CNN  — 

When former President Donald Trump touched down in Minden, Nevada, on Saturday to campaign for a slate of Republican candidates, he landed in a town of just under 3,500 people – about 0.1% of the state’s population.

It’s a tiny stop for the former President, who rode stronger-than-expected turnout in rural stretches of the country like Minden to the White House in 2016. But it highlights just how important rural counties are to Nevada Republicans such as Senate nominee Adam Laxalt and gubernatorial hopeful Joe Lombardo in the critical midterm elections.

“We believe that rural Nevada is the key to turning our state back,” Laxalt said during a stop late last year in Winnemucca, a mining town of under 8,000 people in northern Humboldt County.

Nevada, which Trump lost twice, represents one of the biggest tests for Democratic power in the 2022 midterms. The party holds all but one statewide office in Nevada, and Democratic presidential nominees have carried the state in every election since 2008, buoyed by the strength of the late Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid’s so-called Reid Machine. But those Democratic margins have been declining and after closures around the coronavirus pandemic dramatically affected Nevada’s tourism-centric economy, Republicans see a strong chance to make gains in the state, hanging their hopes on Lombardo’s bid to unseat Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak and Laxalt’s challenge to Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.

A CNN poll released on Thursday found no clear leader in either race: Laxalt and Lombardo had the support of 48% of likely voters compared with 46% for Cortez Masto and Sisolak.

The same poll was littered with warning signs for Democrats. Forty-four percent of registered Nevada voters said the country would be better off if Republicans are in control of Congress, compared with 35% who said it wouldn’t be. More Republican voters in Nevada said they were extremely motivated to vote – 62% versus 52% for Democrats. And 41% of voters said the economy was the most important issue in the midterms, something Republicans have used to hammer Democrats.

Nevada has been home to one of the most dramatic and politically important urban-rural divides in recent years. And that split could prove even more pivotal in November, given the tightness of the Senate and gubernatorial contests.

Rural voters make up a tiny fraction of Nevada’s electorate, with the state’s major urban centers – Clark County, home to Las Vegas, and Washoe County, home to Reno – making up nearly 90% of Nevada’s population of some 3.1 million. According to a study by Iowa State University, Nevada’s rural population fell from nearly 20% of the state in 1970 to less than 6% in 2010.

The urbanization of Nevada has long allowed Democratic candidates in the state to run on one strategy: Run up the vote total around Las Vegas, win narrowly or at least stay competitive in the Reno area and lose big in rural Nevada. Cortez Masto, the first Latina elected to the Senate, followed this strategy in 2016 when she lost every Nevada county, except Clark, but still won a first term by over 2 points.

In recent years, that strategy paid even greater dividends as Washoe County, the second largest in the state, has tilted toward Democrats. Democratic presidential candidates have carried Washoe County in the last four presidential elections, while Sisolak and the state’s junior senator, Jacky Rosen, both won the county in 2018.

That has put more pressure on Nevada Republicans to not only close the gap in Clark and Washoe counties but to also boost as much turnout as possible in rural areas.

Whether that “rural first” strategy can even lead to wins any more is an open question, according to David Damore, a political science professor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“It’s a huge part of the Republican playbook, but every year it is smaller and smaller,” he said of GOP attempts to turn out rural voters. “It’s all about cutting the margin in Clark. What has happened is, even though Trump did that last time, Washoe is becoming more liberal. … It is a little bit of a whack-a-mole game for Republicans.”

Testing the strategy

Laxalt knows the pressure he faces firsthand. When he successfully ran for state attorney general in 2014, he became the only statewide candidate in recent decades to lose both Clark and Washoe counties but win the election when he narrowly defeated Democrat Ross Miller.

Laxalt did what a statewide Republican candidate needed do in Nevada in that race: He kept the margins down in Clark and Washoe – losing the former by less than 6 points and the latter by 1 point – and posted strong margins across the rest of the state.

Laxalt also knows it’s not a perfect strategy. Nevada’s increased urbanization has put a strain on that rural-focused strategy as evidenced by Laxalt’s 4-point loss to Sisolak in 2018. In that race, Laxalt once again lost both Clark and Washoe, but this time by wider margins, including losing the Las Vegas area by nearly 14 points.

Laxalt, on multiple tours through rural Nevada during his Senate campaign, has stressed the area’s importance to his success. At the same time, he’s had to walk a fine line between raising false claims about the validity of the 2020 election, including Republican concerns about vote-counting in Clark County, and the need to boost rural turnout. Laxalt has done so by raising baseless questions about Clark County elections while stressing to rural voters that their votes matter.

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  • “In the end of the day, rural Nevada can provide 75,000-vote cushions, so rural Nevada still matters,” he told an audience in Fallon in late 2021. “Rural Nevada is discouraged. They think Vegas is all that matters. Not true. The vote block out of rural Nevada still makes a huge difference.”

    Brian Freimuth, a spokesman for Laxalt, said in a statement that the Republican’s effort “is the most well-traveled campaign in the state” and has “hosted events in every rural county, dozens of rural meet & greets, a cattle drive, and events with ranchers and farmers.”

    “Rural Nevadans know that Adam’s record on water rights, the second amendment, sage grouse, and fighting federal overreach make him the best candidate in this race,” said Freimuth.

    Cortez Masto, arguably the most vulnerable Democratic Senate incumbent in the country, has focused much of her campaign on tying Laxalt to Trump. Laxalt, who was a co-chair of Trump’s 2020 campaign in Nevada, was central to filing election lawsuits seeking to overturn the presidential result in the state, which Biden won by 2 points. Those lawsuits did not change the election result.

    Cortez Masto has also looked to cut into Laxalt’s advantage in rural areas.

    A former state attorney general herself, she embarked on a rural tour of Nevada in August, campaigning in communities such as Ely, Elko, Winnemucca and Fallon – all with populations of less than 20,000 people.

    “When I became your US senator, it was just as important to me to get out and talk to Nevadans, because here’s the deal: To me, it is about all of us succeeding and that rising tide lifting all of us,” she said in Ely. “At the end of the day, your party affiliation, your background is about making sure your families are successful, your businesses are successful, we’re all in this together.”

    Cortez Masto has been endorsed by several rural Republican leaders, such as former Winnemucca Mayor Di An Putnam and Ely Mayor Nathan Robertson, who said in a statement that the incumbent will “continue working hard in the Senate to champion issues important to all rural Nevadans.”

    In response to a question from CNN about Trump rallying with Laxalt in rural Nevada, Cortez Masto spokesman Josh Marcus-Blank said, “No one did more to overturn the 2020 election for Donald Trump than Adam Laxalt, and he is once again being rewarded.”