The man Republicans hope could be their 51st senator, putting them back in power, took the stage recently at a rowdy country music bar in Las Vegas packed with excited voters.
Adam Laxalt is the grandson of a Republican senator from Nevada and an avowed conservative who was state attorney general before losing a 2018 race for governor. By his side in the bar was Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, a likely candidate for the party’s 2024 presidential nomination who was fresh off his legislation punishing Disney for opposing his new law baring instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through the third grade.
Laxalt has already drawn criticism for being too hard-line to win a race in a state that has mostly elected Democrats over the past 15 years. But he called Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, his potential opponent in November, the partisan problem.
“Nevada deserves someone that will break from the radical left and stand with our state when we need courage,” Laxalt said to cheers from supporters waving “Patriots for Laxalt” signs. “We need independence and someone that will break from that party and stand with us.”
Nevada is central to the GOP’s hopes this year to retake the evenly-split Senate and potentially make longer-term inroads with minority voters. It’s the third most-diverse state, but Democratic margins have been steadily shrinking here since 2008, when Barack Obama became his party’s first presidential candidate to carry Nevada in 12 years.
Toppling Cortez Masto would not only give Republicans the additional seat needed for control — provided they do not lose any seats they now hold — but bragging rights to having greater appeal among immigrant communities.
It also would be a sign there are fewer barriers to aggressive conservatives than assumed.
Laxalt served a single term as Nevada’s attorney general, then was soundly defeated in his 2018 gubernatorial bid. In 2020, he co-chaired President Donald Trump’s campaign in Nevada and repeated Trump’s lies about the election being swung by voter fraud.
Laxalt is also a strong opponent of abortion rights, which Democrats hope will become a bigger vulnerability for him if the U.S. Supreme Court follows through with a draft opinion released last week that would overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. His dilemma quickly became clear when he simultaneously praised the potential opinion as “an historic victory for the sanctity of life” but played down ts impact in Nevada, where voters enshrined abortion rights in the state constitution in 1990.
Cortez Masto, whose staff said she was not available for an interview for this story, tried to highlight the contrast in the race.
“My opponent says that overturning Roe v. Wade and ending protections for a woman’s right to choose is a ‘historic victory,’” she tweeted. “I trust women and their doctors to make the health care decisions that are best for them — not politicians.”
Laxalt’s conservative positions go well beyond abortion. He has warned that he may file lawsuits challenging the election even before the November vote. As attorney general he feuded with the state’s moderate Republican governor over guns, taxes and immigration.
Republicans argue that will not matter in a year when inflation is at 40-year highs and President Joe Biden’s approval numbers are scraping record lows.
“This election will be focused on inflation, the price of gas and Joe Biden’s first two years in office,” said Jeremy Hughes, a GOP strategist in the state. “Under that scenario, Adam Laxalt is in line with a vast majority of Nevada voters.”
There is a history in Nevada, however, of a Democratic senator defying the odds during a Republican wave year. In 2010, Sen. Harry Reid beat GOP challenger Sharron Angle by portraying her as extreme on immigration and unfit for higher office. Democrats have similar plans for Laxalt.
“Voters already rejected him,” said Josh Marcus-Blank, a spokesman for Cortez Masto’s campaign. “He’s only gotten worse.”
Reid, a legendary figure in Nevada and national politics, died of pancreatic cancer last year. He hand-picked Cortez Masto, herself a former attorney general, as the Democratic nominee when he retired in 2016. Cortez Masto is the first Latina U.S. senator. This year’s election will be the first test of Reid’s vaunted political operation since he died.
When his political machine has worked, Democrats have been able to win Nevada by rallying its heavily working-class, minority population with promises to protect their economic interests, immigration needs or both.
But because the state has a highly transient population and Democrats rely on poorer voters from communities that are less likely to vote, it’s very expensive to get enough people to show up. When there isn’t sufficient campaign money available to the party — such as in 2014, the year that Laxalt was elected attorney general — Democrats can get crushed.
Cortez Masto has proven to be a prolific campaign fundraiser, with $11 million in cash on hand as of the end of March.
But with core Democratic voters, especially young ones, depressed over Biden’s performance, it may be challenging to turn out the voters the incumbent needs. The issue will hinge on questions specific to Nevada, said Andres Ramirez, a Democratic strategist in Las Vegas.
“This election, at least in Nevada, is going to have less to do with Biden than with our own internal candidates and with turnout,” Ramirez said.
Laxalt is not the Republican nominee yet. He faces four other contestants in the June 14 primary, including Sam Brown, a former U.S. Army captain who earned a Purple Heart after being severely wounded in Afghanistan.
But Laxalt has the endorsement of Trump, as well as the backing of a wide swath of the GOP establishment, as seen last week when he was joined at Las Vegas-area campaign appearances by both DeSantis and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Though it’s a long flight from Washington, Nevada has become a popular destination for politicians thinking of running for president. The state holds one of the initial four nominating contests in the nation — Nevada’s caucus in 2020 was sandwiched between the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries — and is also home to several deep-pocketed Republican donors.
Republicans also continue to have high hopes for their prospects in the Silver State, believing Cortez Masto has not shown herself to be as nimble and pugilistic a politician as her predecessor, Reid.
In contrast to 2010, when Reid made defense of a pro-immigrant bill known as the DREAM Act the centerpiece of his reelection bid, Cortez Masto has joined other Democrats in questioning Biden’s efforts to roll back pandemic rules that made it harder for border-crossers to apply for asylum in the U.S.
Laxalt contends she should have changed her approach earlier.
“If she decided to be the moderate she’s gonna run as, if she decided to be Joe Manchin, she could have gotten anything she wanted for this state,” Laxalt told a Republican country club audience in suburban Henderson, referring to the West Virginia moderate Democrat who has blocked major parts of Biden’s agenda. “She could have stood against the president and said, ‘Not for our state of Nevada.’”
Cortez Masto has so far stuck to low-key events promoting her ability to deliver wins for Nevada, such as securing $450 million for water recycling projects and $3.4 billion to combat wildfires as part of last year’s bipartisan infrastructure package.
“The senator gets her state,” her campaign spokesman, Marcus-Blank, said. “She’s been able to get a lot of things done and make a big difference.”
Riccardi reported from Denver.