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Trumpist Election Denier Could Beat Democrat in Nevada Race If Turnout Is Low

The race between Adam Laxalt and Catherine Cortez Masto could determine which party controls the Senate next year.

Adam Laxalt speaks to a crowd at an election night event on June 14, 2022 in Reno, Nevada.

The midterm elections are still more than four months away, but for a year now the GOP’s front-runner candidate for the United States Senate race in Nevada has been telling radio show hosts that he’s ready to sue should the results not go his way.

Adam Laxalt — an erstwhile naval officer who served as a one-term state attorney general, ran for and lost a race for the governorship in 2018 and then moved on to head Donald Trump’s reelection campaign in the state — is a dyed-in-the-wool Trumpite. In 2020, that meant that he went to bat for the embattled president in going to court to challenge votes cast for Joe Biden in Las Vegas, and to cast doubt on the accuracy of the signature-verification machines used for mail-in ballots in Clark County.

Like other such lawsuits around the country, Laxalt’s went nowhere, and Nevada’s Electoral College votes were certified for Biden. Outside of the courts, however, he also mounted a full-court effort in conservative media to convince audiences that thousands of dead people and people who were alive but no longer in Nevada had illegally voted in the presidential election.

These days, Laxalt’s fealty to Trumpism largely means that he continues to buy hook, line and sinker into the notion that the 2020 presidential election, certified by Congress after dozens of lawsuits failed and after the January 6 insurrection fizzled, was stolen and that, moving forward, his primary duty is to push to manipulate the franchise in ways likely to secure ongoing GOP electoral victories.

His reward? A Trump endorsement in the primary, as well as a Mar-a-Lago fundraiser that helped him fend off a late-stage challenge from retired Army Capt. Sam Brown. Unlike in a number of other states — where the conservative, anti-tax, anti-regulatory Club for Growth broke with Trump and endorsed alternative candidates — in Nevada, Trump and the Club for Growth marched in lockstep, both supporting Laxalt.

Laxalt emerged victorious in the Nevada primaries on June 14. In November, he will take on Democratic incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto, a vulnerable senator in a swing state won by Biden by only 2 percentage points in 2020.

Pre-primary polling in the spring by Insight showed that Masto had an 8-point lead over Laxalt in a potential head-to-head. But since then, inflation has worsened (as epitomized by soaring gas prices), interest rates have headed north at a trot and President Biden’s poll numbers have further skidded into negative territory.

In the months since, a range of polling — which, in the run-up to the primaries, and before voters have really dialed into the races, is notoriously fickle — has produced an all-over-the-map set of outcomes: Some polls show Cortez Masto with a double-digit lead; others have Laxalt up by as much as 7 percent. Overall, The New York Times’s FiveThirtyEight site estimates that the incumbent Democrat currently has a roughly 4-point lead over Laxalt.

Cortez Masto is boosted by the fact that, even with the declining national climate for Democrats, she enjoys huge leads among Latino voters in the state and also stands to benefit from blowback against the raft of court rulings, and follow-on legislative restrictions undermining the right to an abortion nationally; in Nevada, polling shows overwhelming public support for the right to access abortion care.

In a high-turnout election, it’s hard to see how Cortez Masto would lose to Laxalt. But 2022 could clearly shape up to be a low-turnout election, especially if inflation, high interest rates and a slowing economy combine to create a general sense of malaise — a gnawing feeling that no politician, whatever their party affiliation is capable of turning things around — and of anxiety about the direction the country is heading in. Turnout in the June primaries was a mere 25 percent; this compares with nearly 30 percent in the 2020 primaries (and fully 77 percent in the 2020 general election).

Yet even these numbers aren’t entirely doom and gloom for Cortez Masto. In fact, despite the decline between 2020 and 2022, the percentage of the electorate participating in this year’s primaries is actually far higher than was the miserably low primary turnout in 2018 and in 2016; and that augurs well for Cortez Masto in her contest against Laxalt. If she can motivate enough of the Democratic base to turn out in November, she should eke out a win. But there are a lot of “ifs” in that scenario.

Laxalt, by contrast, is hoping that his fealty to Trumpism will rally the faithful to his cause. Laxalt’s career trajectory, from his being a traditional conservative to becoming a conspiracy theorist willing to carry water for Trump at all times, is similar to much of what is going on at a state level in the GOP throughout the country. Look around the U.S., and you see one Republican Party organ after the next working to outdo their rivals in embracing evermore outlandish conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and the COVID-19 crisis. And Republican candidates and leaders are pursuing ever more conservative goals to restrict voting rights and promote a highly partisan vision of election oversight.

Just this past week, the Texas GOP, for example, voted to include in its far right party platform a bizarre statement asserting that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, that Biden is only the “acting president,” and that the Voting Rights Act ought to be repealed in its entirety. In Pennsylvania, a “Stop the Steal” supporter is the GOP’s candidate for governor. In Arizona, the Trump-backed front-runner in the race to be GOP nominee for governor has called for the arrest of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, and so on.

Back in his home state, Laxalt’s GOP has an ominous warning on its website, announcing that the state is “Ground Zero” for “Democrat skullduggery.” The Clark County GOP site pushes a package of “election integrity reforms,” chief among which are voter ID requirements. Further, Jim Marchant, the winner of the primary contest to be the GOP candidate for secretary of state, says that his first priority, if elected, would be to “overhaul the fraudulent election system in Nevada.”

The race between Laxalt and Cortez Masto may well determine which party controls the U.S. Senate come next year. Given the policy stances of the Nevada GOP and its leading candidates, as well as Laxalt’s history over the past few years, it’s a fair bet that if the GOP Senate candidate makes it to D.C., he will use his power to further erode voting rights and further damage the U.S.’s already fragile democratic infrastructure.

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