Laxalt, Brown spar to unseat Cortez Masto, flip Senate seat for GOP
By most metrics, the Senate race in Nevada will be one of just a handful that will decide control of the nation’s most powerful deliberative body for at least the next two years.
Under this backdrop, Nevada has become a prime target for both parties, eager to dump money and manpower into a race where the incumbent Democrat, Catherine Cortez Masto, has struggled to poll much above the low 40s despite raising — and spending — historic amounts of campaign cash.
Midterm elections are routinely and quantifiably difficult for the party of the sitting president. In all but two of the last 19 midterm cycles — 1998 and 2002 — the president’s party has lost seats in Congress. It makes 2022 a difficult climb for incumbent Democrats, even without complicating economic factors such as inflation and soaring home and gas prices.
Opposite Cortez Masto, national Republicans led by the Trump wing of the party have rallied around Adam Laxalt, a former state attorney general who has staked his campaign on his ties to the biggest names in the GOP’s right wing, from former President Donald Trump to Florida Gov. Ron Desantis.
But in an unexpected turnabout, Laxalt is facing a serious primary challenger. Sam Brown, a former Army captain and business owner, has emerged as a well-funded alternative candidate, touting his conservative credentials as a fresh alternative to a candidate like Laxalt — and all the history that name entails.
THE REPUBLICAN PRIMARY
Adam Laxalt has been a fixture in state GOP politics since moving to Nevada in 2011 following a stint in the Navy ahead of a bid for attorney general in 2014.
The son of former New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici (a parentage revealed in 2013, roughly a year before he launched his campaign) and grandson of the highly influential former Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt, Laxalt’s victory in 2014 came as a major upset.
Buoyed in no small part by his last name and big-name GOP backers, he survived the late-breaking leak of an employee evaluation that had described him as “a train wreck” to win by a margin of just 0.9 percentage points against another then-rising star — Ross Miller, son of former Gov. Bob Miller.
Once in office, Laxalt joined other Republican attorneys general in challenging the Obama administration over a raft of issues, including publicly sparring with Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval (who eventually declined to endorse Laxalt as his replacement) over federal policies on the endangered status of the sage grouse, and over Laxalt’s decision to join a challenge to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
He also came under fire in 2017 for attempting to persuade the state’s gaming commission to intervene in a civil suit involving Adelson and his company, Las Vegas Sands, both major donors to Laxalt. He denied any improper action; an inquiry by the FBI found no wrongdoing, and nothing came of a hearing on the matter before state lawmakers.
In his 2018 run for governor, Laxalt won the GOP primary easily, leaving months of lead time to attack Democratic front-runner Steve Sisolak.
But amid a poor national environment for Republicans and increasing voter pushback on salient issues — such as Laxalt’s support for reversing Sandoval’s expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act or to repeal the Commerce Tax — Laxalt lost by 4.1 points.
After the loss, Laxalt moved into the private sector and the well-paying world of right-wing litigation.
By 2020, Laxalt had repositioned himself in the world of electoral politics as the co-chair of the Trump campaign in Nevada — a position that afforded him center stage when the campaign sought to challenge results that showed Trump had lost the election.
That included a press conference alleging “illegal” voters had cast votes in the presidential election in Clark County, a media and legal blitz that came at the behest of Trump campaign higher ups who directed outside lawyers and political operatives to “torch” contested states, according to text messages published last week by CNN.
A lawsuit filed by the campaign and state GOP was eventually dismissed, however, and an investigation by the Republican secretary of state later found “no evidentiary support” for those claims of fraud. One man who prominently alleged fraud pleaded guilty to voting more than once in the same election.
Still, Laxalt has repeatedly warned his supporters of the potential for more electoral problems in 2022 in both campaign stops and on the conservative media circuit, criticizing recent legal changes that expanded the use of mail ballots in Nevada and signaling repeatedly that his campaign will pre-emptively sue to “tighten up the election.”
In his bid for Senate, Laxalt has defined his campaign largely by his connections to the Trump wing of the Republican Party, frequently touting his endorsements from the former president and Trump-adjacent surrogates.
The very first image on his campaign website is a pop-up card emblazoned with Trump, Laxalt and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a rising star of the national party and Laxalt’s former roommate at the Naval Justice School.
Laxalt has also campaigned alongside Ric Grenell, Trump’s former director of national intelligence, and made a swing through Florida for a joint fundraiser at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club and later the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. By April, he had taken the stage with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and DeSantis, by far the biggest-name campaign surrogates to visit Nevada in 2022 thus far.
On the issues, Laxalt has repeatedly cast his campaign as a bulwark against “the radical left,” often characterizing Cortez Masto and the Biden White House as either openly leftist or kowtowing to socialist elements within the Democratic Party.
Laxalt — alongside national Republicans — has sought to chip away at Cortez Masto as a “false moderate,” despite breaks with her party on issues ranging from mining to immigration. On a ranking of bipartisanship in the 116th Congress in 2019 and 2020 from Georgetown University’s Lugar Center, Cortez Masto ranked 50th out of all senators, and 18th-most bipartisan among the 50 Democratic senators.
In his speeches and in numerous appearances on right-wing media outlets, Laxalt has railed against government spending as the root cause of surging inflation. On his website, he has backed the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy and cast a “crisis at our southern border” as a danger to Nevadans.
His campaign has less-frequently homed in on the culture war, though he has still taken aim at the left and “woke ideology''. Last month, he praised Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill on a podcast from the right-wing website Breitbart.
During the confirmation hearings for incoming Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, Laxalt also joined a chorus of right-wing politicians in calling her a “pedophile apologist” who was “soft on crime” — criticisms bucked by Democrats, and some Republicans, as unfounded.
Like his Republican rivals, Laxalt has also long positioned himself as anti-abortion and pro-gun, earning the endorsement of the anti-abortion group National Right to Life and, separately, Gun Owners of America.
Where Laxalt is a known quantity, his chief rival is a true newcomer.
Sam Brown is a retired Army captain, still bearing the visible scarring from a bomb that severely wounded him during a tour in Afghanistan in 2008. He is also a business owner — he runs a firm providing pharmaceutical services to veterans — and a recent transplant, having only moved to Nevada in 2018.
In the months since he launched his Senate bid last summer, he has become a surprise dark horse, fueled in no small part by social media, support from GOP mega-donor Don Ahern, and a Fox News bump, and funded by a vastly larger grassroots organization than observers predicted in 2021.
Still, he remains a numerical underdog. Though head-to-head polling between Laxalt and Brown remains scarce, Laxalt led Brown in a late-March survey sponsored by the Club for Growth — which also endorsed Laxalt — 57 percent to 19 percent, with a 4.4 point margin of error.
More recently, however, Brown has gained ground in head-to-head polls against Cortez Masto. In a mid-April likely voter poll from the Reno Gazette Journal and Suffolk University, Brown was virtually tied with Cortez Masto, 39.6 points to 39 points, with a 4.4 point margin of error. However, he trailed the senator in a survey of registered voters from The Nevada Independent and OH Predictive Insights, 34 percent to 42 percent, with a 4.4 percent margin of error.
However, Brown has secured an increasingly large share of support from within Nevada’s Republican Party over the last few months, and over the weekend, received the formal endorsement of the state GOP with a vote of 258-65. Laxalt, meanwhile, did not receive an endorsement after delegates deadlocked 163-163.
Since launching his campaign last summer, Brown has reported three straight quarters of more than $1 million in fundraising — amounts that make him the only well-funded challenger to Laxalt, and the clear number-two fundraiser among Republicans running for office in Nevada this year.
He’s spent much of that money on radio and television ads that have sought to boost his profile as an outsider, characterizing him as both a foil to Laxalt’s longstanding ties to Republican politics and a conservative bulwark against Cortez Masto.
But even as Brown has avoided Laxalt’s most extreme positions — he took aim at Ketanji Brown Jackson on court packing, rather than for being soft on sex crimes, for instance — the pair still hew close to the same conservative mold on a number of issues.
And though he lacks Trump’s endorsement and, when asked, declined to say definitively if the former president should run again in 2024, Brown still openly supports Trump and volunteered for the campaign in 2020.
On policy, Brown has in large part centered his message on the economy and on immigration.
His website pledges to “stand against any attempt to convert our free market economy into a socialist disaster,” and takes aim at “career politicians” — an invective Brown has used to target both Laxalt and Cortez Masto — for having done nothing of “the crisis at the border.”
Brown has also called for the implementation of voter ID laws for elections, and has signed pledges for the implementation of term limits and in opposition to new taxes. And in advertising, he has called for “classrooms that teach, not indoctrinate” students and said “there is no justification for teaching critical race theory in our schools or public institutions.”
Also like Laxalt, he is anti-abortion and pro-gun, going so far as to attack Laxalt’s involvement in a 2018 recommendation from his attorney general office to draft so-called “red flag” legislation.
Brown has also put a target on big tech, saying on his website that he has “experienced firsthand how Big Tech works to undermine and silence conservative voices.”
He was briefly banned by Twitter and had some of his early tweets censored (an apparent mistake by Twitter). Still, the two-hour ban ultimately came as a boon for Brown, who attributed some of his early fundraising success directly to the outcry that followed his account’s suspension.
Laxalt and Brown are not alone in the race for the Republican Senate nomination, but they are likely the only two candidates with the resources required to win June’s primary. Two candidates — former pageant winner Sharelle Mendenhall and health care executive Bill Hockstedler — have continued to fundraise, but have failed to raise beyond five figures in the months since launching their campaigns.
Four additional Republicans, William “Bryan” Conrad, Tyler Perkins, Carlo Poliak and Paul Rodriguez, also filed for the seat ahead of a deadline last month.
THE DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY
Catherine Cortez Masto (incumbent)
A Las Vegas native and the daughter of a Clark County commissioner and long-time convention authority head, Cortez Masto’s résumé included stints as a one-time federal prosecutor and two terms in the attorney general’s office before she succeeded Harry Reid in the U.S. Senate in 2016. She’s defined much of her career as just that: a prosecutor.
During her time as attorney general (and later, on the campaign trail), Cortez Masto touted her office’s work on tightening sex trafficking and domestic violence laws, as well as securing a symbolic and monetary victory against the big banks in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis in the form of a $1.9 billion settlement payment.
However, though Cortez Masto took credit at the time for the whole settlement, fact checks showed her involvement was more specific to a suit against one bank, Bank of America, that was settled for $750 million.
Cortez Masto’s share of the 2016 vote ultimately mirrored Hillary Clinton’s, securing her six-year term with 47.1 percent of the vote (compared to Clinton’s 47.9).
In some Senate race projections, Nevada could be the single deciding state, one where a win or a loss for either candidate could fundamentally change the importance of competitive seats in Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Florida.
In Nevada, Democrats have wrestled for months with ominous warning signs in underlying electoral data. Monthly voter registration data has shown Republican and nonpartisan ranks swelling, in addition to more Democrats switching parties compared with Republicans.
All the while, the churn of Nevada’s transient population has created an electorate vastly different from the one that first elected Cortez Masto to the Senate. An analysis by the Democratic data firm TargetSmart found nearly half of voters in Nevada had registered since 2016, according to the New York Times.
Meanwhile, gains in the job market have been subsumed by mounting concerns over historic inflation in the early months of 2021, coupled with surging costs for necessities such as housing and gas — all metrics that have dragged President Joe Biden’s approval to an average of around 42 percent.
In lieu of the rallies and surrogates now defining the Republican primary, Cortez Masto has left her campaign to advertising, blitzing televisions, digital spaces and mailboxes with variations of the same message: Look to the bills that have passed on her watch.
Chief among those bills is the American Rescue Plan, and to a lesser extent, other major COVID relief packages passed by Congress over the course of the last two years.
In particular, Cortez Masto has homed in on support for small businesses, such as the Paycheck Protection Program that shielded small business early in the pandemic, as well as specific supports for the hospitality industry, which saw an outsized economic crush amid pandemic-era shutdowns.
Disclosure: The Nevada Independent applied for and was granted a PPP loan.
Cortez Masto has also frequently raised the issue of women’s health and access to abortions, increasingly so amid the likelihood that the Supreme Court could move to curtail Roe v. Wade in the coming months.
And in the mold of her predecessor, Reid, she has sided with the state’s mining industry in opposition to some policies from her fellow Democrats, including breaking with — and, in some cases, angering — progressives in a bid to kill a provision that would have required mining companies to pay a federal royalty for mining on public lands.
Still, her Republican opponents have sought to portray the senator as a “fake moderate” and a “far left radical,” citing her opposition to the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding, including Medicaid, from being used for abortions (only three Senate Democrats supported the Hyde Amendment during a vote this March, while 47 opposed it), and an effort to block oil and gas leases in the Ruby Mountains.
Amid these attacks, Cortez Masto has nonetheless broken from Democrats and the White House on key issues.
That includes, alongside fellow Nevada Democrat Sen. Jacky Rosen, voting with Republicans for a measure that would have sanctioned businesses linked to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.
In March, Cortez Masto and Rosen voted with Republicans again, this time to end a federal mask mandate on public transportation. The vote was made moot, however, after the mandate was later extended by the White House before ending this month at the direction of a federal court.
Most recently, Cortez Masto has joined an increasingly large group of vulnerable swing-state Democrats bucking the White House on the issue of Title 42, a Trump-era policy blocking most immigration crossings at the southern U.S. border as a means to slow the spread of COVID that is set to lift at the end of May.
Though the rescission of Title 42 has been backed by a large number of congressional Democrats, a decision by a federal judge on Monday to block the lifting of the policy could have the potential to preempt electoral concerns.
The senator, who initially opposed the policy under Trump, told KSNV News 3 early this month that she thought “it’s wrong to do it without a detailed plan, we always know right around summer there's a [COVID] surge.”
Though no Democratic candidates have emerged as serious challengers to Cortez Masto, Democrats Stephanie Kasheta, Corey Reid and Allen Rheinhart also filed for the seat ahead of a deadline last month.
Update: 5/3/2022 at 5:10 p.m. - Phrasing in an earlier version of this story implied that only three Democratic senators opposed the Hyde Amendment, when in fact it is just three that support it, while 47 oppose.