NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. — As Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada took the stage at a high school here this week, she was fighting for her political life.

Her re-election bid is seen by many as the tightest Senate race in the country. Republicans are throwing money and energy behind her challenger, Adam Laxalt, a political scion who, like Ms. Cortez Masto, is a former Nevada attorney general.

Neither candidate could be called an electric campaigner, and Ms. Cortez Masto had a difficult slot that evening: shortly after John Legend and right before Barack Obama.

After the appearance by Mr. Legend — who recently wrapped up a Las Vegas residency and played a couple of songs on a piano for an adoring audience — Ms. Cortez Masto spoke about how her grandfather was “a baker from Chihuahua” and how, before her, “there had never been a Latina elected to the U.S. Senate.”

Her biographical bullet points were politely received. Then Mr. Obama took the stage and offered a reminder that his party has still not found a successor to match his charisma.

To raucous applause, he hammered home Ms. Cortez Masto’s personal history in his inimitable cadences: “Third-generation Nevadan. Grew up here in Vegas. Dad started out parking cars at the Dunes,” he said, referring to a defunct casino where Ms. Cortez Masto’s father once worked. “She knows what it’s like to struggle and work hard.”

Democrats are sending star figures to Nevada as both parties pour money into a political fight that could decide the balance of power in the Senate. The race was the most expensive political contest in Nevada history even before an $80 million splurge over the last month brought total ad spending to $176 million, according to AdImpact, a media-tracking firm. A recent New York Times/Siena College poll showed the candidates deadlocked at 47 percent each; Mr. Laxalt had a comfortable lead among men, while Ms. Cortez Masto was likewise leading among women.

And increasingly, the campaign seems to be one of economics versus abortion.

Democrats are battering Mr. Laxalt over his anti-abortion stance, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Nevada allows abortion up to 24 weeks, and after that in cases where the mother’s health is at risk. Mr. Laxalt has said he would support banning abortions in the state after 13 weeks, or the first trimester.

One commercial broadcast Tuesday morning, paid for by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, featured a Nevada woman assailing his abortion position, saying: “I take it incredibly personally that Adam Laxalt is working to take away the rights of my daughters.” Another spot, from the Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC, includes audio of Mr. Laxalt saying during a breakfast with pastors that “Roe v. Wade was always a joke.”

Ms. Cortez Masto returned to the topic on Tuesday night: “We know we can’t trust Laxalt when it comes to a woman’s right to choose,” she told the crowd. “This is a man who called Roe vs. Wade a joke, and he celebrated when it was overturned.”

So often has Mr. Laxalt been attacked on abortion that he felt compelled to write an opinion column in The Reno Gazette-Journal in August “setting the record straight” on his position. He explained that when he said Roe was “a joke,” it was “a shorthand way of saying that the decision had no basis in the text of the Constitution.”

Republican groups and the Laxalt campaign are generally focusing on the economy. Nevada has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and some of the highest gas prices, and a tourism-driven economy that was hit hard by the pandemic.

“Inflation isn’t going away,” a narrator says in a Laxalt commercial running this week. “Gas and groceries are too expensive.” Another pro-Laxalt ad features a picture of Ms. Cortez Masto superimposed next to Speaker Nancy Pelosi as both are showered in cash. The spot, from the Senate Leadership Fund — the political action committee of Senate Republicans — makes the case that “Costly Catherine” is a high-spending Democrat.

Rory McShane, a Republican political consultant who is working on other races in the state, believes the current dynamic favors Republicans.

“You see in the polling that the economy is trumping abortion,” he said in an interview. “I don’t think anything’s stronger than the economy,” he added. “You don’t have to run TV ads to tell people how bad the economy is.”

Kenneth Miller, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the Democratic strategy “poses a risk.”

“Abortion is very important to a big segment of the electorate, but that also means there are large segments of the electorate that don’t particularly care about abortion either way,” he said. “They may have a pro-choice or pro-life position, but it’s not what drives them to make their vote choice or drives them to turn out.”

Mr. Laxalt’s saber-rattling on the economy, however, has plenty of skeptics. Nevada’s largest union, the 60,000-strong Culinary Workers, has sent members — cooks, cleaners, food servers — door to door to make the case for Ms. Cortez Masto and other Democratic candidates. More than half of the union’s members are Latinos, a group Mr. Laxalt has courted in Spanish-language commercials.

Ted Pappageorge, the union’s secretary-treasurer, said in an interview that Ms. Cortez Masto had been an important ally on pocketbook concerns for union members, including expanding health benefits for workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic.

“In 2020, we knocked on 650,000 doors statewide, and that was in the middle of Covid,” he said. “This year, in a midterm, we’re going to hit a million doors, and if we hit those doors, we’re going to win.”

Few dispute the importance of the contest.

“This race is the 51st seat,” Mr. Laxalt said this summer. “The entire U.S. Senate will hinge on this race.” He was speaking at the Basque Fry, a Republican event started by his grandfather, former Senator Paul Laxalt, whose family hailed from the Basque region straddling France and Spain. Mr. Laxalt is also the son of another former senator, Pete Domenici.

Mr. Laxalt has been a divisive politician. He parroted Donald J. Trump’s false claims of widespread election fraud when he served as the chairman of the former president’s 2020 campaign in Nevada. When he was attorney general, he was caught on a secret recording in which he pressured state gambling regulators on behalf of a major donor, Sheldon Adelson.

And Mr. Laxalt’s bid to follow his forebears into the Senate has been fractious. Fourteen of his relatives have come out against him and thrown their support to Ms. Cortez Masto, calling her in a joint statement “a model of the ‘Nevada grit’ that we so often use to describe our Nevada forefathers.”

Mr. Obama seized on the episode in his remarks on Tuesday night. “We all might have a crazy uncle, the kind who goes off the rails, but if you’ve got a full Thanksgiving dinner table, and they’re all saying you don’t belong in the U.S. Senate?” he said. “When the people who know you the best think your opponent would do a better job, that says something about you.”

In his own closing argument, Mr. Laxalt, who served in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps in the Navy, has tried to link Ms. Cortez Masto to President Biden, who polls show is unpopular in the state.

“Her record is, she supported Joe Biden every step of the way,” he said at a recent campaign stop, according to Roll Call. “That’s why she doesn’t want Joe Biden to come here, because then she’s going to have to actually stand next to him and stand next to her voting record.”

Ms. Cortez Masto is a protégé of Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader who built a formidable political machine in the state and died last year. “She’s a workhorse, not a show horse,” Mr. Miller said, adding that in a typical year, a moderate like her “should be able to win a race like this by five points, but national conditions are a serious headwind.”

Abortion has certainly not been her only issue. She has depicted Mr. Laxalt as a child of privilege in a “Succession”-style video and has put out commercials accusing him of being captive to big oil companies, in part because as state attorney general, he worked to thwart an investigation into Exxon Mobil over its climate policies.

But abortion has been the most constant weapon for her and her surrogates.

“Catherine’s opponent calls Roe vs. Wade a joke, and the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe a historic victory,” Mr. Obama said on Tuesday. “That may not be how most women in Nevada saw it.”

The post Nevada’s Costly, Photo-Finish Senate Race Pits Abortion vs. Economy appeared first on New York Times.

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