot at winning a Democratic-held seat. It’s attracting outsized interest and money.

NARRATOR: Who else has sunk millions in to elect Joe Heck?

JOHN YANG: Nearly $49 million worth of ads from outside groups, many in Spanish in this state that’s about 30 percent Latino. Whoever wins this race will become only the fifth person to elected to the seat since 1933, replacing Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who’s retiring after 30 years.

Heck served in the Nevada state Senate and was elected to the House in 2010. Cortez Masto is a former federal prosecutor and two-term Nevada attorney general. Even before his un-endorsement, Heck said he disagreed with Trump’s remarks about women and minorities.

This week, CNN published an audiotape of Heck, authenticated by his campaign, at closed-door Las Vegas fund-raiser.

REP. JOE HECK: I want to support him. I really do, but he has got to change his tone. And he’s got to be — I don’t want to make him into a politician or make him into the same thing that he is running against. But he has got to realize that he is not going to win this race by appealing to the 20 percent or 30 percent of the Republican base.

JOHN YANG: Gun store owner Bob Irwin, a Republican backing Trump, says he’s disappointed by Heck’s decision, blaming Heck’s campaign managers.

BOB IRWIN, Owner, The Gun Store: The new guys are trying to make a politician out of him. He’s not a politician. I thought he should just simply rise above the fray and talk about Obamacare and creating jobs by changing the tax structure to bring businesses into the country.

JOHN YANG: But he says he will still vote for Heck.

Iowa Republican Senator Joni Ernst, a Trump supporter standing in for Heck while he’s on Reserve duty, seemed to open the door to ticket-splitting.

SEN. JONI ERNST (R-Iowa): We need to separate the presidential race from what is really important right now, the United States Senate race as well. That’s what Joe is running for.

JOHN YANG: Cortez Masto welcomes Hillary Clinton’s embrace, appearing with her last week in Las Vegas.

CATHERINE CORTEZ MASTO: There’s going to be things that we disagree on, but that’s part of the process, right? And then we work together and find compromise along the way. That’s how it should work.

JOHN YANG: President Obama will visit this coming weekend to campaign for both Cortez Masto and Clinton.

The economy is a big issue in both the Senate and presidential races, which polls show both very close. No state boomed like Nevada until the recession, when it went bust like no other state. When the real estate bubble burst, the carpenters union went from 18 million manhours a year to two million.

Frank Hawk is the union’s business manager.

FRANK HAWK, Carpenters Local 1977: In 2009, we had a record amount of suicides in our local here. We were losing about 15 a month to suicides. People were cashing in their retirement to save their houses, only to lose them anyway. In 2010, we had a record amount of cardiac arrests for people under 45. And that was due to the stress.

JOHN YANG: The union backed Heck when he ran for the House, but now they’re behind Cortez Masto, with members going door-to-door for her and the rest of the Democratic ticket.

David Damore is a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

DAVID DAMORE, University of Nevada, Las Vegas: What’s missing from our — from the return here of the economy is those construction jobs. Those were a real driver, and as opposed to being, you know, $10 job hours, they’re $30, $40 job hours there.

JOHN YANG: That blue-collar frustration is driving some of Trump’s support.

DAVID DAMORE: He’s also, of course, mobilizing working-class whites. You have a smaller share of college-educated people in Nevada, so some of the sort of cultural movement away from the Republican Party isn’t quite so strong in Nevada.

Clearly, Trump is a mobilizer on both sides, right? He’s mobilizing Latino voters in a way that we haven’t seen.

JOHN YANG: Driving them, Damore says, to the Democrats, like the family and friends who gathered Sunday night on the west side of Las Vegas.

In the kitchen, it was dinner, in the living room, politics watching a Spanish-language rebroadcast of the Heck-Cortez Masto debate. Since January, activist Jose Macias, whose parents came to the United States illegally, has helped dozens of Latinos become citizens so they can vote next month.

JOSE MACIAS, Community Activist: We have to go out there and really, really show the numbers of the power we do have, because a lot of candidates think that we don’t have power when they’re talking to the rallies, attacking Mexicans, attacking women, people of color. The reason that I’m working for a vote, we have to make sure that we tell them that we do matter.

JOHN YANG: Mobilizing to try to help decide who wins the White House and the Senate.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m John Yang in Las Vegas.

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