One of Senate Democrats' biggest challenges moving forward is to recruit candidates who better reflect their diverse political coalition. It's a glaring contradiction for a party that depends on African-American turnout, Hispanic support, and a growing gender gap to be represented by mostly white men in the upper chamber. There's only one African-American Democrat in the Senate (Cory Booker), and the party's sole Hispanic senator (Robert Menendez) could be pressured to resign amid allegations of ethical misconduct and a possible indictment.
For all the flak Republicans receive over being a party dependent on white voters, the GOP has done a better job of recruiting and promoting strong minority candidates to the top.
That disconnect will be on Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's mind as he looks to anoint a successor for his diverse, battleground-state seat. One of the early favorites is shaping up to be former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, a rising star in the party, who has maintained close ties to Reid. She reportedly was his favored choice in the state's open 2012 Senate race, but she ended up deferring to then-Rep. Shelley Berkley—one of the few Democratic recruits to lose a contested race that year. In an interview on KNPR Friday, Reid said he'd support Masto if she runs. "Whoever runs against Catherine, I think, will be a loser," Reid told the station.
After Masto, the Democratic bench isn't particularly deep in Nevada. Another name Democrats are floating is former Rep. Steven Horsford, one of the few African-American Democrats who represented a majority-white House seat for one term in Congress. But he suffered an embarrassing defeat in 2014—losing a district where President Obama won 54 percent of the vote—and recently accepted a job at R&R Partners, a consulting firm based in Las Vegas and Washington. Former Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller, once considered a rising Democratic star, also saw his stock drop after losing a race for attorney general in 2014.
The opportunity for increased diversity in the Senate Democratic ranks is growing. California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who is biracial, is the heavy favorite to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, who is leaning toward running against Sen. Mark Kirk in Illinois, is the daughter of a Vietnam veteran father and a Thai mother. Rep. Donna Edwards, running in an open seat primary against Rep. Chris Van Hollen in Maryland, would add to the Senate Democrats' African-American ranks if she won. It's no coincidence that many of the party's top recruits are women.
In Nevada, Democrats expect Reid to try to clear the field for a favored candidate, something he's been very successful at doing in recent Senate elections. (Notably, he has not been quite as effective this year). And rallying Hispanic turnout in Nevada has been a top priority for Reid ahead of 2016. President Obama traveled to Las Vegas and stood next to Reid to announce his executive order granting legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants. In 2010, Reid's political operation turned out Hispanic voters masterfully, helping him to overcome weak approval ratings and a terrible political climate to win reelection. Meanwhile, the prime reason for the state's GOP landslide in the 2014 midterms was the dismal turnout from the state's Hispanic voters, who overwhelmingly support Democrats.
Tthe Republican dream candidate is current Gov. Brian Sandoval, one of the GOP's two Hispanic governors. He won reelection with 70 percent of the vote last year, but he holds no interest in running for the Senate. Reid's retirement is unlikely to change the governor's calculus. The four most likely GOP contenders are Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, state Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson, former Sandoval chief of staff Heidi Gansert, and former Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, according to a senior GOP official. The Cook Political Report now rates the race, in one of the biggest presidential battlegrounds for 2016, as a toss-up.
It's an open question how much of the diverse Democratic base in Nevada will turn out next year without Obama or Reid at the top of the ticket. Many assume that Hillary Clinton will hold similar appeal to Hispanics, and she'll have plenty of lead time to build a strong get-out-the-vote in the state. But at a time when identity drives so much of Democrats' political appeal, having a compelling female Hispanic candidate at the top of the ticket would make a difference. It's surely a major factor for Reid, the consummate political strategist, as he makes his way out of Washington.