LAS VEGAS—The first thing Catherine Cortez Masto did when she stepped in front of a group of high school students in Nevada earlier this month was to look them in the eyes and recruit them to the cause. “I can't do this without all of you,” she said.
Of the 50-plus Latinx students from Rancho High School gathered in the classroom, only a handful are actually old enough to vote in November. But Cortez Masto's message was really directed at the greater Latinx community that wasn't in the room: The students' parents and neighbors.
In a community where Spanish-speaking immigrant parents often take social cues from their bilingual children, Cortez Masto is betting on the kids going home after school and telling the adults seated around the dinner table that they met a woman who could become the first Latinx woman elected to the U.S. Senate.
"If you can't vote, then you need to get out there and talk to people who can and fight for the issues you believe in,” the candidate told the kids.
That support could help make history, she stressed.
“It should have happened a long time ago,” Cortez Masto told me afterwards, referring to the possibility of becoming the first Latinx woman elected to U.S. Senate. The government needs to better reflect the diversity in the population, she said. "We need more women. We need more diversity," Cortez Masto insists.
She says one limiting factor is that “women sometimes have the tendency to question whether they really have the ability to jump in” to national politics. She said that's why encouragement and mentoring efforts are so important.
“We need more women who are mentoring other women, particularly women of color, to say here's how it can be done,” said Cortez Masto.
Cortez Masto is running in a highly contested election for the seat that's about to be vacated by Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, who's retiring after three decades in Congress. Millions of dollars in outside funding are being poured into Democratic and Republican campaigns, making the race one of the most expensive in Nevada's history. Polling shows an extremely tight contest, with Republican candidate Joe Heck in a slight lead.
Cortez Masto is still in the hunt, but she's going to need a solid Latinx vote to win the race.
“It's a matter of connecting with the voters and talking to people and letting them know who you are,” she told me.
She'll have her work cut out in the final weeks of the campaign. A bipartisan voter survey commissioned by Univision found that 38% of the 400 Nevada Latinx voters surveyed did not recognize her name.
Still, Cortez Masto has campaigned successfully before, when she was elected and then re-elected as Nevada's attorney general. And if she can muster that same grassroots support to win a seat in the Senate, Cortez Masto will provide a huge boost to the Democrat's national efforts to regain control of Congress.
"This seat that I'm running for is the pathway for the Democrats to take back the majority [in the Senate] to fight to pass comprehensive immigration reform,” Cortez Masto told the students at Rancho High, where close to 71% of the student body are Latinx.
So in a way, Latinx voters in Nevada have an outsized role to play in the Democrats' overall chances of leading the country.
“It is a community that can make a difference,” Cortez Masto told Fusion.
The number of eligible Latinx voters in Nevada has increased from 228,000 to an estimated 388,000 over the past eight years, according to the Pew Research Center. They’re a group that has historically supported Democrats, and considering nearly three quarters of Latinx in the Nevada are of Mexican descent, it's a voting bloc that probably won't be switching sides now to back Trump. Cortez Masto's challenge is to convert those same voters into backers of her Senate bid.
When Latinx get out the vote in Nevada, they can make a real difference. A few years ago they helped push Sen. Harry Reid over the top in his re-election bid, which he won by a twiggy 428 votes.
Latino voters in Nevada say the top two issues for them are immigration and the economy, according to a study by Latino Decisions. Cortez Masto is campaigning on a platform that includes the environment, college tuition, and police brutality, but during her recent visit with high school students it was her comments about immigration that triggered the most discussion.
"My grandfather came from Chihuahua, Mexico and I am an example of what that fight is about,” Cortez Masto told the students. "Can you imagine my grandfather if he were alive today and saw his granddaughter who was the attorney general for eight years in the state now running to be the first Latina ever elected to the United States Senate? That’s incredible.”
Rancho High School was just one of the campaign stops on Cortez Masto's schedule on a recent Friday. She started the day at 9:30 having breakfast with faith leaders at a Cuban restaurant, then met with small-business owners at a Mexican restaurant. She and her staff rushed to a Juan Gabriel memorial at City Hall, then over to the high school to meet with students. Cortez Masto ended the night meeting with two of her supporters who won tickets to a Maná concert.
She’s campaigning as 'una de las nuestras' (or one of ours) and connecting with Latinx supporters anyway she can—although not in everybody's mother tongue.
That’s because Cortez Masto isn’t fluent in Spanish. She was born and raised in Nevada by a second generation Mexican-American father and Italian mother. She grew up close to both sides of the family and remembers her grandmother telling stories about how her grandfather left Chihuahua and crossed the Rio Grande to come to the United States.
Like many grandchildren of Latinx immigrants Cortez Masto doesn’t speak Spanish, but it doesn’t seem to be a major concern among her supporters—even if her Republican critics are trying to rub it in.
The former political director for the Republican candidate running for senate has questioned Cortez Masto's Mexican-American cred. The former aide tweeted: "quick question does @CatherineForNV speak Spanish?”
Cortez Masto dismisses those questions as offensive. “Not just offensive to me, but it’s offensive to many Mexican-Americans, particularly in the state of Nevada where they have worked so hard and have provided so many contributions to our state and our communities.”
She added, “And I’ll tell you what, my grandparents, Mexican-American and my father would be very surprised that their granddaughter and daughter isn’t a Mexican-American.”
Spanish-speaking supporters of Cortez Masto say it doesn’t matter if she speaks Spanish.
“Who cares if she doesn’t speak Spanish? Some people use their Spanish to deceive us,” says Fermin Ramirez, a musician and local church leader, who attended her campaign’s breakfast gathering at a Cuban restaurant.
“What we need is someone with experience who will fight for us, not just speak Spanish words,” Ramirez later told Fusion in a telephone interview. “Cortez Masto isn’t only looking for support, she's also helping us by bringing different groups of Latinos together.”
Cortez Masto’s supporters say during her eight years as attorney general she established a track record of defending the Latinx community. She was known for taking on “notarios,” or public notaries who charged high rates and unlawfully provided legal advice to immigrants
Some voters also recognized her for standing up for Latinxs Nevadans who lost their homes during the foreclosure crisis. Latinxs in Nevada were hit harder by the foreclosures than other ethnic groups. Early on in December 2010 Cortez Masto sued Bank of America and accused them of fraudulent and predatory lending practices that led to the foreclosure crisis. The bank later settled and post housing crash she also created a state task force to investigate loan modification foreclosure scams.
Still Latinx voters say she'll have a big seat to fill in Sen. Reid's absence.
“Senator Reid has been a blessing to this state,” said Javier Becerra, a graphic artist from Mexico whose been living in Las Vegas for the past 19-years. "Cortez Mastos is the most qualified candidate right now, but Mr. Reid’s shoes are very big and she's going to have to do a lot of work to fill them.”
Cortez Mastos, however, says she’s fighting for “the legacy of continuing to fight for the people of this state.”
“To me that's what it was about then and I’ll continue to fight for for the state that I love and that I was born in,” said Cortez Masto.