HENDERSON, Nev.—If the midterm election a year from now follows tradition and is a referendum on the president, then there are cautionary signs for Democrats in this Las Vegas suburb filled with strip malls, casino workers and retirees that sprawls into the desert.
Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes this economically mixed community of about 320,000 people, was the nation’s most competitive on average over the past three presidential elections. Former President Barack Obama won it by eight-tenths of a point in 2012; former President Donald Trump carried it by one point in 2016; and President Biden won it in 2020 by two-tenths of a point.
Interviews with more than two dozen district voters show feelings are running only lukewarm or quite cold when it comes to Mr. Biden. Residents expressed exhaustion with the coronavirus pandemic, concern about rising prices, worries about illegal immigration and wariness of increased federal spending proposed by Democrats in Washington.
“It scares me because I don’t know where all this money will come from,” said Trung Lam, a 45-year-old limousine driver and Vietnamese immigrant who voted for Mr. Biden. “It’s great to help people, but someone has to pay the bill.”
Narrowly divided suburban districts are expected to play a crucial role in the midterms, contests that traditionally favor the party that doesn’t control the White House. Nevada’s 3rd District encapsulates the headwinds faced by the party that now runs Washington.
Democrats were handed an early warning last week that their recent suburban strength may have waned. In two states Mr. Biden easily won in 2020, the party lost the Virginia governor’s race and the incumbent New Jersey governor only narrowly beat a GOP challenger.
Carol Conslato, a 64-year-old retiree who worked in the utility industry, also expressed concern about federal spending and inflation.
“They are getting way too progressive in spending,” said Ms. Conslato, who backed Mr. Trump in 2020 and considers herself an independent voter. “Everything is already going up in cost, but don’t encourage it with more government spending.”
Democrats are feeling vulnerable in part because Mr. Biden’s approval rating has fallen significantly since the summer. He is at 42% in Gallup polling, lower at this point of his tenure than all but one predecessor going back to Dwight Eisenhower in 1953. Mr. Trump was at 37% in October 2017 ahead of the GOP suffering significant losses in the 2018 midterms.
As both parties prepare for next November, Republicans have history on their side. In post-World War II America, the party controlling the White House has lost, on average, 28 House seats in the first midterm of a new presidency, according to data compiled by the American Presidency Project.
Rep. Susie Lee, the congresswoman for the 3rd District since 2019, is one of 70 House Democrats being targeted by national Republicans. She won the district by three points in 2020, a narrower victory than in her first bid in 2018 amid lower turnout.
Ms. Lee said she expects Mr. Biden’s polling and her party’s midterm prospects will improve if Congress can pass the president’s legislative agenda, including the $1.85 trillion social safety net and green energy package the White House has branded Build Back Better.
“Last night was a blaring siren for Democrats to pass the bipartisan infrastructure package and get this Build Back Better Act across the finish line,” she said in an interview the morning after the elections in Virginia and New Jersey.
William McCurdy II, a Clark County commissioner who recently served as chairman of the state’s Democratic Party, said he also expects the party’s prospects will improve if some of the president’s agenda is passed. Mr. Biden scored a win late last week when the House passed a roughly $1 trillion infrastructure bill that had been approved by the Senate in August.
“You can never go wrong on delivering on the issues that were talked about in the last election,” Mr. McCurdy said. “People are focused on tabletop issues and there is a lot of uncertainty about the future for the next generation.”
A mid-September poll conducted for the Nevada Independent showed nearly even results for Mr. Biden’s favorability among the state’s voters, with 48% viewing him positively and 49% negatively.
While Nevada Democrats who control the process have yet to make public new district boundaries following the 2020 census, political observers in the state expect the 3rd District to remain competitive, even as it sheds some of its growing population to other districts.
“It is still probably going to be a tossup,” said political strategist Zachary Moyle, a former executive director of the Nevada Republican Party. “It’s what a working-class, middle-class America looks like.”
Nevada, which also hosts a key Senate race in 2022, has also been competitive statewide in recent presidential elections. Mr. Biden’s 2.4-percentage-point victory in 2020 was the sixth-slimmest margin in the nation.
While Nevada’s 3rd District has some peculiarities because of its proximity to Las Vegas, which tourists and others often call Sin City, it is still something of a microcosm for the nation. The district is slightly more racially and ethnically diverse than the nation overall.
“We are a melting pot,” said Angela Caruso, a 40-year-old Republican in Henderson. “People come for work, retirement and—once upon a time—because it was affordable.”
The mother of four, who works full time at a plasma center and part time in several other jobs, said she worries about “socialism becoming a reality here” and thinks Mr. Biden went too far in calling for a vaccination mandate for businesses with 100 or more workers.
“Democrats are all about choice for abortion, but they are complete hypocrites when it comes to what goes in your body,” said Ms. Caruso, who nonetheless supports vaccinations to protect against Covid-19.
While the district sprawls across more than 2,800 square miles, its population is heavily concentrated in suburbs south and west of Las Vegas. The geography includes some of the state’s wealthiest communities as well as struggling neighborhoods.
The region was hit especially hard by the pandemic because of its dependence on tourism. As conventioneers and tourists return, unemployment in the Las Vegas metropolitan area has dropped to 7.4%.
Rick Fimple, a casino worker in his early 50s, said his employer paid his salary even when he didn’t work for close to three months because of lockdowns. After cashing his multiple federal stimulus payments, he said the pandemic was good for his finances.
Mr. Fimple, an independent voter who backed Mr. Trump and lives about 10 miles southwest of the Strip, couldn’t muster anything positive to say about Mr. Biden. “It doesn’t seem like he’s doing anything,” he said.
Wanda Zaccone, a 74-year-old retired special education teacher, blames Republicans for the lack of legislative accomplishment during Mr. Biden’s time in office. “He came into a huge mess and I think he’s done the best he can,” she said.
April Becker, an attorney who is the top fundraiser so far among potential GOP challengers of Ms. Lee, is already trying to link the incumbent to the liberal U.S. House speaker from the state next door.
“When she’s in Nevada, she’s telling her constituents that she’s moderate,” Ms. Becker said in an interview. “She votes with Nancy Pelosi 99% of the time. That’s just not representative of this district.”
An analysis by the ProPublica news organization shows Ms. Lee has voted with the speaker 98% of the time so far this session of Congress and 99% of the time in the previous session.
Ms. Becker, who is campaigning ahead of a June 14 GOP primary, sometimes travels the district in an ice cream truck that has been converted to a campaign vehicle. She hands out frozen treats as she tries to connect with voters who may be leery of visitors to their door because of the pandemic.
She didn’t directly answer a question about whether she thinks Mr. Biden legitimately won the election and said she would welcome Mr. Trump’s endorsement.
Nancy Williams, a 64-year-old former insurance brokerage vice president, said immigration has become a major issue for her as she has watched images of would-be immigrants camped out along the nation’s southern border.
“It seems so out of hand,” she said. “Immigration was never a voting issue for me before, but it is for me now.”
Ms. Williams, who said she reluctantly voted for Mr. Trump in 2020, said she supports spending for traditional infrastructure and on young children, but she thinks Democrats in Washington are pushing for “too much free stuff” for others.
Mikel Conrad, a 59-year-old who runs a photography studio here, said Mr. Biden has governed from a more extreme position than his two most recent Democratic predecessors. He cited the vaccination mandate.
“Most of this country doesn’t like to be told what to do,” said Mr. Conrad, a one-time Democrat turned Republican who voted for Mr. Trump.
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