Former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s announcement this week that he will challenge Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto gave Republicans a top recruit in the battle for the Senate and kicked off one of the most competitive races in the country.
Campaign strategists in both parties stress that, despite recent Democratic successes, the Silver State is in play in 2022. The outcome will likely depend on whether Democrats can replicate past victories without Donald Trump in office to energize their base voters, or whether Republicans will benefit from historic trends that show the president’s party struggling in midterm elections.
“It’s history versus the last six years. Which one are we going to see?” said Zachary Moyle, a former executive director of the Nevada GOP. “Because if we see the historical norms, Laxalt gains. If we see anything like we’ve seen in the last six years, it’s really difficult for Laxalt to win, let alone anybody.”
One Republican strategist involved in Senate races said Laxalt is “the biggest recruit on the Republican side in any race thus far,” given his appeal to base GOP voters, his strong fundraising ability and his experience running statewide. He also comes from a well-known political family. His grandfather, Paul Laxalt, served as Nevada governor and senator. In 2013, it was revealed that Laxalt’s father was former New Mexico Sen. Pete V. Domenici.
In his two-minute announcement video released Tuesday, Laxalt did not even mention Cortez Masto, the first Latina elected to the Senate and a former Nevada attorney general herself. He cast the race as a battle against “the radical left, rich elites, woke corporations, academia, Hollywood and the media … telling lie after lie, making excuses for violence, censoring truth that doesn’t fit their agenda … ruthlessly demanding conformity, canceling anyone who stands in their way.”
Laxalt’s announcement was preempted by Arkansas GOP Sen. Tom Cotton, who said over the weekend at Laxalt’s annual “Basque Fry” event that the former state attorney general would be jumping in the race. Republicans pointed to the popular annual event as evidence of Laxalt’s appeal to conservative grassroots voters in the state.
“You can’t show me Republican in Nevada … who brings with him a more motivated base of support than Adam Laxalt,” Moyle said.
Laxalt won a close race for attorney general in 2014 — to succeed the term-limited Cortez Masto — but lost a bid for governor four years later. Democrats argue those races demonstrate Laxalt’s weakness as a candidate, noting that he struggled in the voter-rich counties of Clark (home to Las Vegas) and Washoe (which includes Reno). But Republicans counter that his 2014 win despite losing those counties showed Laxalt can boost turnout in rural parts of the state, which is key to their success in 2022.
Laxalt won’t have the GOP primary to himself. Army veteran Sam Brown, a Purple Heart recipient who was severely burned while serving in Afghanistan, has also filed to run. Brown’s campaign said in a statement welcoming Laxalt to the race that “Nevada Republicans are looking for new voices outside the political class.”
Republicans still believe the GOP primary is Laxalt’s to lose. But Moyle said there are “two sides of a coin” to Laxalt’s candidacy, given his ties to Trump. Laxalt co-chaired Trump’s campaign in Nevada in 2020 and led a lawsuit to overturn Joe Biden’s election victory in the state.
Democrats are already signaling that they plan to tie Laxalt to the former president.
“As attorney general, [Laxalt] used his office to benefit his special interest donors, and he became Donald Trump’s main lackey in Nevada by orchestrating bogus lawsuits to prop up the Big Lie and overturn the 2020 election,” said Andy Orellana, a spokesman for Nevada Democratic Victory, the coordinated campaign that includes the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Cortez Masto, Gov. Steve Sisolak and other down-ballot Democrats.
Republicans are not concerned that Laxalt’s ties to Trump will be a problem, noting that Trump only lost the state by 2 points last year. Laxalt pollster Chris Wilson said voters were more concerned with rising grocery and gas prices, whether children are returning to school, and the fate of small businesses.
“Nobody in Nevada is going to cast a vote in November of 2022 over whether or not somebody was part of election recounts,” Wilson said.
Turning out the base
One Democratic strategist with experience in Nevada did not expect Democrats to solely focus on Laxalt’s ties to Trump but said doing so could energize the party’s base, particularly voters of color and younger voters, who are less likely to turn out in a midterm election.
Democrats have a voter registration advantage in the state, with 35 percent registered as Democrats, 30 percent as Republicans, 26 percent not registered with a party and 8 percent with other parties. Nevada is also a transient and diversifying state, making registering and organizing voters a persistent challenge. Its population grew by nearly 15 percent over the last decade, according to census data.
“Cortez Masto is going to be facing a different electorate than she had in 2016. We’ve seen from the census that it’s largely younger and more diverse,” said Megan Jones, a veteran Nevada Democratic strategist who worked on the senator’s 2016 race. The challenge is turning out those voters, who Jones said are inclined to support Cortez Masto.
“We definitely have seen success over the last three cycles for Democrats, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve come easy or that all of a sudden we are now a blue state,” Jones said.
Democrats have built a successful turnout operation in recent election cycles, known as the “Reid machine,” a reference to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The powerful Culinary Union, which represents 60,000 hospitality, food service and gaming workers, is central to that operation. Union spokesperson Bethany Khan said the Senate race “will be one of our priorities for 2022.”
But Republicans believe they can make inroads with voters of color, particularly after Trump improved his margins among Hispanic voters in 2020.
“You’re going to see the Laxalt campaign run a very aggressive outreach campaign to minority voters on the Democratic Party’s embracing of socialism,” said Wilson, Laxalt’s pollster.
Democrats have the added challenge of navigating divisions within their own party. In March, supporters of liberal Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign took over the state party. The Washoe County Democratic Party then launched a separate organization, now known as Nevada Democratic Victory, which includes Cortez Masto’s campaign.
Chris Klarich, executive director of the Nevada Democratic Party, said the state party is still determining how it will work with the coordinated campaign. But he dismissed concerns that the division could hamper Democrats’ ground game.
“While our party is a big tent, we all want to get Democrats elected to office at every level on the ballot,” Klarich said. “So we’re going to be advocating for Sen. Cortez Masto.”