Throughout much of the West, Democrats are floundering in key races they should not be having to fight to win.
Take Nevada, where Senator Catherine Cortez Masto should have been able to build on Harry Reid’s legendary political machine, and ought to have been able to marshal rock-solid union support in Las Vegas, to put away her challenger, the election-denying Adam Laxalt, months ago. Instead, with just weeks to go until the election, they’re in a dead heat, and Masto is the Democrats’ most vulnerable senator in the country. It’s also possible that an election-denying Republican will win the Nevada governorship as well. Polls show incumbent Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak and GOP Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo running even, and the state’s three Democratic members of Congress are also in tough reelection fights.
Nevada was hit particularly hard by Covid lockdowns, and the state’s tourism-based economy has not yet fully rebounded. The unemployment rate in Las Vegas, the epicenter of Democratic support in the state, remains at nearly 6 percent, and inflation throughout the southwest and mountain west remains far higher than the national average; between January 2021 and the summer of 2022, prices in Nevada increased by over 15 percent. And, rightly or wrongly, Democrats are blamed for these soaring prices.
Look at Arizona, where Democratic gubernatorial candidateKatie Hobbs made the unfathomable decision to not debate her Republican opponent Kari Lake, and has watched her big summer-time lead in the polls evaporate in recent weeks.
Lake, an ex-Fox News anchor, is another election-denying Trumpite, who has fashioned an ever-more extreme political persona over the past months as she looks to turn Arizona into a political fortress for those who would overturn election results they don’t like and who has been labeled a threat to basic democratic norms by The Washington Post, The New York Times, and many other outlets. Liz Cheney has recently campaigned against Lake in Arizona, warning that her election would undermine basic democratic principles and institutions.
Despite all of this, Hobbs is struggling to gain traction. Her refusal to debate has presented her to voters as irremediably weak. And many of the pollsters and Arizona political insiders I have talked to in recent weeks say they now expect Lake to end up victorious. This is crash-and-burn politics of the worst sort and could lurch Arizona governance to the far-right.
In both Arizona and Nevada, Democratic strategists had hoped that strong popular support for abortion rights would translate to victories at the polls against deeply conservative, anti-abortion GOP candidates. Yet polling suggests that, even though abortion is indeed a major issue of concern for large numbers of voters, when push comes to shove Democrats are being hamstrung by fury at high inflation rates, especially at the huge cost that drivers must bear when filling their car tanks. Nevada’s gas prices, in particular, are more in line with California’s, which, at roughly $6.50 a gallon, are several dollars a gallon higher than in most other states.
And witness Oregon, which has long been a reliably blue state, but where the Democrats’ gubernatorial candidate, Tina Kotek, is struggling to sprint ahead of the crowd in a three-way race. It’s entirely possible, according to the latest polling, that the anti-abortion Republican candidate, Christine Drazan, could win the election there with only a lick over one third of the vote.
In fact, for the past two months, not a single major poll has shown the Democrat ahead. It’s not that Drazan is raking in the numbers—few of the polls put her at above 36 percent. It’s more that Kotek isn’t giving vaguely liberal voters, who wouldn’t be caught dead voting for the GOP in a progressive bastion like Portland, a reason to chance their vote on her rather than the independent alternative. Now, it’s of course possible that, as the election nears, Kotek’s support will firm up and that of the third candidate, timber heiress and “self-described centrist” lawmaker Betsy Johnson, will dissipate; but it’s just as likely that Kotek will continue to slip as she tries to find a footing in an angry, anti-incumbent political environment.
And thus Oregon—which, with California and Washington, has been so vital to state-level efforts to tackle climate change, protect abortion access, expand worker rights, extend the social safety net, and support undocumented immigrants—could make a sharp tack to the right come November.
Kotek is tarred with all of outgoing governor Kate Brown’s perceived failures, as well as problems of a more local nature in Portland—in particular the belief, fueled by a rash of high-profile violent crimes over the past couple years, that crime is skyrocketing in Portland; a ham-handed move to “defund the police,” to the tune of $15 million, in the wake of the George Floyd protests; and a homelessness crisis that has seen parts of downtown turned into encampments and that has led to the filing of a lawsuit by residents who argue that tents on the sidewalks violate the Americans with Disabilities Act because they make it difficult for disabled people to navigate the streets.
Polling from earlier this year found that Kate Brown is the least popular governor in America. And her unpopularity is, it seems, carrying over to Tina Kotek, the longest serving speaker of the state House, who has as good a track record as anybody in the country at pushing progressive legislative priorities but who has been successfully branded by conservatives as a continuation of the Brown-era status quo. Astoundingly, only 5 percent of Oregon residents have a very positive view of Portland and since Kotek desperately needs Portlanders, who are exhausted by the homelessness crisis and the spike in shooting violence, to turn out en masse for her, that spells trouble.
There are lessons here: “Defund the police” was never going to be a politically viable slogan, and it oughtn’t to have been taken seriously by policymakers. Ceding central cities to homeless encampments, with all the disorder around drugs and mental illness that accompanies that, was never going to sit well with residents, and oughtn’t to have become the default in cities up and down the West Coast.
Talking of lessons to be learned, I can’t end this wrap-up of western politics without at least a mention of the utterly dispiriting scandal consuming the Los Angeles City Council. To recap: Council president Nury Martinez, her fellow councilors Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León, as well as California Federation of Labor president Ron Herrera, were secretly recorded making extremely offensive comments during an under-the-radar meeting they held to talk about redistricting city council seats. Their aim, apparently, was to brainstorm ways to expand the number of Latino councilmembers elected. But they got sidetracked and ended up making a series of ugly racist comments, including about the Black son of fellow -councior Mike Bonin.
Cedillo was, in a previous political incarnation, a member of the state Assembly and then the state senate. De León used to be California’s senate president pro tempore. When Trump got elected, he fashioned himself one of the leaders of the political resistance. In 2018, after he had termed out, he ran a strong primary campaign from the left against Senator Dianne Feinstein in 2018. Both men cultivated an image that they were going places, that there was something of an inevitability to their political ascent up the California political ladder and, ultimately, onto the national stage.
Now, though, in the wreckage of this hot-mic scandal, it’s hard to see how any of these figures survive politically. So far, Martinez has resigned from the city council, and Herrera from his Labor Federation position. Cedillo and de León have, as of this writing on Wednesday night, refused to step down; yet the enormous pressure building on them to do so, from Joe Biden down to the demonstrators who have rallied around city hall repeatedly throughout this week, surely means that it’s a matter of when rather than if they go.
The damage will, however, remain. Rainbow coalitions are, by their nature, fragile things. When trust is undermined in the way that it has been because of this conversation, it becomes increasingly difficult to hold the disparate groups together.