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Paul Laxalt, Nevada Senator and ‘First Friend’ of Ronald Reagan, Dies at Age 96

Republican was governor and three-time chairman of Reagan presidential campaigns

Sen. Paul Laxalt, R-Nev., in August 1987. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Paul Laxalt, R-Nev., in August 1987. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

Updated 1:55 p.m. | Paul Laxalt, a former Nevada governor and senator who was President Ronald Reagan’s closest friend and adviser in the Senate, died Monday. He was 96.

Laxalt, who was governor of the Silver State from 1967 to 1971, was first elected to the Senate back in 1974, overcoming the weight of Watergate to narrowly defeat Democratic Lt. Gov. Harry Reid. As fate would have it, Reid would ultimately succeed Laxalt following his retirement, winning his Senate seat in 1986.

Reid, who became close with Laxalt, praised the former Republican senator Tuesday.

“We came from different political parties and backgrounds, but that didn’t matter to Paul Laxalt. He was the epitome of a gentleman. He treated me, and everyone, with the utmost respect and friendship,” the former Senate majority leader said in a statement.

“In Washington, Paul Laxalt set the example for how members of a congressional delegation should be treated. When I came to Congress as a freshman in the House of Representatives, Paul was there for me with sincere friendship and support. He was equally gracious following our difficult and incredibly close race for Senate in 1974,” Reid said. “I lost by 624 votes, but Paul and his family were my friends for life.”

After his retirement from the Senate, Laxalt went on to work as a lobbyist in Washington. 

His relationship with Reagan dated to their time serving as governors together. Reagan was elected to the first of two terms as California’s chief executive the same year Laxalt was elected to the governor’s mansion.

He would go on to serve as national chairman of Reagan’s three presidential campaigns, in 1976, 1980 and 1984. In the Senate, Laxalt’s status as the “first friend” meant that his endorsement was tantamount to support from the president himself in the early 1980s.

Part of that could be traced, at least according to Laxalt himself, to the senator’s role in convincing Reagan to run in 1980 after he had fallen short four years earlier in his primary challenge to President Gerald R. Ford. 

Writing in his memoir “Nevada’s Paul Laxalt,” the senator recalled an early meeting with President Jimmy Carter in 1977, after he had beaten Ford in the previous year’s general election, and coming away from it thinking “that this intelligent, well-intentioned man was in over his head.” He then went about trying to get his friend to shake off the disappointment and run again. 

“I called Ron and told him of the meeting. I again suggested that he keep his options open, adding, ‘My gut tells me that I’ve just met with a one-termer.’ Ron laughed and was his noncommittal self. But I also sensed that my call had piqued his curiosity,” he wrote. 

Reagan’s subsequent electoral success saw Laxalt’s influence rise in the Senate as well. 

But even outside his role as White House confidant, Laxalt was a popular figure in his own right in Nevada. 

Born in Reno on Aug. 2, 1922, to Basque immigrants from France, his deep connection to Nevada stood out in a young, growing state filled with newcomers. Before being elected governor, he was Ormsby County district attorney and lieutenant governor. 

While growing up in Carson City, current Nevada GOP Sen. Dean Heller would take his bicycle to play with Laxalt’s children.

“With a public-service career spanning four decades, Paul epitomized the very best Nevada had to offer by putting service above self. He served as a friend and confidante to numerous Nevadans as his wealth of knowledge steered many of us to seek his valued advice and insight,” Heller said in a statement. “His down-to-earth, kind demeanor was befitting of his campaign slogan of choice, ‘One of Us.’ Paul was a son of Nevada and indeed one of us.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell overlapped briefly with Laxalt in the Senate.

Paul Laxalt left his mark on his state and our country in so many ways. But more than all those accomplishments, today, we remember the qualities that made it all possible: his thoughtfulness, his measured tone, and how seriously he cherished the trust of his fellow Nevadans,” the Kentucky Republican said in a statement. “So as his state, and millions across America, mourn the loss of Paul Laxalt, we join his family and friends in giving thanks for a life lived fully.”

Laxalt’s grandson Adam is the current state attorney general and running for governor this year.

“To those closest to me, my grandfather was both a light and a compass: a testament to what a man should be,” the younger Laxalt said. “To me, my grandfather was the ultimate role model, and much of what I know about being an American, a citizen and a leader, I learned from him.”

“He was the embodiment of the American dream, a pillar of the greatest generation, and he represented all that is best in American politics,” the attorney general said of his grandfather.

The Nevada attorney general is the son of the late senator’s daughter Michelle and — as was only acknowledged in recent years — the late New New Mexico GOP Sen. Pete V. Domenici.

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