Catherine Cortez Masto separates herself from Harry Reid, but still courts his Nevada base

Former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto.

Former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto.  (2010 Getty Images)

Nevada Sen. Harry Reid's well-oiled political machine will face its most formidable test in his long political career next year, in a race that won't even see his name on the ticket.

The Democratic lawmaker's Senate seat – which he will vacate at the end of his term in 2016 – is up for grabs as his chosen successor, the Silver State's former attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto, battles Republican Nevada Congressman Joe Heck in hope of becoming the first Latina in the U.S. Senate.

Many political insiders say this is a race that could decide if the Democrats have a shot at winning back majority control in the Senate.

"If the Democrats want to get back the Senate, they have to win this seat," David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and a pollster for Latino Decisions told Fox News Latino.

Not only would a Democratic win in the state help control the chamber's agenda and the nomination process for the next president's cabinet, but it would also put pressure on a number of freshman Republican senators in places that went to Obama in the last two elections, such as Illinois, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

While Heck is known as a smart campaigner and strong debater, he was viewed as not much of a challenge for Reid if he choose to run for reelection, given the senator's ubiquitous political influence in the state. However, with Cortez Masto now slated to be Heck's rival in the race, the dynamics of the battle for the Senate seat have changed.

Cortez Masto will be able to rely heavily on Reid's political machine established over the last decade — as well as Reid himself, whose legacy is on the line. Reid's coalition of unionized casino workers and the growing Hispanic and Asian-American immigrant populations have helped turn the state decidedly blue in the last two presidential election seasons.

But the big question that remains unanswered is if Reid can get that coalition he built to rally behind Cortez Masto – a very different type of candidate than the 75-year Mormon lawmaker.

"I'm younger and Latino, with a different voice and different issues that we've worked on," Cortez Masto said, according to the Washington Post.

One thing Cortez Masto seems intent on letting voters know is that she does strictly side with Latinos.

In September, she decided to disinvite New York City council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito from headlining a campaign event and to reject any contributions from her because of her support for jailed Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar López Rivera.

López Rivera, now in his 70s, was a member of the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), a clandestine paramilitary organization that advocated complete independence for Puerto Rico. He was convicted and sentenced to 55 years in prison on a wide range of charges, including conspiracy to transport explosives with intent to destroy government property.

In light of the deadly Paris terror attacks last week, Cortez Masto also has taken a tougher stance – and marked departure for Obama and Democratic congressional leaders –  to the U.S. accepting Syrian refugees fleeing ISIS.

"In light of ISIS's despicable exploitation of the refugee crisis to target the West, we must ensure that our vetting process for accepting Syrian refugees is as thorough as possible," she said in a statement. "I share the concerns of some Republicans in Congress to ensure the United States intelligence community approves the vetting process before we accept more refugees."

Cortez Masto added: "This does not mean we abandon our moral obligation to aid those fleeing ISIS. But for the security of the American people, we must have law enforcement and the intelligence community review the vetting process of who we are accepting into our country."

Republicans, on the other hand, see an opportunity to gain control of the Senate for at least two more years if they can get Heck elected.

Heck, a House member, physician and brigadier general in the Army Reserve, has been touted by the GOP as a Latino-friendly candidate who has won three Las Vegas-area congressional elections thanks in large part to his moderate tone toward immigration.

The three-term congressman from a state with 27 percent Hispanic population has played up his own immigrant family history and endorsed a path to citizenship for so-called "Dreamers." He has also criticized Donald Trump, a Republican presidential candidate, for saying many Mexicans come to the U.S. bringing crime, drugs and rape.

"Let's take care of the Dreamers, those children that came to this country through no fault of their own, that know no other nation but America," he said.

Still, Cortez Masto hopes to blast Heck on some of his discrepancies toward the issue while in Washington, including his support for revoking birthright citizenship for all immigrants.

For his part, Heck said he expected Reid to play a major role in the election and predicted the longtime Democrat would make it "just as rough" for Republicans in the state despite not running.

What needs to answered in Cortez Masto campaign in the next year is if she can simultaneously use the Reid's infrastructure to her advantage while also becoming her own candidate in what promises to be a hard battle against Heck.

"The question really is, Can she handle a tough fight?" Damore said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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