Why Catherine Cortez Masto Won the Nevada Senate Seat

On November 8th, Catherine Cortez Masto won the open Senate seat in Nevada, replacing Harry Reid. She is the first ever Latina senator and arguably beat many odds that were stacked against her. Masto ran against a white male Republican who had served in the military, traits that are historically advantageous when running for public office. It was a widely held assumption that this race would prove to be one of the most competitive in the 2016 elections, and received a significant amount of national news coverage. Cortez Masto beat opponent Joe Heck by about 35,000 votes, or 4 percentage points (Ballotpedia).

The state of Nevada is 50.9% male and 49.1% female. More importantly, the state population is around 20% Latino or Hispanic (US Census). According to 2015 Gallup findings, 39.4% of the state leans or is Democrat and 43.5% leans or is Republican; leaving Democrats with a -4.1 advantage. However, the senate seat up for contention was one that had previously been held by Harry Reid, a Democrat and the current Senate minority leader, which likely gave Cortez Masto a slight advantage over Joe Heck solely based on party. Additionally, in the last three presidential elections, including 2016, the state of Nevada has gone blue. Based on this background information, an initial theory to help explain Cortez Masto’s win could be coattails from Hillary Clinton.

An interpretation of Robert Erickson’s (2016) theory of coattails helps support the application to the 2016 Nevada senate race. While Hillary Clinton did not secure a presidential victory, she did win in the state of Nevada. By looking only at how she performed within the state, it becomes evident that Cortez Masto would have been able to ride the coattails of Clinton. Had the state gone red, it is possible that Trump’s coattails would have helped secure a victory for the Republican, Joe Heck.

Looking next at Paul Herrnson’s “Predictors of House Open-Seat Candidates’ Vote Shares”, parallels can be drawn that also apply to Senate races (p. 262). While the partisanship of the state of Nevada leans right, the resources of Cortez Masto greatly outweighed Heck; both highly influential factors on election outcomes according to Herrnson. In this election, it appears that spending was a more determinant factor of who won. In line with another important factor according to Herrnson was Cortez Masto’s strategy to “emphasize themes that are consistent with the national political agenda” (p. 265). The senator-elect ran on a platform centered on “protecting families”, raising the minimum wage and fighting for equal pay, immigration reform with a path to citizenship helping undocumented immigrants currently residing the US, and utilizing clean energy to preserve natural resources (http://catherinecortezmasto.com/about). This echoes the 2016 National Democratic Platform, and likely helped mobilize voters by employing a partisan approach and focusing on issues that are considered to be ‘owned’ by the party.

Another factor in Catherine’s win could be the overall favorable view the state holds of President Obama, who campaigned on behalf of Cortez Masto. Abramowitz (2008) argues that one factor in predicting election outcomes is the approval rating of the incumbent president at the time of an election; this holds true in years when the sitting president is not on the ballot, as was the situation in this election. The most recent Huffington Post poll, taken seven days before Election Day on November 1st, found Obama’s approval rating in Nevada to be 49.9%. This lends support to the assumption that a factor in the Democratic Party win of the seat was the view of the current president.

Campaign spending likely had a large impact on the outcome of this race. It was the seventh most expensive senate race of the 2016 elections, with Cortez Masto raising $16,063,918 and Heck raising $11,083,639 (OpenSecrets). In keeping with Holbrook and McClurg’s (2005) finding that states with more funding than average see 3-4% points difference in turnout, Joe Heck’s $5 million disparity likely increased partisan turnout for the Democrats.

Cortez Masto’s win was an impressive feat in the current political climate. Being a minority and a woman put her at a significant disadvantage. Dave Cassino presents evidence to support the idea that when faced with supporting a man or woman for president, men take gender into account in a way that can skew the outcome regardless of party identification. This means that Cortez Masto successfully overcame the “threat to gender roles” that would have, or maybe did, cue men to vote for another male regardless of any other factor other than sex of the candidate. Additionally, as reported by Holman, Merolla, and Zechmeister, in times where the threat of terror is high and/or salient, female Democratic candidates are at a significant disadvantage, but Cortez Masto came out victorious regardless.

Sources (that are not hyperlinked):


2 thoughts on “Why Catherine Cortez Masto Won the Nevada Senate Seat”

  1. I like how you use Holbrook and McClurg’s findings to explain turnout. Having a candidate with a clear funding advantage seems to be a common thread in all of our posts this week, so that is definitely an important consideration!

    Liked by 1 person

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