Election 2022: Nevada GOP contest crucial to Senate control
Adam Laxalt is one of Nevada’s most prominent Republicans, someone who has already won statewide office and attracted support from both former President Donald Trump and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
Yet in the final weeks before Tuesday’s U.S. Senate primary, Nevada’s former attorney general has faced a surprisingly spirited challenge from Sam Brown. A retired Army captain and Purple Heart recipient, Brown has appeared before swelling crowds drawn to his profile as a political outsider. He bolstered his campaign with strong fundraising numbers, particularly among small-dollar donors who often represent the party’s grassroots.
Regardless of the outcome, Brown’s late-stage inroads could signal a restlessness among the GOP base and interest in sending political newcomers to Washington, a sentiment Trump himself rode to the White House six years ago. The ultimate winner will go on to face Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto in what may be the GOP’s best opportunity to flip a Senate seat and regain control of the chamber.
Despite the intrigue surrounding the race, many Republicans still see Laxalt as best positioned to win the nomination, in no small part because of Trump’s backing.
“President Trump is the most popular Republican official in America by a long shot,” said Corry Bliss, a Republican strategist who works on campaigns around the U.S. “If you have his endorsement and you have resources to advertise that, you should win.”
Republicans in Nevada are also choosing a nominee to challenge Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak. Elsewhere, Republicans in South Carolina are weighing whether to support two U.S. House members who have crossed Trump. And two longtime rivals in Maine are poised to advance to what will likely be one of the most competitive governor’s races in the U.S. this fall.
Still, Nevada’s Senate race is the highest-profile contest Tuesday.
In a final push in the days leading up to the primary, Laxalt held a telephone rally with Trump and campaigned in Nevada with his son Donald Trump Jr. and his former acting director of national intelligence Richard Grenell, a Trump loyalist.
Laxalt is well-known in the state for having served for four years as Nevada’s attorney general and campaigned unsuccessfully for governor in 2018. He’s also the grandson of former U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt.
And perhaps most importantly in GOP circles, he’s got close ties to the two Florida men seen as the party’s most likely choices for 2024 presidential nominee: Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was Laxalt’s roommate in the Navy and joined him at an April rally in Las Vegas.
Laxalt worked on Trump’s reelection campaign and promoted his lies about election fraud in the state after the 2020 election, including spearheading legal challenges to the vote-counting process. Both Trump and DeSantis appeared in recent campaign ads for Laxalt, describing him as they look into the camera as someone who can be trusted in a fight to “save” the country.
But the party’s anti-establishment base has muscled behind Brown, who was badly burned by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan and has highlighted his personal story in his outsider crusade.
“I wasn’t born into power,” Brown declared in a recent campaign ad in which he recounted how he nearly died in Afghanistan. He then smiles, saying, “It turns out I’m hard to kill.”
Brown, to the surprise of many in the state, won the endorsement of the Nevada Republican Party at a convention vote in late April and a straw poll of the Las Vegas-area GOP at a May gathering. Recent polls have shown him closing in on Laxalt, though the state, with a transient population and many late-shift workers due to the state’s tourism and casino industry, is considered fickle for pollsters.
Though Laxalt is still considered the favorite to win, both candidates are expected to have a similar chance in November at defeating Cortez Masto, who is expected to handily win her party’s endorsement over several little-known competitors.
“I imagine that Laxalt would be a stronger candidate in the general than Brown, but I don’t think it’s a substantial difference,” said Kenneth Miller, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
That’s because Cortez Masto, the first Latina elected to the Senate and successor of the late Sen. Harry Reid, is considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats running for reelection this year.
Democrats broadly are facing headwinds this year, burdened by an unpopular president and rising costs. In Nevada, high prices for gas are acutely felt by residents of Las Vegas’ sprawling suburbs or those commuting from far-flung rural areas.
Those same factors could imperil the reelection of Sisolak, whose Republican challenger will emerge from Tuesday’s primary.
In the Nevada governor’s race, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo is considered the favorite in a crowded field and has earned the coveted endorsement from Trump.
The former president notably snubbed another Republican candidate in the race, former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller. Heller was once a critic of Trump and stalled a GOP health care plan, earning Heller a public scolding from the then-president. But Heller eventually embraced Trump and yoked his 2018 reelection campaign to the man. Heller lost, and Trump blamed it on the senator having once been “really hostile” to him.
Also challenging Lombardo is Joey Gilbert, a northern Nevada lawyer and former professional boxer who was outside the U.S. Capitol when it was stormed on Jan. 6, 2021. Like Brown in the Senate race, Gilbert has picked up support from the party’s base.
Trump’s false claims of fraud in the 2020 election are laced throughout some of Tuesday’s contests, including what’s normally a little-watched race for Nevada secretary of state. Republican Barbara Cegavske, who was censured by the Nevada GOP for declaring there was no fraud and defending the results as accurate, is term-limited. A crowded field of Republicans who have embraced “election integrity” concerns to varying degrees are vying to replace her.
In South Carolina, two Republicans in the U.S. House who’ve drawn Trump’s displeasure are facing challengers solicited by the former president.
U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, who is running in the state’s swingy 1st Congressional District, is being challenged by former state lawmaker Katie Arrington. She has criticized Mace for having “turned her back” on Trump for criticizing his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Mace has still sought to demonstrate support for him and even made a video in front of Trump Tower in New York.
In South Carolina’s 7th Congressional District, Trump recruited a challenger for U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, who was among 10 House Republicans to support Trump’s second impeachment. Trump is backing Rice’s top challenger, state Rep. Russell Fry.
South Carolina also has five Democrats, including former U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, vying to win their party’s nomination for governor. The winner will take on Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who is expected to easily defeat two GOP rivals.
In Maine, the primary will be similarly easy for the one Republican and one Democrat running. But it will mark the official start of a fierce general election race between Democratic incumbent Janet Mills and former two-term Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who was known nationally for making vulgar remarks and declared himself to be “Trump before there was Trump.”
Like Trump, LePage moved to Florida after leaving office, but moved back in 2020 and decided to run for a third term.
Elections are also being held Tuesday in North Dakota, and Republican U.S. Sen. John Hoeven is expected to easily win his primary.
Price reported from New York.