Nevada’s conservative Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt, whose grandfather Paul Laxalt was a legendary Nevada governor and U.S. senator, officially launched a long-expected bid Wednesday to replace termed-out Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval.
Laxalt, 39, had postponed his previously scheduled announcement tour when the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history happened on the Las Vegas Strip the night before. But a month later, he kicked off his campaign with a rally at a Las Vegas janitorial supply business where patriotic country songs were the soundtrack, and formally launched an expanded, weeklong whistle-stop tour that includes 19 events in cafes and ice cream shops dotting the state.
“If you put your trust in me, I will work hard every day to make Nevada’s next chapter one that is safe, prosperous, and filled with opportunity,” he told an audience of about 200 people who had gathered inside a warehouse stacked high with pallets of paper towels and water bottles, and where American and Nevada flags were hoisted on forklifts. “I am running for governor so that future generations of Nevadans can dream and thrive in the years to come.”
Laxalt, who is selective in granting interviews and does not speak nearly as freely as his fellow statewide constitutional officers or governor candidates about his policy decisions, gave a remarkably personal speech that touched on his faith, his struggle with alcoholism and his famous father, the late New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, whom he didn’t meet until he was an adult. Some of those stories appear in a four-minute biographical video on his website.
In his speech, he described waking up as a teenager to fluorescent hospital lights after getting involved in an alcohol-induced fight, and the intervention that family members staged to urge him to break the habit. He said getting a 1.0 G.P.A. was another turning point, and he credited his ultimate turnaround to him committing to rehab and to God.
He also praised his wife, Jaime, who worked at the Pentagon when Laxalt, then in the Navy, met her. The couple now has two young daughters with a third child on the way.
“I am running for governor so that Sophia, Isabella, and my soon-to-be born son can live in a new chapter of liberty,” he said.
The speech took a broad strokes approach to policy, setting a vision for Nevada being the most economically competitive state in the American West, saying the state needs to continue funding public education and also arguing that children are too often stuck in failing schools and need more choices. He called for “smart reforms that keep taxes low” and removing “obstacles to job growth” without explaining specifics.
Former Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt and Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison raved about Laxalt in their introductions, saying the state needed someone like him who was not a career politician and arguing he would stay true to his campaign promises — a theme he echoed in his speech.
“Too often today, we see our leaders campaign one way, then cave on their beliefs once they are elected,” he said. “I hear the disappointment in this brand of politics around our state. Well I believe in authenticity. Your leaders should do what they say they are going to do and get things done.”
Laxalt’s platform is to the right of Sandoval’s and includes opposing sanctuary cities and repealing the Commerce Tax, a levy on large businesses that the governor spearheaded in 2015 as part of a $1.1 billion tax package.
But Laxalt has not commented in detail about where he stands on several pressing policy questions facing Nevada. In a series of three brief interviews after the speech that added up to less than three minutes total, he spoke about two issues that have defined Sandoval’s term: a fight to preserve Medicaid funding that Nevada gained under the Affordable Care Act (which Laxalt opposed in his 2014 campaign), and a business tax that yields about $100 million a year and backs up spending including a slate of Sandoval-led education reforms.
Asked whether he’d support Nevada ponying up more state funds to keep people on insurance rolls should Obamacare’s Medicaid spending be cut, he demurred.
“It’s a complex issue. We’re going to see what happens in Washington and then we’re going to see what happens next,” he said.
On the Commerce Tax, he noted that he’s never supported the levy and that it makes up “less than 1 percent of what we spend and I’m confident we can make up the difference if voters end up changing that.” Republican State Controller Ron Knecht is trying to qualify a Commerce Tax repeal measure for the 2018 statewide ballot; a similar effort failed last cycle.
Sandoval has spoken sharply against efforts to repeal the tax that was a signature achievement for him and Laxalt’s unofficial running mate, Senate Republican Leader Michael Roberson, and has said an anti-sanctuary cities ballot question filed this week by Roberson is unnecessary. A moderate who’s often praised by Democrats and who’s the sixth most popular governor in the country according to a new poll, Sandoval said that the first-term attorney general hasn’t sought his endorsement or advice about the office and the two haven’t spoken outside boards they both sit on.
“I’ve been working alongside Gov. Sandoval for past three years,” Laxalt said in response to a question about whether he’d seek advice from the current officeholder. “I look forward to talking with him as well as everyone else about what the next year looks like.”
Laxalt enters the race as a favorite against fellow Republican and state Treasurer Dan Schwartz, who’s a vocal critic of the attorney general but also an opponent of some Sandoval initiatives, and bike shop owner Jared Fisher, a political newcomer running a grassroots campaign. If he wins the Republican primary, Laxalt will likely face off against either Clark County Commission Chairman and Democratic candidate Steve Sisolak, or his fellow Democratic Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani.
Outside observers say the race for the open governor’s seat is a toss-up. Republicans have held the governor’s seat for two decades, the election is taking place in a midterm year in which Democrat turnout tends to drop, and Laxalt has built up a sizeable war chest — he raked in more than $1 million throughout 2016 and spent part of the last 10 months engaged in a string of high-profile fundraisers.
A coalition of left-leaning advocacy groups held protests outside of Laxalt campaign events in Las Vegas and Reno, and the Democratic Governor’s Association launched a site Wednesday called “Wrong Way Laxalt” that criticizes his policy stances.
Nevada State Democratic Party Chairman William McCurdy had harsh words for the attorney general upon his announcement, calling him “an empty suit seeking an unwarranted political promotion,” “an unethical puppet for Sheldon Adelson and an ideologue pandering to the far-right fringes of the Republican Party.”
“Adam Laxalt’s refusal to stand up for Nevadans’ health care, his plan to eviscerate critical public education funding, and his job-killing anti-LGBTQ agenda are a stark reminder that he is too out of touch to be our next Governor,” McCurdy said.
Laxalt descends from a storied Nevada political family with Basque sheepherder roots and has sought to tap into that cultural heritage through an annual political fundraiser called the Basque Fry that’s held on a Northern Nevada ranch and features traditional delicacies and speeches from conservative leaders.
The family name carries special weight in the state not only because of former Gov. Paul Laxalt, who was in the public eye for decades and was considered President Ronald Reagan’s best friend, but also because his great-uncle, Robert Laxalt, captured Nevada’s Basque culture in acclaimed novels such as “Sweet Promised Land.”
Laxalt himself grew up in the Washington D.C. area to a single mother, political consultant Michelle Laxalt, and says in his campaign video that he didn’t know his dad growing up.
He uses the campaign video to address head-on a skeleton in his closet — that he started drinking in middle school and by age 18, had to seek addiction treatment.
“Trying to maintain sobriety is one of the toughest challenges I’ve had to face,” he says.
He joined the Navy in 2004 and became a Judge Advocate General, serving time in Iraq where his unit assisted in prosecuting war criminals. Laxalt also served as an assistant law professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and ended his service with the rank of lieutenant.
Laxalt is married and now has two young daughters with a third child on the way.
He was a relatively unknown rookie Las Vegas lawyer when reports in 2013 revealed a long-held family secret: that Laxalt’s father was longtime New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, a close friend of his grandfather Sen. Paul Laxalt, who was married with eight other children and significantly older than Michelle Laxalt.
Laxalt has said little publicly about the family matter. But when Domenici died in September at the age of 85, he issued a short statement.
“I am profoundly saddened by the passing of my father,” he wrote. “He leaves behind a wonderful, talented, and loving family. He was a great man who I will dearly miss.”
The revelation of his parentage helped clear the air ahead of Laxalt’s announcement that he would run for attorney general in the 2014 election against more-favored Ross Miller, the two-time Democratic secretary of state and son of a former governor. The uniformed Laxalt cut a sharp profile in campaign ads even as a leaked job review prompted questions about whether his legal skills were sufficient for the state’s top law enforcement post, and even as members of the extended Laxalt clan endorsed his opponent as “the most qualified candidate to be our state’s attorney general.”
But Laxalt’s agile campaign swiftly batted back the attacks. He also benefitted from an underlying “red wave” that swept the county and yielded widespread victories for Nevada Republicans, and scored further from a dive in Democratic turnout because Nevada had no competitive Senate seat or viable Democratic challenger against Sandoval.
In an unexpected upset, political newcomer Laxalt won 46 percent to 45 percent against the more established Miller — who has yet to return to politics three years later.
Accomplishments as attorney general
The election win was the first of many improbable victories for Laxalt, whose brand of conservatism has tracked closely with the electorate’s mood. With help from a savvy team of deputies that included former Assemblyman (and presumptive attorney general candidate) Wes Duncan, Nick Trutanich and former Montana litigator Lawrence Van Dyke, the office embarked on a campaign against what it called the Obama Administration’s federal overreach just as the lame duck president struggled to cement a legacy largely through executive orders absent help from a Republican-controlled Congress.
One of Laxalt’s first moves as attorney general was to sign Nevada onto a lawsuit challenging Obama’s executive order expanding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and extending deportation relief to parents of DREAMers.
“Our immigration system is broken and clearly needs to be fixed,” Laxalt said. “The solution must be a permanent, legal result that includes, not ignores, the other branches of government and their constitutional roles.”
It was the first time — but not the last — that he would make such a move without the blessing of more moderate fellow Republican Sandoval. And it earned him the ire of progressive activists, who have stormed his office on numerous occasions to protest the move.
But legally, it was a success. The lawsuit went to a Texas court, where a judge issued an injunction against Obama’s program, and then the U.S. Supreme Court — short one judge after the death of Antonin Scalia — deadlocked 4-4, allowing the injunction to stand.
The deadlock ran out the clock on the program before Trump assumed office. Trump’s administration announced earlier this summer that they had nullified Obama’s order, dealing the final blow to a program that never got off the ground.
He had similar success when he led 21 states in challenging the Obama administration’s effort to remove the “white collar exemption” that allows businesses not to pay overtime to employees in certain administrative roles. The administration wanted to expand overtime rules to white collar workers who earn up to $47,476 annually, which is about double the current threshold.
The rule would have made about 4 million more workers eligible for overtime pay in the first year of implementation, but Laxalt argued it would be a crushing blow for government employers and businesses that would have to cut other spending to afford the overtime payments.
“This unlawful rule was another attempt at a presidential end-run around the political process at great cost to the Constitution, the states and our economy,” he wrote in an editorial.
A judge issued a nationwide hold on the overtime rule in November, just days before it was supposed to take effect but after some businesses had already adjusted their salary schedules in anticipation of it.
“Not every effort to protect our great State of Nevada against federal overreach or other unlawful influence is appropriately rewarded,” he wrote. “But it is nice when it is.”
Closer to home, Laxalt’s office mounted a vigorous defense of the Education Savings Account program that allows parents to claim public school funds and steer them toward private school tuition. The case was closely watched by national education advocates eager to learn the fate of the nation’s most sweeping school choice program.
He enlisted superstar lawyer Paul Clement, a former U.S. Solicitor General who has argued more cases before the U.S. Supreme Court than anyone else and is known for leading 26 states in a challenge of Obamacare. In the end, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled the program’s funding mechanism was unconstitutional.
But Laxalt’s office declared victory, saying the funding was a relatively easy fix and the real victory was that the program was found to not violate the constitution on separation of church and state and other major grounds.
In spite of the legal progress, the Democratic-controlled Legislature opted not to fund the program despite a budget recommendation by Sandoval and hardline opposition by legislative Republicans.
The attorney general has also sought to carve a niche as a champion for veterans and sexual assault victims. He launched an Office for Military and Legal Assistance, a clearinghouse for lawyers working pro bono to help veterans and military families with their legal problems.
The effort — dubbed @ease — earned a “Champion of Justice” award by the Las Vegas office of Nevada Legal Services after it helped 900 individuals in its first year of operation obtain legal help.
He’s taken up the mantle of clearing a backlog of untested sexual assault evidence kits, an issue that had just come to the public’s attention at the end of prior Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto’s final term. The office recently got approval for $1.35 million in settlement funds from Hyundai Motors and the pharmaceutical company Amgen to help beef up staffing at testing labs.
After the Las Vegas shooting, Laxalt announced his office’s work to help root out sham fundraising campaigns and dedicated $600,000 from a multi-state settlement with a pharmaceutical company to pay for Las Vegas police overtime costs.
But Laxalt has not shied from getting involved in political campaigns. He was a strident opponent of Question 1, a measure backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg that sought to expand background checks to more gun sales and transfers, and appeared in ads opposing the measure.
While proponents eked out a razor-thin win, Laxalt had the last word when his office issued an opinion calling the ballot initiative “unenforceable” as the measure required background checks to be run through a federal database, which the Federal Bureau of Investigation said it would not allow.
He also opposed Question 2, an ultimately successful ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana in Nevada.
While Laxalt backed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for president, he was rare among Nevada’s elected Republicans in deciding to fully support Trump once he became the Republican nominee. Laxalt introduced Trump at a rally, wrote an op-ed describing why he thought Hillary Clinton was unfit for office and stayed supportive of the candidate even after the release of the Access Hollywood tapes that prompted other Republicans to denounce him.
That’s earned him some credibility with the new administration. He appeared at the same National Rifle Association rally as Trump this spring and landed a planned speaking engagement from Vice President Mike Pence, who planned to headline Laxalt’s annual Basque Fry fundraiser this August but cancelled as Hurricane Harvey closed in.
Laxalt’s been criticized by primary opponent Schwartz as too preoccupied with federal issues and with too shallow a resume on state policy issues.
“He’s a good guy but I have some issues with his philosophy. He’s young. He doesn’t have any economic or financial experience, and I think that’s what the state needs,” Schwartz said in a June interview. “He wants to be alt right. He’s sort of throwing red meat to that wing of the party.”
He was also dogged earlier this year when news broke that the Gaming Control Board Chairman A.G. Burnett had secretly recorded a conversation he had with Laxalt and turned it over to the FBI, fearing that Laxalt was making a request on behalf of his campaign donor Sheldon Adelson, whose companies were in the middle of multiple investigations.
The FBI declined to prosecute, and after questioning before legislators, the matter dissipated. Sandoval issued a statement saying he didn’t think trust was breached enough that the gaming regulatory board needed its own independent counsel. He ended by saying he was proud of the attorney general.
Laxalt is expected to run on an unofficial ticket with lieutenant governor candidate Michael Roberson, the canny leader of the Senate Republican Caucus. Roberson earned Sandoval’s praise for shepherding a tax increase and a slate of education reforms through the Legislature, although Laxalt is now calling for a repeal of a key element of that plan.
The two have already shown a high level of coordination. They issued call-and-response press releases urging Democrats to hear Laxalt bills that were stuck in limbo and their campaigns have railed against the concept of sanctuary cities — an issue that Sandoval said doesn’t appear to be a real problem in Nevada but that polling indicates is a potent part of Republican candidates’ toolboxes. Roberson is trying to get a sanctuary cities measure on the statewide ballot at the same time he and Laxalt will be running.
“Everyone in this room should be calling Adam Laxalt and encouraging him to run for governor,” Roberson told a Republican group this summer.
Riley Snyder and Luz Gray contributed to this report.
Updated at 11:53 a.m. to include quotes from Laxalt’s prepared announcement speech and at 3 p.m. to include details from rally.
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