LAS VEGAS — President Donald Trump won't be on the ballot in November, but he is shaping up to be at the center of two important campaigns in Nevada as Democrats hope to reclaim the governor's mansion for the first time in 20 years and Republicans work to keep a U.S. Senate seat.
With primary races settled in the battleground state Tuesday, Democrats are betting an anti-Trump backlash will carry them to victory in November and are portraying GOP nominees as boosters of Trump, not Nevada — a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
But Nevada Republicans contend that predictions of a "blue wave" are overblown and enthusiasm among their base is strong. They've cast GOP candidates as a guard against California-style liberalism and the potential impeachment of the president.
"They know that I'm the one person standing in the way of their Trump impeachment strategy, tax cut repeals and reinstatement of Obama-era regulations," Nevada GOP Sen. Dean Heller said in a campaign email after his primary win Tuesday night.
His campaign has pointed to efforts of California billionaire Tom Steyer, who is running ads in Nevada and around the country pushing to impeach Trump. Steyer, who is scheduled to hold an impeachment town hall in Reno on Wednesday night, has separately pledged to spend $2 million in Nevada to defeat Heller and state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, the GOP candidate for governor.
Laxalt, who will face Clark County Commission Chair Steve Sisolak, hasn't linked his election to the president but acknowledged in his victory speech Tuesday night that Democrats will make that case.
"They're going to say I'm a puppet for the president. They're already saying that. But Donald Trump did not fail Clark County for decades," he said.
His comments came hours after Trump tweeted his support for Laxalt.
Sisolak, the chairman of a powerful council overseeing the Las Vegas Strip, has repeatedly campaigned on a pledge to stand up to Trump.
The races, which have already started drawing in millions in outside spending, are high stakes battles for both parties.
The governor's race is one of eight targeted in a $20 million effort from the Democratic Governors Association with the hope that governors could improve the party's chances of winning congressional seats. The next governor will have the power to approve or reject Nevada's next congressional maps drawn after the 2020 census —changes that could help set control of Congress for the following decade.
The Senate seat held by Heller is the only one in the country where a GOP incumbent is running in a state that Clinton carried. Democrats face long odds of taking control of the U.S. Senate in November but to do so, they'd need to take Heller's seat while winning elsewhere.
His opponent, U.S. Rep. Jacky Rosen, calls Heller a "rubber stamp" for the president.
"The outcome of this race could decide the future of everything from Obamacare and Medicare to the Supreme Court," she said in a campaign email to supporters Wednesday.
The swing state was a standout for Democratic victories in 2016 and the party has more registered voters than Republicans.
Democrats are also favored by a historical pattern of the president's party losing seats in a midterm — but they must also contend with turnout rates that tend to lag behind Republicans in non-presidential election years.
Heller, a past critic of Trump, has turned the president into a political ally. Trump, in turn, gifted him a huge favor in March by persuading Heller's main primary challenger to drop out.
The senator estimated Trump's move saved him $3 million to $5 million in campaign funds that he would have had to spend fighting off the challenge. Instead, he's got $5 million ready for the general election battle, according to his most recent fundraising reports.
Rosen, a former computer programmer and synagogue president, reported having about half that amount, though she's been bringing in more money in recent months than Heller. The first-term congresswoman from southern Nevada isn't as well-known as Heller and will have to work to boost her name recognition outside the Las Vegas metropolitan area.
Republicans are likewise well-financed in the governor's race.
Laxalt, the grandson of former U.S. Sen. and Nevada Gov. Paul Laxalt and son of former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, breezed through his primary battle with more than $4 million on hand in his campaign account.
The 39-year-old U.S. Navy lieutenant is backed in his bid for governor by billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson and Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group funded by the wealthy Koch brothers.
Sisolak, meanwhile, spent more than $5 million to overcome a bruising primary against his Clark County Commission colleague Christina Giunchigliani, who pushed him to the left.
Giunchigliani said in her concession speech that she'd work to help Sisolak defeat Laxalt, but pledged to hold the Democrat to the positions he took in the campaign, including a vow to fight the National Rifle Association.
"You think you're progressive? You damn well better be progressive," she said.