Unless you’ve been following this website and our obsession with vice presidential picks, you’re probably not very familiar with Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto. Cortez Masto’s name started to make headlines after Joe Biden made a pledge to select a woman as his running mate, but she was still largely overshadowed by more widely-known senators like Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, or Kamala Harris of California — all of whom, of course, ran in the primary against Biden for the Democratic nomination.
Cortez Masto’s relegation to the second tier of vice presidential hopefuls is somewhat odd. We’ve talked before about how infrequently nominees choose someone who ran against them in the primary, which should make the assumption that Biden’s former rivals would be so high on his list historically unusual.1It has occurred in only three of the last fifteen open presidential tickets: Reagan-Bush, Kerry-Edwards, and Obama-Biden. Warren’s Massachusetts and Harris’ California are also solidly Democratic voting states in presidential elections, which makes them less compelling in a competition at the margin for a select number of swing states. And while potential vice presidential choices like Harris or former UN Ambassador Susan Rice are women of color, and may add diversity to the ticket representative of the Democratic Party at large, Warren and Klobuchar are not. Warren’s base of college-educated voters and former Georgia House of Representatives Minority Leader Stacey Abrams’ appeal to African-American voters don’t complement the ticket well, as Biden has already demonstrated he is well poised to win these voters. However, Biden does have weaknesses among young voters and Latino voters, two vulnerabilities that played out in his primary loses in California, Colorado, and, yes, Nevada. Cortez Masto is the first Latina Senator from a state that is likely to be closer than most expect, from a region that is increasingly competitive for Democrats, and unmarred by a gruelling primary. Her name is ripe for the shortlist, and yet, on May 28th, she withdrew her name from consideration.
This may not be entirely surprising, as Nevada, whose largely service and tourism-based economy relies heavily on the service and tourism sectors, has suffered disproportionately from the coronavirus, and may never return to what it was. Cortez Masto said as much in justifying her decision, noting that “Nevada’s economy is one of the hardest hit by the current crisis and I will continue to focus on getting Nevadans the support they need to get back on their feet.”
We’ve highlighted Cortez Masto several times over the course of the primary as an incredibly strong running mate for Biden, and she has consistently ranked in the top five picks overall. She brings a combination of federal experience and state experience, having served as Nevada’s senator since 2017 and its attorney General for eight years prior, and has also demonstrated an ability to lead as a key Democrat in the Senate, currently serving as the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Her close relationship with former Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid — whose Senate seat she now holds — and her record of seeking accountability from financial institutions in the follow-up to the mortgage crisis are both huge assets for Biden.
Cortez Masto holds credibility on environmental issues, women’s issues, and was an outspoken advocate for increased gun control after the Las Vegas shooting in 2017. She is a vocal member of the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee and has routinely criticized and challenged the Trump administration’s housing policies. Perhaps most beneficial for Biden though is her record on immigration issues, as she has been persistent in calls to repair the immigration system that can appease both advocates for immigration justice and moderate voters. She has championed immigrant health workers and recommended pragmatic immigration actions during the coronavirus crisis, making a positive case for how improved immigration policies and immigrants themselves can help during the health crisis. By speaking out on these issues but never rising to the spotlight of contemporaries like Kamala Harris (who was elected to the Senate at the same time), Cortez Masto has cultivated a reputation untainted by national politics or ambition, tuned into the Democratic mainstream, and maintained a track record of governing and advocating instead of campaigning. At the time of her campaign for the Senate in 2016, Latino Victory Fund president Cristobal Alex noted, “She represents the future of the country, she’s incredibly brilliant, has a great story… in a state where, really, Latinos will make the difference in the election.” It’s worth noting that Alex is now a senior advisor to Biden’s campaign, and Biden is eager to make inroads with Latino voters in the general election and compete in Sun Belt and heavily-Latino states like Nevada, Arizona, Texas, and Florida. Cortez Masto could have been a significant electoral partner.
Cortez Masto’s avoidance of this year’s contentious primary is also helpful, as her understated record in hunkering down and working on issues is a benefit that is easy to overlook. Other vice presidential front-runners represent uncompetitive states and have made bruising statements about Biden, lack regional strength, and could even cost Democrats a Senate seat, or have records that may be uninspiring or even alienating to many voters. Cortez Masto is one of the few candidates who had relatively few electoral trade-offs; she would have been a steady, representative, and responsible pick, able to elevate the ticket and bring complementary strengths to Biden.
Catherine Cortez Masto is also, most importantly, qualified to be president, having served two decades worth of public service at every level of government. Descendants of immigrants, her family became key players in Las Vegas politics, and her father sat on the Clark County Commission and eventually served as the president of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, markedly improving the Las Vegas strip. Her exposure to prominent Nevada Democratic politics and politicians inspired her to pursue public service herself. She served as Chief of Staff to Nevada Governor Bob Miller, as Assistant County Manager in Clark County and as a federal criminal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in DC before serving as Attorney General for the State of Nevada. This range of hands on, managerial, operational, and now legislative roles at both the larger federal level and in the intimate politics of a smaller state like Nevada showcase a background, wide-ranging expertise, and adaptability that the vice presidency and the presidency require. Her tact and resolve during congressional hearings demonstrate a seriousness and insight on the issues that rivals more visible colleagues like Elizabeth Warren, while appealing to a wide range of Americans outside of the wonkish niche that Warren embodies.
Her withdrawal from consideration is a shame, because her political, personal, and professional strengths make for a vice presidential pick that would have been both historic and competitive. And while the citizens of Nevada are fortunate to have an advocate for them with the attentiveness and insight that she has, the nation is weaker for her withdrawal from presidential politics.