LAS VEGAS (AP) — This city's skyline is dominated by an imposing row of high-rises, much like in any American metropolis. What makes politics here different is who works in those skyscrapers — not lawyers or accountants, but heavily unionized housekeepers, blackjack dealers and line cooks who have transformed Nevada into a swing-voting state.
Cristina Aguilar is one of them. She fled a poverty-stricken life in Mexico for California in the 1980s and spent 11 years laboring in hotels there, barely making enough for her and her eight children to survive. She moved to Las Vegas in 1998. "Thank God," she says.
Now she's a hostess at Circus Circus' buffet. She and her husband, who works in room service in Harrah's Casino, saved enough to buy a four-bedroom house with a pool. Her youngest daughter will soon graduate from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "This is why we came to the U.S. and worked so hard," says Aguilar, 58, one of dozens of Culinary Workers' Union members who were about to hit the streets to canvass for President Barack Obama recently. "We came to this country to triumph, not just survive."
The steady migration of Aguilar and others like her has turned what once was a reliably conservative, largely rural state into a key political battleground and a test case for whether Republicans can succeed without the support of a rapidly growing Hispanic population.
Nevada's mostly rural north remains strongly conservative, with the exception of the Reno area, long a classic swing county. But the extraordinary growth in Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County means the southern part of the state now is home to two-thirds of its voters and leans strongly Democratic.
Those voters often are members of an unusually vital labor movement. While unions are in decline nationally, membership has surged in Nevada and with it has come a daunting political machine that turns out immense numbers of Democratic-leaning voters on Election Day.
"This is one of the few states where you can make the argument that the unions are getting stronger," said David Damore, a political science professor at UNLV. "You have a job base you can't outsource. You can't clean those hotel rooms from Singapore."
Additionally, the Democratic Party here has made advances in organizing on the ground, while the state Republican Party virtually has disintegrated amid ideological infighting. That's led to a persistent advantage for Democrats in voter registration that helped them take over the state Legislature, deliver the state lopsidedly for Obama in 2008 and allow Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a fellow Democrat, to win re-election in 2010.
Still, the state remains very competitive, a testament to its small size, which allows voters to pick candidates based on personal relationships rather than party. Even stalwart Democratic partisan Reid for years used the slogan "Independent like Nevada."
Since 1992, the state has sided with the candidate elected president. With Nevada's tourism and housing-driven economy in tatters, Obama is barely hanging on in polls here. The state's 12.1 percent unemployment rate is the nation's highest, as is its rate of personal bankruptcy filings. Republicans expect the state's sizable Mormon population to come out strong for Mitt Romney, a fellow Mormon.
"The demographics are changing to the benefit of the Democrats in this state, but Republicans have certainly held their own," said GOP operative Robert Uithoven.
He credits Reid with putting Nevada on the political map by pushing to move the state's caucuses to February, at the start of presidential nominating season. That forced each national party to pour resources into a state which, while home to the country's fastest growth over the past two decades, still only has six votes in the Electoral College. "As the population shifts West, so does the political clout," Uithoven said.
D. Taylor, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union, noted that his union has endorsed Republicans, including Brian Sandoval — the state's popular GOP governor — during an earlier run for attorney general. Taylor agreed that the state's new voters don't necessarily side with Democrats.
"They want to know about issues that affect people who can't send their kids to private school or get on a jet and go somewhere," he said.
But Sig Rogich, a veteran GOP consultant and former adviser to presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said his party has reason to worry.
In 2010, Reid was deeply unpopular. But the GOP nominated tea party favorite Sharron Angle, who campaigned on a hard-line position against illegal immigration. Hispanics turned out in droves and put Reid over the top. They may do so again with Obama this year, despite the dismal economy.
"You can't just put your head in the sand about the immigration issue," Rogich said. "From the top of the ticket on down, you've got people with disjointed views on the immigration issue."
Damore agreed. "One party saw this coming and reacted to it, and one party was in denial," he said of the state's population shift. Damore noted that, in addition to immigrants, Nevada's new arrivals include Californians and centrist voters. "Because the Republican Party here has moved so far to the right, they've opened up the middle."
An occasional look at how and why various states became presidential battlegrounds