Republicans’ path to control of the US House winds through suburbs like the ones that ring the sprawling metropolis of Las Vegas here in Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District, where Democratic Rep. Susie Lee is fighting for a third term.
During the presidency of Donald Trump, the GOP lost significant ground in the suburbs as he alienated voters with his pugnacious style and self-serving rhetoric. Now the party is trying to win back many of those voters with a focus on crime and economic discontent, traversing suburban battlegrounds here in Nevada, which is home to three competitive House races, a high-profile gubernatorial race and a pivotal Senate contest.
In the House, the GOP only needs a net gain of five seats to win, and their success – and the size of their potential majority – could hinge on turning out voters like 47-year-old Cindy Broussard, who works security at a local hotel and casino but took on a second job as a home health care aide to shoulder the crush of inflation.
The Silver State’s tourism-fueled economy was pummeled by the Covid-19 pandemic and it now has one of the highest inflation rates in the nation. Gas prices have dropped but are still above $5 a gallon – the fifth highest among the 50 states. That sour economic climate and concerns about rising crime have provided a clear opening for the GOP after an era in which disdain for Trump dramatically eroded their support among suburban voters, particularly women.
“Everybody’s gone through their savings and beyond,” said Broussard, who is leaning toward Republican candidates this cycle, as she unloaded “the essentials” from her grocery cart on a recent afternoon. She has stopped buying soda. She has cut back on meat and condiments. She no longer contemplates splurging on the makings “for a great dinner” – just what she can afford to “survive and get through it.”
“I’m literally working 84, 85 hours a week to cover the same bills,” Broussard said. She laughed when asked whether she expects to reap savings from the Democrats’ “Inflation Reduction Act,” the sweeping $750 billion health care, tax and climate law that Democrats say is intended to help put more money into the pockets of working Americans.
“What is the reduction?” she asks. “You say you’ve done all these things,” she said of Democrats, “but where is it at?”
Broussard’s frustrations encapsulate both the challenge facing Democrats and the opportunity for Republicans. Recent polling has shown that economic concerns are paramount – eclipsing all other issues, including abortion – and that was true in more than two dozen interviews with voters throughout the suburbs of Las Vegas.
The Supreme Court’s decision overturning abortion rights in June helped Democrats close their enthusiasm gap, potentially boosting turnout on their side. But independent voters continue to prioritize the economy. And several Republican strategists argued in interviews that many suburban voters and independents increasingly see this election as a referendum on their family’s economic and physical security, two powerful motivators for female voters who have otherwise turned away from the GOP in recent years.
“Suburban districts are at the core of the House battleground,” said Nathan L. Gonzales, the editor and publisher of Inside Elections, which provides non-partisan analysis of campaigns. “Republicans are primed to make gains in the suburbs. Voters that opposed Trump or were turned off by Trump are now looking at the current state of the country and the current state of the economy and they don’t like what they see. But they do see Democrats in charge.”
Though many different factors have driven up inflation and gas prices, it’s the party in power that often gets the blame. “Democrats are being held responsible for the vast majority of the problems that the country is facing, because they’re in control,” he said.
GOP looks to win over voters with crime messaging
Among the 18 congressional districts that Inside Elections rates as toss-ups, Gonzales noted that at least nine have significant suburban populations, including Colorado’s 8th, Minnesota’s 2nd, Nebraska’s 2nd, New Jersey’s 7th, Oregon’s 5th and 6th, Pennsylvania’s 7th, Virginia’s 2nd and Washington’s 8th. There are many other key suburban districts in seats that are currently tilting toward one of the parties.
In many of them, Republicans have run countless ads trying to tie Democratic candidates to the calls by some progressive groups to defund the police following the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a police officer. Even though most Democratic elected officials did not support that message – and have often echoed President Joe Biden’s calls in his State of the Union address to “fund the police” – the GOP has continued to raise the slogan as a boogeyman, linking it with the uptick in crime in some parts of the country. A Gallup poll from earlier this year found 72% of Americans were dissatisfied with the current policies to reduce or control crime.
The messages on crime could have particular salience in districts like Oregon 5th and 6th Districts, which include suburbs around Portland, a city where some of the protests after Floyd’s death turned violent.
An ad from Congressional Leadership Fund, the Republican super PAC tied to House GOP leadership, targeting progressive Jamie McLeod-Skinner, for example, shows images of rioting and burning buildings juxtaposed against recent headlines about the increase in violent crime in Portland, suggesting that McLeod-Skinner would stand with “defund the police radicals.”
McLeod-Skinner, who defeated moderate Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader in the primary and is now facing Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer, the former mayor of Happy Valley, tweeted that she is “the only candidate in this race with a consistent record of funding the police.”
In Oregon’s 6th District, which also includes parts of suburban Portland, an ad attacking Democratic state legislator Andrea Salinas from the National Republican Congressional Committee and GOP opponent Mike Erickson states that Salinas “voted numerous times to defund the police,” but none of the bills cited in the ad defunded the police. Salinas told the Salem Statesman Journal the accusation was “patently false.”
In Nevada, the messages blaming Democrats for crime and economic struggles are being echoed in the barrage of ads for races up and down the ticket – from the US Senate race where former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt is challenging Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, to the governor’s race where Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo is trying to unseat Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, to the three House seats that the GOP hopes to flip.
Republican April Becker, who is challenging Lee in the 3rd District, has highlighted her own early journey as a single mom who worked as a waitress and a bartender. Becker, who became a lawyer at 39, argued in one of her ads that she’s now able to “help people who are struggling just like I was.” In another ad – attacking Lee while standing in front of a gas pump – Becker says of members of Congress: “They just don’t care about us.”
Democrats, in turn, have focused on Becker’s position on abortion. One ad from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee falsely stated that Becker would join Republicans “trying to ban abortion nationwide, including Nevada” even though Becker has explicitly stated that she would not vote for a nationwide ban, because she believes it “would be unconstitutional.”
Super PACs get less favorable advertising rates than candidates. But when it comes to outside spending, the Congressional Leadership Fund has been able to outspend the Democrats’ House Majority PAC – $168.3 million to $124.7 million, including future reservations, as of Thursday. HMP has spent more on advertising about abortion than any other issue, while CLF has focused on taxes, inflation and crime, as well as unflattering depictions of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Biden.
Both super PACs have spent more in Nevada’s 3rd District in the expensive Las Vegas media market than any other race – about $9.8 million by CLF and nearly $4.8 by HMP, according to an analysis of AdImpact data from January 2021 through Election Day, which includes future ad reservations. Among the ads that HMP spent the most to air since Labor Day weekend was one focused on abortion – targeting Becker as “a dangerous threat to the women of Nevada.”
Meanwhile, Broussard said she doesn’t understand the Democratic focus on abortion. She favors abortion rights and disagrees with the extreme bans that have been put in place in some red states. But she noted that voters in Nevada protected abortion rights with a 1990 referendum.
“All their talk is about abortion – who’s fighting for it or not – they can fight all they want. It’s us people that have to vote on that,” she said. This election, she added, “it’s all about the economy. The working class – we want to know what’s going to happen to us.”
High sticker prices drown out Democratic legislative accomplishments
Nevada Democrats are increasingly pushing back on the economic messaging from the GOP by noting that Republicans have put forward very few specifics about what they would do to bring down costs for average families.
Lee, along with Nevada’s two other vulnerable House Democrats, Dina Titus in the 1st District and Steven Horsford in the 4th District, have also amplified the message that Republicans’ vows to reduce spending and debt – if they win the majority – could endanger Social Security and Medicare.
Lee argued that it “hasn’t been a challenge at all” to get the word out about how Democrats’ legislative accomplishments could change the lives of voters. She noted that many seniors are relieved that the recently passed package will allow Medicare to negotiate the price of certain prescription drugs, in addition to lowering other health care costs.
“This is money in people’s pockets,” Lee said after a recent event focused on Social Security and Medicare. “We hear over and over again stories of seniors who go without life-saving medications, seniors who are cutting their pills in half because they can’t afford it. This legislation not only saves money, but it will save lives.”
But in interviews with voters here, most expressed frustration rather than gratitude for the Democrats’ legislative endeavors in Washington.
Many of them lacked a basic grasp of what was included in the Democrats’ much-touted health care, tax and climate bill. They pointed instead to the myriad ways in which they have had to adjust to the bruising effects of inflation.
One voter who declined to give her name noted that she can no longer buy flowers to brighten her home. Another, incensed, held up a two-pound block of Colby cheddar cheese that she said had doubled in price since her last visit to Smith’s grocery store in Summerlin.
Those kinds of frustrations have led Stephanie Brambila, a 38 year-old voter, to give Republican candidates a second look this year. “Everything’s gone up instead of down. And I think it’s going to get worse,” she said outside a Costco west of Las Vegas.
“I didn’t care for Trump, but Trump was better for the economy,” Brambila said, pointing to some of Trump’s racially charged rhetoric about Mexicans and immigrants. “But we voted for Biden and then regretted it, because he didn’t do better.”
Jackie Zavala, an independent 48-year-old business owner, said she doesn’t like some of Biden’s decisions. “It’s crazy to be involved in all these other countries,” she said, pointing to the aid the US has sent to Ukraine following the Russian invasion. “It’s not our business. Why do they spend the money (when) we need the money here?”
Still, she said she is likely to stick with Democrats this year, because she thinks they are trying to make things better.
Kathy Beehn, a 77-year-old Democrat, said she hopes that voters understand that that there are other factors driving inflation – pointing to the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. She said it is unfair that Biden and the Democrats are being blamed.
At the same time, she described Biden as “a very relaxed president.”
“I wish he had a little more pep in his step. But I think he’s trying. We were in pretty bad shape to start with.”