On the trail, governor candidate Adam Laxalt sells himself as bulwark against Democratic tide
Inside the slightly too hot headquarters of the Clark County Republican Party on Wednesday afternoon, it was all about playing defense.
Las Vegas was the first stop of Republican gubernatorial frontrunner Adam Laxalt’s 12-day, pre-primary Get Out the Vote tour, and the short speeches that candidates delivered next to a cardboard cutout of President Donald Trump reflected a stark reality — the Legislature’s all but lost to the Democrats. A Republican in the governor’s office is the party’s last, best hope for any serious influence in state politics.
“Last session — many of you have heard this — was the most pro-felon, anti-business state legislature in state history,” is the familiar refrain of Sen. Michael Roberson, a lieutenant governor candidate who experienced the thrill of victory when Republicans controlled the Legislature in 2015 and the frustration of leading the minority party in 2017. “If it were not for a Republican governor and his 41 vetoes, this state would look a lot more like California than it does. We’ve got to have a backstop going into 2019.”
Laxalt, a first-term Republican attorney general, echoes the sentiment.
“There aren’t many radical proposals out there that either weren’t put into bill form or discussed. … There’s no reason to think that they won’t come back and try to do the same things,” he said. “The governor’s been an anchor, he’s been able to keep us in the red direction, but this race will be difficult to make sure we’re able to hold that line.”
With popular Gov. Brian Sandoval constitutionally prohibited from another term, Republicans both across the state and the nation have largely pinned their hopes on 39-year-old Laxalt, who was a political unknown before shocking much of the establishment in defeating former Democratic Secretary of State Ross Miller in 2014.
He’s taken undeniably conservative positions as attorney general, aligning with his Republican counterparts through lawsuits or other legal filings against the Obama administration, against abortion, against expanding legal status for immigrants in the country illegally and in favor of provisions for doctors and florists who have religious objections to offering certain services to the LGBT community. But on the trail, where he’s essentially running a victory lap in a hardly competitive Republican primary, he adheres to a safer set of talking points — the need to hold back a Democratic tide, that he wants to improve education and that Nevada should never become California.
An anti-California message is so entrenched in the Laxalt campaign that “keep our state from going the way of California” appears as part of the summary of every tour event on the campaign’s Eventbrite RSVP page. And for good reason — it appears to be resonating with voters on the tour, although there are varying interpretations of what it means.
One couple at the first stop said they wish Trump would build his wall along the border of Nevada and California. Another attendee, who gave his name as Ron and said he’s undecided among the Republican field, said he was annoyed that with growing congestion, it took him 30 minutes to drive six miles to the event.
“I know it’s not conservative, but I think we need some slow-growth policies,” he said.
Indeed, Nevada is the second-fastest growing state in the union, and a full one-third of people moving into Clark County are from California, according to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED). Many of the businesses that seek abatements from GOED cite their frustration with California’s taxation and regulatory climate as their reason for moving to Nevada.
But the new growth driven because Nevada is cheaper relative to California could be the very reason why Nevada’s politics are becoming more purple and its ethos is changing.
“If they haven’t already fled to Nevada, they’ll continue to flee to Nevada. We’re going to get swamped,” Ron said. “The same thing is going to happen to us. If California can’t stop that from happening to them, why can we stop it?”
A group of interns in their 20s accompany Laxalt on his Las Vegas stops throughout the day, a break from the usual grind of calling voters and knocking on doors. They offered up a variety of reasons for joining his team.
One of them was 20-year-old Connor Whelan, a cancer survivor who got into politics after interning last summer for a cancer research organization in Washington, D.C. He had been searching for ways to get involved in state politics during his summer break and started looking up candidates.
“I researched Adam and his policies and I sort of fell in love with him,” he said.
Whelan said he likes Laxalt’s fiscal conservatism and advocacy for the 2nd Amendment — the attorney general says he doesn’t support new taxes, he’s endorsed by the National Rifle Association and his office issued a legal opinion that declared a voter-approved gun background check measure couldn’t be implemented. But Whelan also likes that Laxalt is a “family person” and “always staying out of scandals.”
“You hear all the time about state officials being involved in certain slimy things and throughout Adam’s career he’s been clean of all of that,” he said.
Josh Gillette, a 24-year-old intern with a criminology degree from UNLV, said he likes the work Laxalt’s office has done on sex trafficking, which has included the prosecution of a former UNLV football player accused of inducing a girl into prostitution. Gillette also said he’s noted improvements in how Laxalt presents himself as a candidate.
“He didn’t start out as a politician so he wasn’t so able to speak on a point like that,” Gillette said. “But I think that he’s grown a lot this election cycle … He’s gotten a lot more charismatic.”
As the youngest of the main gubernatorial candidates, Gillette said Laxalt could also have “more of a vibe with millennials” than his opponents.
Gillette himself is a Golden State transplant who moved to Nevada after Southern California became too expensive, and he resonated with Laxalt’s push to keep government small. His fellow intern, 26-year-old Dakota Karas, agreed.
“I think it’s good that people move around and I love California, the ocean, all of that, and I think culture wise it helps us grow too, but we need to make sure that we maintain our value system,” Karas said, before catching himself in his defense of Sin City.
“It sounds funny — it’s Las Vegas,” he said.
The scene outside of Avery’s Coffee in a Summerlin strip mall was already a conflict zone well before Laxalt arrived for the second stop of the tour.
The cafe is adjacent to a bike shop that had plastered its fence with campaign signs for Republican governor candidate Jared Fisher — a fellow bike shop owner who’s running a long-shot race against the much better-funded Laxalt. A few days earlier, Fisher made no secret that he was irked with Laxalt and blamed him for the sudden cancellation of the only debate scheduled for the primary.
“This is real convenient for Adam Laxalt,” Fisher said in a press release last Sunday announcing that the debate would instead be a series of one-on-one candidate interviews. “It is well known by the other governor candidates, the media and voters that Laxalt avoids questions and is very well scripted.”
Before long, a group of about 20 protesters from various progressive groups — including Planned Parenthood, PLAN Action Fund and Make it Work Nevada — gathered on the sidewalk in hopes of confronting Laxalt. Their chants through a bullhorn ranged from “Un pueblo unido jamás será vencido” (Spanish for “a people united will never be defeated”) to the more blunt “Deport Laxalt!”
One woman wearing a floral dress and a white “Make America Great Again” cap confronted the group in a tense exchange.
“They had a sign that said ‘where are the children?’ and I said ‘your children are cut up into pieces in the trash can,’” explained the woman, 30-year-old Celeste McWhorter, a volunteer for several Republican campaigns including Laxalt’s. “They had signs for Planned Parenthood and I was referring to abortion, I was telling them the children are dead.”
Roberson appeared to relish the melee. He took up a post four feet away from the activists and calmly held his campaign sign, grinning. “Stop sanctuary cities!” he shouted back.
But his unofficial running mate was less inclined to join the fight. In the middle of the commotion, he and his family slid into the coffee shop through a back entrance.
Inside, Laxalt used the protest as an example of how hard-fought and expensive his race will be. He introduced his wife Jaime, who was carrying their new baby Jack, and his two daughters Isabella and Sophia, ages 5 and 2.
The crowd included a significant number of Laxalt interns and staff, as well as Republicans running for other offices, and he encouraged them to keep getting out the vote. Getting a good crowd motivates him to keep pressing forward in what is tough work — especially with three small children, Laxalt told them.
“When I launched for governor in November of last year, we went around the entire state — I’m the only candidate from any statewide office that went to all 17 counties,” he said. “Why? Because I’m going to be a governor for this entire state. That’s how I got elected attorney general, that’s what we’ve done since we’ve been in office.”
Although the rest of his tour includes stops at Republican party gatherings, coffee shops and restaurants in small rural communities, and despite the fact that his office has convened periodic law enforcement summits with sheriff's offices from counties across the state, his critics say he’s overlooking large swaths of Nevada.
“I don’t think he’s very visible,” said Erika Washington, head of the group Make it Work Nevada and one of the people protesting his visit. “His lack of visibility in the black community and with women of color is disappointing because you can’t automatically assume someone’s party affiliation. And if you really are for all of Nevada, then spend as much time talking outside of your bubble, outside of your base, let us know what you’re going to do with issues that specifically involve those communities.”
The protest she joined was confrontational, but Washington said she’d be happy to organize something more cordial — a listening session for him and other candidates, perhaps in one of Las Vegas’ predominantly African American neighborhoods. Her group focuses on issues including paid family and sick leave, affordable childcare and the broad umbrella of racial justice.
“They need to do more listening than talking and actually make sure the community issues are being heard,” she said. “Not so much the political protective bubble. Just roll up your sleeves and sit down. Do that on the old West Side of Las Vegas, do that off of Carey and Washington.”
A board member of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, who attended the coffee shop rally and said she supported Laxalt's goals including opposition to sanctuary cities, also said she thinks her community is overlooked.
“Republicans need to listen. Especially with Asians, they don’t really matter until it’s close to the election,” said the woman, who didn’t want her name printed because her group is a nonprofit. “We’ve been trying to get them for years.”
Back inside, Laxalt’s team was initially noncommittal about whether he’d be available for questions from the media, citing his duties taking care of the kids. But before he left, he took a few minutes for the press, including a question about his take on the protest.
“People want to protest, they’re entitled to do that,” he said. “That’s why I served in the military, so people have the right to say what they believe in. Obviously, it’s unfortunate they used such extreme language, but that’s their prerogative.”
On whether he’ll adjust Nevada’s complicated property tax formula — something suggested by both Democratic candidates as a way to ensure local government revenue collections recover as fast as the overall economy has, Laxalt was adamant that he won’t do anything to raise taxes. As for a revenue-neutral overhaul of the state’s tax structure: He’ll look at it.
He bristled when a reporter asked him about repealing the Commerce Tax — a tax on businesses making more than $4 million a year that was championed by Sandoval and loathed by many in the Republican Party — referring to it as a partisan attack and saying he’s answered that query before. But when asked why he chose to sue against President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) immigration program in 2015, but didn’t sign on when a Texas-led coalition of attorneys general sued against the DACA program a few weeks ago, he had a response ready on an issue he’s long been quiet about.
DACA is different because there are already people in the program. DAPA was a new idea with no enrollees, he said.
“I felt it was appropriate for the system to work itself out. This is a congressional problem they’ve created. We still hope there’s some resolution to our entire system, as well as DACA,” he said.
But by the time a reporter asked a follow-up question, about whether he believes all those who have previously been part of DACA deserve legal status, he was already heading out of the coffee shop.
The last advertised “Get Out the Vote” event of the night is in downtown Las Vegas at a packed Golden Knights watch party open to the general public. The campaign had reserved a place in a sea of other reserved tables; one table is populated by Laxalt staff and interns, almost all young men in their 20s and 30s who are rapt in concentration on a massive TV screen.
Laxalt, wearing a Golden Knights pullover, sits off to the side and claps when the team scores a goal. Boxes of wings and ranch dressing show up, and he joins his young team members in partaking.
When the first period is over, his campaign manager records a short video of him trying to talk over the throbbing music about how great the first day of the tour was.
But if he has thoughts on any greater significance he finds to the Knights, any unity the team brings to Nevada or to the young men on his campaign team, if their instant success is any metaphor for the rapid rise of his political career — those won’t be known today.
When a reporter asks for a moment to ask a non-political question, and holds up a cell phone to record audio, Laxalt reflexively pivots and starts walking away.
His campaign manager intervenes and fills in the blanks, assuring a reporter that Laxalt loves the Knights and is a big fan and was looking forward to being with his fellow Nevadans and watching the game. He was leaving early to rejoin his family.
By then, Laxalt is out of sight, lost in the sea of fans.