GARDNERVILLE, Nev. – In a western battleground state that could decide which party controls the U.S. Senate, Republican Adam Laxalt has early on targeted those who feel angered and afraid, telling them the stakes of next year's race against Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto are no less than existential.
From rural towns to Las Vegas, people he's met campaigning ask: “What in the world has happened to this country? And so fast," he said Sunday in Gardnerville, near where cattle lined the highway. “We have a role to play in saving the whole country with this race."
Since launching his campaign with a good-versus-evil, “Star Wars”-themed ad titled “The Good Guys,” Laxalt has railed against Democrats and an unholy trinity he says is working in parallel to “radically transform” the United States — the media, Hollywood and Big Tech.
The high stakes messaging mirrors early campaigns in rust belt battlegrounds like Ohio,Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and hints at a national Republican strategy focused on drawing stark contrasts with Democrats on cultural issues.
“Right now it seems like the wrong side is winning. The radical left, rich elites, woke corporations, academia, Hollywood and the media — they’re taking over America,” Laxalt says in his campaign ad, in which video of his children playing with light sabers is spliced with footage of protesters setting flames and destroying property.
Beyond describing the $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill as a way to radically transform the nation, Laxalt hasn't detailed stances on other issues under discussion in the Senate — and how they contribute to the transformation he warns about.
On Sunday, he declined to speculate on how he'd vote on measures concerning elections, Big Tech and abortion discussed in Congress this year. Rather than tying him to any vote, Laxalt's message is tailored to galvanize Republican voter turnout in both the primary and general election by seizing on feelings of disillusionment brewing early in the campaign.
Nevada in many ways epitomizes challenges Democrats face in defending their majorities in 2022. With a tourism-driven economy prone to booms and busts, it's recorded the nation’s highest unemployment rate two months in a row. Though it's known as a state with a socially liberal streak, national backlash against coronavirus mandates and school curriculum decisions has found receptive audiences in both rural and urban Nevada.
Laxalt's $1.4 million fundraising haul through his first six weeks in the race exceeded what army veteran Sam Brown raised throughout the quarter by 40%. Brown is another Republican campaigning broadly against socialism, Big Tech and “cancel culture.” Though the June 2022 primary remains months away, Republican and Democrats have treated Laxalt as the GOP frontrunner, and his candidacy has focused exclusively on Cortez Masto, a Democrat.
She raised $3.2 million over the quarter, displaying the fundraising strength that helped her win by a narrow 2.4 percentage points in 2017. As former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's handpicked successor, Cortez Masto benefitted from the army of staffers loyal to him, the voter turnout machine they perfected in prior cycles and an astronomical $45 million in campaign spending from outside groups on her behalf.
Despite their recent string of defeats, including losing the 2020 presidential race by 2.4 percentage points, Republicans hope historic trends that favor the minority party in midterm elections will help them regain the majority in the evenly split U.S. Senate.
Fred Lokken, a political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College, said census and voter registration data show Nevada has become more urban and blue-leaning over the past decade. Still, he said, Democrats could face headwinds that normally trouble the president's party in midterm elections.
“She’s up against a pattern,” he said of Cortez Masto. “Disillusionment with the promises that the party in power made maybe stimulates people to vote for the other party.”
On a tour that included campaign stops in each of Nevada’s 17 counties, Laxalt trumpeted recent polls showing him in a tight race with Cortez Masto.
He implored supporters Sunday to harness their fury at Democrats' attempt to transform the country and reach out to independents, who make up 27% of the electorate. The campaign's internal polls show Nevada independents are leaning Republican.
“And of course they are. No one supports this insanity that we see every day and this really terrible incompetence," Laxalt said, referencing the infrastructure bill, withdrawal from Afghanistan and coronavirus mandates.
Eileen Cohen, who came to hear Laxalt on Sunday, said she worried about his ability to overcome Democrats' advantage in the Las Vegas area. But she's certain that, across the aisle, there are people as upset with the Biden administration as she is.
“There must be Democrats who are questioning what’s going on,” she said, mentioning images of the U.S.-Mexico border and the infrastructure bill under consideration, which Biden, Cortez Masto and 19 Senate Republicans support.
Andy Orellana, spokesperson for Nevada Democratic Victory, a group supporting Cortez Masto, noted the infrastructure bill contained drought and wildfire funding provisions that she spearheaded. He said Laxalt’s stance was anti-jobs.
“Laxalt thinks creating jobs for Nevadans is radical, so he clearly shouldn’t be representing us in the Senate,” Orellana said.
Laxalt, the grandson of former Sen. Paul Laxalt, succeeded Cortez Masto as Nevada’s attorney general in 2015. He unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2018 and co-chaired former President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign in Nevada, spearheading lawsuits challenging the rules before the election and its outcome.
Despite his support for changing election policy, Laxalt said he wouldn’t speculate on whether he would have voted to certify the 2020 election results in January — a vote that divided senators who endorsed him, Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz.
He said he opposed abortion but wouldn’t speculate on how he’d vote if action taken by the U.S. Supreme Court compelled the Senate to consider codifying Roe v. Wade, which Cortez Masto supports. Despite attacking Big Tech, he wouldn't say whether he supported repealing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides social media companies immunity over user-generated content. Efforts to change the law have won support from Democrats concerned it enables the spread of misinformation and from Republicans who blame it for permitting censorship.
Voters he's met thus far are most concerned with the trajectory America has taken under Biden. Now more than ever, “what’s happening in our country is something that they can’t recognize," he said Sunday.
“I'm just going to continue to talk about what we can do to try to send a message that everyday Nevadans do not want this radical transformational change.”
Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.