LAS VEGAS — Russ Wheeler bears the financial scars of Nevada’s lost decade, and he hopes Donald Trump can heal them.
He worked for a Las Vegas roofing company when the real estate bust crushed the state’s economy. He took two pay cuts before getting laid off. He had to commute into the California desert to find work after that.
Wheeler considers himself one of the lucky ones. He was able to build up enough savings to retire, but even now his wife had her teaching hours reduced at a community college, dramatically reducing their household’s income.
“It’ll be better with Trump because he’ll bring the jobs back,” Wheeler, 66, said as he stopped by a Republican Party office to scoop up some “Make America Great Again” yard signs and bumper stickers. “Everybody I know is a Trump supporter. He resonates well in Nevada.”
Nevada is the most diverse battleground state. On paper, it should be secure for Democrats. But there are enough people like Wheeler, still rattled by the recession and frustrated about other things, to make it one of Trump’s best swing states.
Democrats and Republicans agree that the state’s competitiveness is not just a quirk of public polling, which has a spotty track record in Nevada, but is reflected in private surveys, the tightness of Nevada’s races for the U.S. Senate and House, and the observations of seasoned political operatives.
“Nevada’s a picture of where the country’s at,” said Yvanna Cancela, political director of the Culinary Union, which represents nearly 60,000, mostly immigrant workers in casinos and hotels on the Strip. “It’s increasingly diverse but the ideas of nationalism, open borders are very much at play here.”
The economy has recovered since the recession. The unemployment rate is down to 6.5 percent from 13.7 percent in 2010. While home prices have doubled since 2012, they are well below their 2007 peak, and many Las Vegas residents live in subdivisions dotted with still-unoccupied houses.
Nevada also has one of the lowest rates of college education in the country, with only 23 percent of its population having graduated college, giving Trump a reservoir of noncollege graduates that traditionally form his base. And the state’s anti-establishment streak and rebellious culture may prove a good fit for the brash New York developer and reality show star.
“In Nevada, we have this mindset of it’s us versus the world,” said Charles Munoz, Trump’s state director. “It’s the perfect storm of policy and messaging.”
The stakes in Nevada go beyond the state’s six electoral votes in the presidential election. The race for retiring Democratic Sen. Harry Reid’s seat pits his hand-picked successor, former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, against U.S. Rep. Joe Heck. Two of the state’s four U.S. House seats are also in play.
The state has become a presidential bellwether, voting for the winning candidate in every election since 1980. But its partisan divides have hardened as an influx of immigrants has helped fuel Las Vegas’ boom and pull political power from the more rural and conservative northern part of the state.
“When I first moved here in 1974, you could barely tell the Republicans and the Democrats apart,” said Donna West, 59, who was working a phone bank for Clinton one recent night. “Now there are huge differences.”
Those differences provide Clinton with plenty of advantages in the state.
Democrats have a formidable Nevada ground game, with 70,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans to date. It’s a gap similar to that in 2012, when President Barack Obama won the state by 6 percentage points. Clinton has targeted the state for more than a year, announcing her immigration policy there in 2015 to appeal to Nevada’s growing numbers of Latinos and Asian-Americans. The state is 51 percent white, though whites comprised two-thirds of the 2012 electorate, according to census data.
“We know that we have the votes, we just have to turn them out,” said Clinton state director Jorge Neri, who has a view of Trump’s Las Vegas hotel from his office in the Clinton campaign’s headquarters.
That hotel, rising just off the Strip and surrounded by a sea of stucco, Asian markets and adult video stores, has been engaged in a battle with the Culinary Union, which organized more than 500 of its workers. The hotel refused to recognize the union until the National Labor Relations Board forced it to do so in April. Now the union complains the hotel won’t negotiate a contract and has sent housekeepers and bartenders there to picket Trump rallies nationwide.
Democrats think the union battle can convince Nevadans that Trump’s populism is phony and he actually hurts workers. “For some people in the country it may seem like a distant thing, but this is in our backyard,” Neri said.
The Trump campaign sees the hotel as a net positive. “Trump has invested in this state while Hillary Clinton hasn’t,” Munoz said.
On Friday, Trump met at the hotel with about two dozen Latino supporters, Republican leaders and campaign staffers, and asserted: “People don’t know how well we’re doing with the Hispanics, the Latinos. We’re doing really well.”