The heir to a political dynasty. A tested and familiar face to the Nevada polity. A bridge between the divergent DC Republican Establishment and former President Donald Trump, by both of whom he is endorsed. A fundraising behemoth, the likes of which the Nevada Republican Party has rarely seen. An electoral powerhouse within Nevada’s 15 rural counties, the mainstay of Trump’s base within the state.
On their face, these characteristics make former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt appear a boon for the GOP’s efforts to flip Nevada’s Class 3 Senate seat and regain control of the US Senate. Indeed, following Laxalt’s announcement of candidacy on August 17, 2021, articles from Roll Call heralded Laxalt as a “top recruit” equipped to play off “historic trends that show the president’s party struggling in midterm elections,” while CNN commentator Chris Cillizza proclaimed Laxalt’s candidacy as “very good news” for national Republicans.
Look past the sensationalism of Laxalt’s recent announcement, however, and one can begin to discern the many issues that plague the former row officer’s candidacy. His career is dotted by dichotomies; despite his attention to Nevada’s opioid and human trafficking epidemics (efforts which he touted in his flagship campaign ad), his spurning of moderates anathema to the GOP base like former governor Brian Sandoval, and the aforementioned qualities, Laxalt has proven unable to boast the same successes experienced by other GOP statewide officials.
Cracks Within His Candidacy
As Governor Sandoval cruised to reelection in 2014, obtaining upwards of 70% of the statewide vote, and other statewide Republicans easily cleared 50% of the vote within their respective races, Laxalt, in his first and only election for state Attorney General, scraped by with 46.2% of the vote and a margin of victory of just 0.9%. Four years later, even with polling showing him in a dead heat with Clark County Commission Chair Steve Sisolak for the gubernatorial race, Laxalt lost by a sizable 4.1% margin.
This presents the first major hurdle to Laxalt’s candidacy — his past electability, or lack thereof. Even in the most favorable conditions, Laxalt was nearly swept away by a coalition of mainstream Democrats and Republican suburbanites in the state’s two largest counties. Only because of anemic turnout in urban Las Vegas, the primary hub of Latinos and other vote-rich Democratic constituencies, did Laxalt win his 2014 race and become AG in the first place. Laxalt’s statewide career, thus, is indebted to a slanted and highly disproportionate midterm environment — one that could have never been replicated in any other year of that decade.
An Unfruitful Legal Effort
Since his stint as Nevada’s leading law enforcement official, Laxalt — a close ally of former president Trump — has embroiled himself in the Trump campaign’s efforts to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 victory in the state. Despite Trump losing the state by 2.39% (a margin that made Nevada one of just a handful of states to shift right between 2016 and 2020), as co-chair of the Trump campaign in Nevada, Laxalt immediately doubled down on claims of electoral fraud. He spurred a lawsuit alleging that roughly 3,000 absentee ballots were cast illegally in Clark County, though this was dropped following insufficient evidence.
This and like claims were discredited at court and by Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, now the sole Republican inhabiting a statewide office. Furthermore, without ameliorating the political calculus for the Trump campaign, Laxalt’s efforts alienated veterans and active military personnel – core Republican constituencies – responsible for casting many of the ballots called into question by the Trump campaign. As military wife and former Nevada resident Amy Rose noted, Laxalt’s accusations on behalf of the Trump campaign “had been made without any basis in fact.”
A Steep Climb for the GOP
Laxalt’s scorched-earth tactics have undermined his credibility as both a federal candidate and former statewide officeholder. His efforts on behalf of the Trump campaign were futile at best, disregardful of electoral consequences, yet speak to his zeal and fealty to the Trumpian cause. It’s a cause that holds tremendous weight in Nevada — Trump far outpaced Mitt Romney and John McCain in Nevada in their presidential runs — but not one readily capable of moving the needle just enough in this notoriously inelastic state. Laxalt’s ethos as a candidate rests almost entirely upon his brash populism and ability to juice turnout in Nevada’s Trumpian rural regions. However, as all Silver State politicos know, Nevada’s urban and suburban areas — Las Vegas’s Clark County and Reno’s Washoe County — remain home to the vast majority of the state’s Republican voters. Laxalt’s past performances in these populous counties, coupled with his polarizing rhetoric, bode poorly for his chances in 2022.
Laxalt’s victory is not an impossible feat, given the state’s politically competitive nature and likely conditions next year. But it remains a tall order. To win, Laxalt’s electoral coalition will need to look fundamentally different from those of past contenders for the seat. The 2016 Republican candidate for Harry Reid’s old seat, former Rep. Joe Heck, was boosted by hefty margins in Las Vegas’s wealthier suburbs of Summerlin South and Henderson (Heck outran Trump by nearly five points in the former community) and won Washoe County with a plurality. However, he consistently ran behind Trump in heavily Hispanic portions of Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, areas in which some voters were drawn to the countervailing populist appeals of Trump and now-Senator Catherine Cortez Masto.
Laxalt is unlikely to reap Heck’s suburban successes, but he will need to recoup many of the GOP’s losses that have planted Washoe County rigidly within the blue column and made the suburbs of Las Vegas more receptive to Democrats. He will assuredly focus his efforts on minority outreach in urban stretches of Clark County -nkey to Trump’s commendable performance in 2020. While simultaneously banking on a rightward shift among Hispanic and black constituencies from 2016, the former attorney general will opt for more depressed turnout from these still heavily Democratic groups – invoking the same political dynamics responsible for his narrow 2014 victory.
In all, the trajectory for Laxalt’s campaign is not well-defined and remains murky at best. For this reason, and against the intuitions of many out-of-state political handicappers, this race remains firmly in the Leans Democratic category following his announcement of candidacy. While there is still plenty of time for Laxalt to rebrand himself to Nevada voters, a successful campaign will require a well-oiled political machine, far more localized outreach to hesitant voters, and a deeper reverence for the very institutions that elevated him to statewide office in the first place.