Catherine Cortez Masto has already made history: She’s the first woman elected to the Senate from Nevada, and the first Latina senator, ever.
Now she’s ready to add another honorific: Majority maker.
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The former state attorney general is preparing to lead the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee into its third consecutive attempt to wrest the majority from Mitch McConnell’s Republicans. And Democrats hope that this time, they’ll find success by replicating the party’s strategy in Nevada on a national scale.
“Nevada, if you really look at the demographics, is a microcosm of the rest of the country,” Cortez Masto said in an interview this month, touting the cultural and economic diversity of her state. “If you are able to get in and talk and go into those communities and talk to people of all walks of life and be successful because you’re going to advocate on their issues, then that can be replicated in other communities across the country.”
The first-term senator readily concedes there’s little chance Democrats can recreate the vaunted political machine built in the state by her predecessor, former Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
But the 54-year-old Cortez Masto said her party can still steal from the blueprint used to win in what was once a classic swing state turned increasingly blue. Democrats, she advises, should be venturing to more rural conservative areas, stoking turnout among reliable Democratic voters, focusing on policy — not just President Donald Trump — and engaging in the old-school retail politicking that’s gotten less and less emphasis amid a digital-first focus on national messaging.
Democrats will need more than that to recapture the majority against a handful of tough GOP incumbents, several of whom toppled sitting Democratic senators in 2014. Some of those seats, which Democrats controlled for several electoral cycles but lost four years ago, don’t appear competitive at this stage: Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia.
But Cortez Masto is conceding nothing. She said her party is full of energy in the Trump era and that the gut punch of 2014 — when the party lost nine seats and fell into a hole it’s still not been able to climb out of — is far behind them.
“The challenge we had is nobody came out,” she said of the 2014 wipeout. “It won’t happen in a presidential election. Definitely not.”
The matchup between Cortez Masto and her GOP counterpart, Todd Young of Indiana, demonstrates that the job of campaign arm chairman is increasingly falling to younger members looking to make a name for themselves.
And the Nevada Democrat has mostly kept her head down in her two years in the Senate, shying away from taking the lead on messaging for the party but quietly plowing into the behind-the-scenes political work that helped ready her for her new gig.
Cortez Masto chaired the Women’s Senate Network in the 2018 cycle, raising $5.2 million and hosting 25 events for Democratic women candidates, as well as raising $2 million for Nevada Democrats. She also campaigned and raised money for nine Democratic candidates, some of whom were big success stories like Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona and Jacky Rosen in Nevada, and some of whom were ousted like Claire McCaskill (Missouri), Bill Nelson (Florida) and Joe Donnelly (Indiana).
Yet the fact that the reliably liberal Democrat was welcomed in conservative and battleground states demonstrates why her party is excited for her to take over the committee as the second female campaign chairman.
“She did a wonderful job this year,” said Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, the most vulnerable Democratic senator. “She did yeoman’s work trying to get Democrats elected.”
Jones’ political future must be top of mind for her. If Democrats can win the presidency in 2020, they will need to pick up at least three seats to seize the majority, and if Jones loses, that number would rise to four. That’s a tough political equation when there are no easy wins: The Democratic target list includes Cory Gardner in Colorado, Thom Tillis in North Carolina, Joni Ernst in Iowa, Susan Collins in Maine and an open Arizona seat. Everything after that gets much more difficult.
“Obviously, Doug Jones is going to be key,” Cortez Masto said of the party’s plans to compete for the Senate majority. “I think there’s a good shot, of course, otherwise I wouldn’t take this on.”
The other Democratic incumbent whom Cortez Masto’s new job will involve protecting, Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, isn’t running in as conservative a state as Jones but is nonetheless likely to face a well-funded GOP foe.
And Republicans say Democrats like Cortez Masto are misreading the electorate.
“There’s a number of hypotheses why we’re looking toward a future that is more Republican,” Young declared of the Senate’s composition, arguing that Democrats have had to write off much of the territory they used to contest in the middle of the country. “I do think we’ve got a great chance of holding onto the majority for years to come.”
To prove that GOP optimism is misplaced, the DSCC will have to focus on recruiting strong challengers who can cut into the existing appeal of incumbents like Gardner and Ernst.
Cortez Masto demurred when asked whether it’s time for Democrats to look to fresher faces than veteran elected officials like former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, who lost his Senate race this fall, and other unsuccessful candidates like former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, former Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana and former Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.
She indicated that she wouldn’t be making those final calls alone. Since becoming leader, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has kept a tight grip on the DSCC and is highly involved in the organization, according to senators and aides.
“I welcome Leader Schumer and others who are going to be, rightfully so, weighing in on that,” Cortez Masto said.
Schumer, of course, is a former DSCC chairman himself, who spearheaded the party’s last successful climb back to the majority in 2006. And the last DSCC chairman to end the cycle with the party in the majority was Patty Murray of Washington. She’s now the No. 3 in party leadership — a reminder that success at the DSCC will help open plenty of doors for Cortez Masto if she can help make Schumer majority leader.
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.