Laxalt, Brown face off in first debate of Republican Senate primary
In their first debate of the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, former Attorney General Adam Laxalt and newcomer Sam Brown collided over personal histories and “election integrity,” even as the pair hewed to a familiar conservative mold on other major issues.
Monday’s meeting between the two candidates, replete with attacks from both sides, marks a tone-shift for Brown, whose early advertising centered largely on biographical or issue-based information. Brown has so far struggled to seriously dent Laxalt’s lead in public polls (at least 27 points with 15 percent of respondents undecided, according to a survey last week from The Hill and Emerson College), despite filling his campaign warchest with at least $1 million in each of the last three quarters.
The hour-long debate — moderated by veteran broadcaster Sam Shad and Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Victor Joecks and initially aired online by the program Nevada Newsmakers — also comes just three weeks before the beginning of early voting, and just over two weeks before a deadline for counties to send mail ballots to voters.
Laxalt entered the race last year as the presumptive favorite of national Republicans, and has since gained the backing of a number of prominent politicians within the conservative wing of the party — most notably former President Donald Trump himself and rising stars such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The winner of the June 14 primary will likely go on to face incumbent Democrat Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who was first elected to the seat in 2016 by a margin of 2.4 percentage points in a race against then-Rep. Joe Heck.
An ‘election integrity’ flashpoint
In a moment that came only in the debate’s final minutes, Brown sought to undermine Laxalt’s position as a defender of “election integrity” — a catch-all term that has come to encompass not only long-term Republican policy aims, such as enacting voter ID laws, but also unproven or debunked claims that the 2020 presidential election result was illegitimate.
Echoing rhetoric that first appeared on an attack website last week, Brown said that Laxalt “failed us” on the issue during his time as attorney general.
That website accused Laxalt of having “ignored voter fraud” in 2016 and 2017, when Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske alleged that DMV voter registration policies had allowed non-citizens to register to vote, and ultimately accused three non-citizens of voting in the 2016 election.
Those three cases were apparently not pursued further after they were announced, unlike two fraud cases in 2016 — one during the primary and one following the general election — that led to arrests.
It was an attack that Laxalt — who served as the co-chair of Trump’s re-election bid in Nevada and was front-and-center during the campaign’s efforts to legally challenge the election results — rebutted as “pretty comical.”
“We sounded every alarm imaginable,” Laxalt said of 2020, before pivoting to the 2016 allegations. “... The reality is, it's the secretary of state that's empowered with investigating voter fraud in this state. President Trump looked at the camera and said the only person that he can trust in this state is me.”
But in a rebuttal of his own, Brown targeted Laxalt on the 2016 allegations again.
“The fact of the matter is, you knew as attorney general that non-citizens were registered to vote, and you did nothing,” Brown said. “You knew that in 2016, non-citizens did vote, and you did nothing about that. And then in 2020, when President Trump, Nevadans and Americans were relying on you to be the one to challenge any sort of issues, the only thing you did was to file a lawsuit that, by your own admission, was late.”
In response, Laxalt hit back, echoing an attack website of his own: He said Brown was “running [for office] in Texas [in 2014] and living in Texas” in 2016.
Brown moved to Nevada in 2018, but had previously lived in Texas. In 2014, Brown launched an unsuccessful bid for a Dallas-area seat in the Texas Legislature, in which he placed third. That website also attacks Brown’s familial ties to the billionaire Brown family who own the Cincinnati Bengals NFL team. (A spokesman for the campaign confirmed Monday that Bengals owner Mike Brown is the candidate’s great uncle.)
Laxalt — the grandson of the highly influential former Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt — also spent most of his life outside Nevada, only moving to the state a few years before running for attorney general in 2014.
In defending his actions during 2020, Laxalt also touted his endorsement from Trump and laid blame at Democrats’ feet for having “went in late and changed the rules” of the election, a reference to the vast expansion of mail balloting and same-day registration in the summer of 2020.
“Does President Trump know that you filed the lawsuits late, though?” Brown said. “”Does he know that when you lost to Steve Sisolak [in the 2018 governor’s race], you blamed 100,000 Trump voters for that loss?”
Laxalt said Trump was “well aware” that the 2020 lawsuits were filed late, but also that he, personally, was not in charge of those suits as the co-chair of the campaign.
In response to the 2020 election, the Trump campaign in Nevada, including Laxalt, held a press conference alleging that “illegal votes” had been cast in Clark County. Multiple lawsuits were filed in the days before and after Election Day, including a Trump campaign suit that sought to expand Republican access to the ballot counting and signature verification process. That suit was dismissed shortly thereafter.
Another suit from state Republicans and Trump campaign electors sought to annul the results of the election entirely and declare Trump the victor. And a separate suit, the only one in which Laxalt was named as an attorney, challenged the state’s ability to keep non-citizens off voter rolls and alleged that votes had been diluted as a result.
Those suits were also ultimately dismissed.
Still, Brown stayed on the attack, asking Laxalt: “At what point do you accept responsibility for the lack of lawyers’ performance, for the failure of lawsuits to be filed on time?”
“I just don't understand, when President Trump has asked you to prove that leadership position for Nevadans, including folks like me, who volunteered to get him reelected, [who] are counting out some of the top to do something, and you did nothing,” Brown said.
Laxalt defended his actions, including his appearances in post-election press conferences, in part by pointing to a national Republican strategy to challenge election results that was “caught flat-footed.”
“I was the one that had to stand on the line there, to the end, as the media was attacking me, even challenging my patriotism as someone who served our country in uniform,” Laxalt said. “The reality is presidential campaigns are run by the national presidential campaign. It's always done that way. I was incredibly upset that action came late, but I wasn't in charge. And President Trump understands what happened. He's not happy with it.”
Taking aim at Democrats on the issues
For the majority of the debate, the two candidates set their sights squarely on Democratic politicians, namely President Joe Biden and incumbent Democrat Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.
On the issue of surging inflation, Laxalt laid the blame on “massive spending” by the government, and alleged that COVID-era shutdowns have led to ongoing issues with the supply chain that have compounded broader economic concerns.
“The Democrats decided to go the shutdown route,” Laxalt said. “Many warned that you might be able to flip the economy back on and suddenly everything would be okay. Those warnings were ignored.”
Moderator Sam Shad pressed Laxalt, noting both that the shutdowns began under Trump and were ordered on a state-to-state basis. Laxalt, in turn, pointed to Florida — which largely eschewed COVID restrictions — as a success story and criticized Cortez Masto for having “marched right along with Gov. [Steve] Sisolak” down a “terrible path.”
Brown, similarly, blamed congressional spending for the rise in inflation, while also criticizing “out of touch” lawyers and politicians in Washington, D.C., and a Federal Reserve that he described as “a partisan tool of the administration.”
“They’re talking about, “Well, maybe we do a half point [increase in interest rates] here, half point there,’” Brown said. “No, the answer is we have runaway inflation that is the highest it's been in over 40 years. They should be raising rates 2.5 points or more immediately to try and combat that.”
Asked about the possibility of a recession, which economists have warned could be triggered by such a large and sudden increase in the interest rate, Brown said, “I’m not saying that it’s going to be pretty or easy.”
“What we need to do is ensure that we're doing the right thing even if it does cause temporary pain,” Brown said.
Asked to respond to Brown’s interest rate proposal, Laxalt instead targeted Democratic climate policy, namely the so-called “Green New Deal.”
“They pledged that they were going to kill fossil fuels day one,” Laxalt said. “And he [Biden] signed a bunch of executive orders, day one … He should wake up tomorrow and finally reverse course. He needs to get us back to President Trump’s ‘America First’ energy independence.”
Asked how they would work to reduce that government spending, Brown proposed a policy that would do away with executive federal agencies that also exist on the state level, naming departments of energy, transportation and education.
Laxalt differed, instead calling for a reduction in government regulations and an increased focus on eliminating “fraud, waste and abuse,” citing trillions in federal money “showered” on states through the course of the pandemic.
When both were pressed on how to address government spending on social-safety-net programs, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, Brown deferred the question, calling much of that spending mandatory. Laxalt said that “there will be portability issues,” and said that “we need to look for ways to transfer benefits” as a cost-saving measure.
And on the issue of immigration, specifically whether there should any kind of amnesty program for undocumented immigrants, Laxalt said amnesty was “off the table.”
“This is something that's creating a magnet, it's incentivizing people to come in,” Laxalt said. “We need a moratorium, we need a secure border.”
Laxalt also used the question to attack Democratic immigration policies, saying he “cannot believe that our government will not do the basic duty of giving us a secure border” amid increases in human and drug trafficking.
He targeted Cortez Masto’s voting record as one in “lockstep” with Democrats and Biden and again raised the specter of sanctuary cities, or jurisdictions that have sought to limit cooperation between local police and federal immigration enforcement.
“The Democrat Party, they are absolutely committed to open borders,” Laxalt said. “They invented sanctuary cities and sanctuary states, which was such a dangerous and unbelievable concept to someone that was a top law enforcement officer of the state and to see the federal government working against federal law enforcement … that created a really dangerous and toxic environment.”
On immigration, Brown said that “amnesty is not something that honors the processes of the law,” and that he was not in favor of the policy “in any way, shape or form.” But he did criticize the length of the legal immigration process and said the government should look at how to “expedite” that.
Asked a follow-up about border crossings on the northern border as well as immigrants who overstay visas, Brown said that “none of this is easy to address,” and suggested either “better screening methods” or “actually allowing our federal law enforcement agents to do what they’re supposed to do.”
“We too often handcuff our law enforcement agents at the border, and we let the people who are illegally crossing the border go,” Brown said. “It’s just about following the rule of law.”
At multiple points, Laxalt also accused Cortez Masto as having “never broken” from her party and called her “a consistent vote for the radical left,” despite recent schisms between the sitting senator and congressional Democrats over mining royalties, federal mask mandates, and sanctions in January for a Russian oil pipeline to Germany.
In a ranking of bipartisanship for all members of Congress from the Lugar Center at Georgetown University, Cortez Masto ranked 34th most bipartisan among all senators in 2021, and 19th most bipartisan among the 50 Senate Democrats.
Both candidates also opposed removing the Senate filibuster, which requires 60 votes in order to advance most legislation. Brown called the filibuster “a hallmark of the legislative process” that protected the minority vote, regardless of party, while Laxalt called the mechanism “a huge piece” of enforcing limited government principles.
Asked if they thought the likely overturning of Roe v. Wade could erode same-sex marriage rights also established through Supreme Court precedent, Laxalt again criticized Biden for having “run on this centrist campaign” before governing “as a hard leftist.”
Pointing to high gas prices and a “wide open” border, Laxalt said Democrats “are gonna do whatever they can to change the subject to the things they think are more favorable to them.”
Asked again to answer the question, Laxalt said it was “a pretty wild hypothetical,” and that, though Democrats will argue the end of Roe will lead to other precedents being overturned, “I think that is wrong.”
Brown, similarly, said he did not think “there’s any chance” same-sex marriage would beoverturned, and questioned why the government is more broadly “in the business of marriage to begin with.”
“And we've seen that not just in ‘who's someone's partner’ or ‘who they're married to,’ but in the way that businesses are limited, or how education is going,” Brown said. “We've got, now, schools that are pushing indoctrination of children, instead of education.”
When asked if they would support any federal restrictions on abortion should Roe be overturned, Brown called it a “hypothetical question,” and said that “at the end of the day, the overturn of Roe would return power back to the states.”
Brown called himself “pro-life” and said he would want to see “specific language” if any federal legislation concerning abortion emerges in the future.
Also calling himself “pro-life,” Laxalt said the legal standard set by Roe was “invented” by the Supreme Court, and that “scholars have known that forever.”
“It was always better returned to the states,” Laxalt said.
On the issue of increasingly strained water supplies across the Southwest — made even more serious in recent years by severe droughts that have drained crucial reservoirs like Lake Mead — both candidates called for a change in the distribution of water across states.
Laxalt said Nevada had received “the short end of the stick” from an allocation divvied up decades ago that “does not match our needs.”
“I’d be open to any solution that will give us more allocation,” Laxalt said. “And certainly, federal or otherwise, it’s going to take a courageous president that’s going to have to look in the face of all the power in California.”
Brown, similarly, said that “something needs to change.”
“I would hope that the federal government wouldn't have to come in and drive that, so we give the states an opportunity,” Brown said. “But at the end of the day, something must be done.”
Allocations of water on the Colorado are split between the upper basin states (Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah) and the lower basin (California, Arizona and Nevada), with Nevada receiving by far the smallest share of lower-basin states, according to the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
Under historic shortage conditions declared last year, federal officials cut water usage in Arizona and Nevada from Lake Mead by roughly one-fifth. Though Southern Nevada receives 90 percent of its drinking water from the lake, the shortage did not affect day-to-day water use in Nevada, and the cuts were most severe for farmers in Arizona.
Politicians have suggested overhauling the Colorado River Compact before, though the idea is generally considered functionally impossible because of complex political hurdles.
On the issue of “Big Tech” and the consolidation of social media among a handful of major companies, both candidates took the opportunity to bash the Silicon Valley giants.
More specifically, on the issue of Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 — the federal law that allows social media companies to operate as platforms, rather than as traditional publications — Brown said that major tech companies ought to be held to the same standards as publications should they choose to edit or moderate speech.
“If they are about free speech, then let the people have their voice, unfiltered, unmoderated,” Brown said.
Laxalt, meanwhile, called Big Tech “one of the biggest threats we face in our country right now,” and said he supported pursuing either legislative change to Section 230 or the use of antitrust laws against the biggest tech corporations.
“These are now sensitive public utilities,” Laxalt said. “These are public highways, communication highways.”
Finally, both candidates were asked a hypothetical: If Republicans retake control of the Senate, would they vote for Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell — long the head of Senate Republicans — as majority leader?
Neither candidate gave a direct yes or no answer.
Laxalt — whose Senate bid this year came at least in part off the back of an unofficial backing from McConnell and other national Republicans — said he would “vote for the most conservative person that ran.”
Brown, similarly, said “whoever is going to fight for conservatives … is who I’m going to vote for.” He also used the question to slide in one more attack of Laxalt, saying: “I have a feeling Mr. Laxalt owes Mitch McConnell his vote, because he’s endorsed his campaign.”
Unlike some other Republican Senate candidates, namely Georgia Republican Herschel Walker, McConnell has not formally endorsed Laxalt. In his rebuttal naming other politicians who have endorsed him, however, Laxalt did not mention McConnell by name before being cut off by moderators for time constraints.
Update: 5/10/2022 at 9:42 a.m. - This story was updated to include new bipartisanship numbers from Georgetown's Lugar Center for Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto for 2021. A previous version of this story included those same rankings for 2020.