RENO, NEVADA — At a town hall in northern Nevada last week, a Latina union member wore a T-shirt reading: “El lugar de la mujer es en la casa. La Casa Blanca.”
The historic nature of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy has been a central narrative this election year. Less noticed, but perhaps more important to the tens of thousands of immigrant women across Nevada, is that former state attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto is hoping to make history as the first Latina in the Senate.
“My grandfather came from Chihuahua Mexico… and became a U.S. citizen,” she said during a campaign event last week, speaking to a group of students at the University of Nevada, Reno. “Even now I think about what my grandfather would think knowing that his granddaughter was not only the attorney general of the state of Nevada, but now has the potential to be the first Latina ever elected to the United States Senate.”
“It’s not necessarily about making history,” she continued, “but about gaining seats at the table.”
Cortez Masto is fighting this year to gain a seat at that table — a table which has so far accommodated 46 women but no Latinas. In order to make history and replace Sen. Harry Reid (D), she has to beat Rep. Joe Heck (R), who has said he will support Donald Trump even as many fellow Republican Senate candidates are backing away from their party’s nominee.
Not only has Heck refused to disavow Trump, he has also adopted the Republican nominee’s strategy.
Heck’s campaign has labeled her “Corrupt Catherine,” and prominent conservatives in the state have attempted to delegitimize her heritage. Daniel Garza, executive director of the conservative Koch brothers-funded Libre Initiative, recently wrote that Cortez Masto doesn’t deserve the Latino vote, describing her using the word “Latina” in scare quotes.
Former Heck campaign staffers have also joined in on the racist attacks. Tom McAllister, a former political director for Heck’s Senate campaign, tweeted that “Catherine is about as Mexican as I am. It’s relevant when applying for scholarships … or running for #nvsen.” He and another former aide then joked about whether or not Cortez Masto speaks Spanish, claiming that her campaign is “Hispandering at its finest.”
“I think it’s disgusting and it shows the level of attack that they’re willing to go to — character attack, attack of my heritage — to divert from his record, and his record for fighting for minority groups in this state is terrible,” Cortez Masto told ThinkProgress in an interview. “The character assassination and attacking my heritage just fits right in with who he really is.”
Cortez Masto attributes some of this bigotry to the rise of Trump, a candidate who has created an environment in which insulting and degrading others has become commonplace.
“The level of racism and bigotry is so astounding and disgusting, and he’s trying to mainstream it,” she said. “By Congressmen Heck not standing up to that, he’s allowing it to happen.”
The race carries even greater significance with control of the Senate on the line. Whether or not she wins could determine which party can set the legislative agenda for the next two years. Cortez Masto said that one of her priorities, with or without a Democratic majority, would be passing comprehensive immigration reform.
“For me, it’s about helping families and keeping them together and giving them opportunities to succeed, just like my family has had that opportunity,” she said.
“If we elect people who are willing to work together to move forward, it can be done,” she continued. “It also involves getting Hillary Clinton elected to the White House… With a Democratic majority in the Senate and Hillary in the White House, there is a mandate to move forward.”
But two of the biggest opponents of a Democratic-controlled Senate, the Koch brothers, have made it their mission to defeat Cortez Masto. As of the end of August, the two had spent almost $6 million on the race, more than twice what the Heck campaign has spent itself.
As ThinkProgress reported, the Kochs will spend whatever it takes to get revenge on Reid, who has repeatedly called out their “radical agenda.” Using a web of super PACs and dark money groups, they have been able to air ads and run campaigns tarnishing Cortez Masto’s reputation.
“It just shows you how we need to address campaign finance laws and to overturn Citizens United,” she said about their spending.
Particularly concerning to her is the Koch brothers’ Libre Initiative, a self-described free market group that is active in states like Nevada with large Latino populations. One of the group’s ironic ads accuses her of “siding with the special interests funding her campaign.”
“Many people don’t know the truth about these ads because they’re done by super PACs who get to hide who they are and get to come up with some nice little name that sounds like they’re fighting for the very people they’re actually trying to exploit,” she said. “We’ve got to change that.”
While Heck currently holds a slight lead over Cortez Masto in the swing state, Cortez Masto leads him among Latino voters, 58-to-24 percent. Latinos are expected to make up about 20 percent of the electorate.