Trump Pick for Nevada Senate Faces Tough Primary Challenge

LDonald Trump placed a low-risk wager in August on the Gambling Capital of America.

He endorsed Adam Laxalt in Nevada’s primary for a competitive U.S. Senate seat. Laxalt was a clear choice in many aspects. He not only was a co-chair of Trump’s 2020 campaign in Nevada, he was one of the most prominent voices supporting efforts to overturn Joe Biden’s election victory. He’s also a descendant of GOP royalty, with a grandfather, Paul Laxalt, who was a governor and U.S. He is Senator from Nevada. His father was Pete Domenici. Senator from New Mexico up to 2009. Laxalt was a former attorney general in New Mexico. Many believed he was the best candidate to challenge Catherine Cortez Masto, the Democratic incumbent.

“He is strong on Secure Borders and defending America against the Radical Left,” Trump said in a statement announcing his endorsement. “Adam has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”

But with less than two weeks until the June 14 primary, Trump’s bet has turned into more of a crap shoot.

Nevada Republican Senate Candidat Adam Laxalt speaking during a rally alongside Florida Governor. Ron DeSantis speaks at Stoney’s Rockin’ Country, Las Vegas, April 27, 2022.

Ellen Schmidt—Las Vegas Review-Journal/AP

That’s because of Sam Brown, a retired Army Captain whose face bears the scars of an IED ambush in Afghanistan, who has managed to turn the race into one of the most competitive GOP primaries in the nation. Running something of an insurgent campaign, Brown has found success portraying Laxalt’s support from GOP power players like Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas as a sign that he’s too entrenched in a party that could use some fresh blood.

“Working-class Nevadans and Americans need someone who will be a champion for them in D.C.,” Brown tells TIME. “The career politicians have served themselves long enough.”

Last month, in a striking blow to Laxalt’s campaign, the Nevada Republican Party endorsed Brown in the eight-way primary. Brown was also a winner in several Republican straw polls. includingClark County has the highest population in the entire state. And he’s raised more than a million dollars in each of the last two fundraising quarters. “That doesn’t sound like a lot for many states, but in Nevada, that’s a lot of money,” Jon Ralston, an expert on Nevada politics and the CEO of The Nevada Independent, a news site, tells TIME.

Laxalt is still raising more but Brown has raised four times more small donations than Laxalt and spent much more on advertising television. There are signs that Laxalt’s supporters are getting nervous. The Club for Grown, a powerful conservative political organization is spending almost $850,000 to attack Brown through the primary. “You don’t come in and start spending a fortune against someone unless the guy you’re supporting is worried,” says Ralston.

This tightening race is indicative of changing political dynamics in Nevada where the Republican grassroots longs for outsiders. Democrats currently control the governor’s mansion, the statehouse, and both senate seats. (Denver Democrat Harry Reid held the seat for over 30 years, but Cortez Masto took it from her in 2017.

Biden did win Nevada in 2020 but his party is struggling to get high approval ratings. National Republicans believe they have a great chance to make that seat blue again, and most agree that Laxalt represents their best shot.

“There’s a lot of institutional roadblocks against Sam Brown,” says a Republican consultant who has worked with Brown’s campaign and requested anonymity to speak more freely. “Despite all that, he’s still breaking through. I think that shows that there’s something happening in Nevada.”

Loyal MAGA foot soldier

Laxalt, 43, was a Reno native, although he grew to be a Washington, D.C. resident. He attended a private school in Alexandria, Virginia, and went on to earn both a bachelor’s degree and a law degree from Georgetown University. Following his graduation, he was employed in the Bush Administration for John Bolton. He was then an undersecretary for state. Virginia senator John Warner. He also served in the Navy’s JAG Corps, with stints in Italy and Iraq. In 2014, Laxalt left Washington for Reno, where he joined a law firm and ran for attorney general—and won. He held the office until 2018 when he was defeated in a race for Governor to Democrat Steve Sisolak.

In 2020, Laxalt co-chaired Trump’s re-election campaign in the pivotal swing state. He was a loyal MAGA foot soldiers, trying to stop the state’s counting of mail-in ballots in Clark County. This includes Democratic-leaning Las Vegas. After Biden was declared the state’s winner, Laxalt spread conspiracy theories about the outcome, claiming without evidence that there was widespread voter fraud in Nevada. Then, he tried to invalidate the election results.

Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt addresses a press conference at the Clark County Election Department, North Las Vegas on November 8, 2020.

John Locher—AP

“There’s no question they rigged the election,” Laxalt said last August. He has indicated that he may preemptively contest the outcome of 2022’s election. Nevada expanded mail voting over the past year by mailing all registered voters in Nevada a mail ballot. Laxalt has lambasted absentee ballots as rife with fraud, even though there’s no evidence that the voting method comes with additional security risks.

While Laxalt’s efforts earned him Trump’s loyalty, and helped him draw the support of other GOP heavy hitters, Brown and others argue he’s a flawed candidate who can’t win in November.

“He’s his own problem,” Brown says. “Nevadans had a chance to elect him in 2018 for governor and we soundly rejected him. On a state-by-state basis, he was the 2nd worst performing Republican. People don’t trust him and are not enthusiastic about voting for him. I don’t think that he’s capable of running a general election here again.”

Nevadans were unaware that Republicans offered a viable option to Laxalt, even though they believed it until recent times. Brown made his debut on television with an inspiring 30-second commercial that told a captivating story.

Brown discusses his experiences in Afghanistan and how an IED was used to kill him. His scarred face today speaks of resilience and sacrifice. “After 30 surgeries, years of recovery, turns out, I’m hard to kill,” he says in the ad with a slight smile.

Brown (38), was born into a military family in Arkansas. Brown’s father and brother both served in Afghanistan. One of his brothers fought in Iraq. Brown recalls his father telling him he couldn’t afford to send him to college and encouraging him to apply to a military academy. Brown was admitted to West Point, and later joined Army.

Before the attack, he was only in Afghanistan for 65 day. An ambush struck his battalion. He explains that they were subject to indirect mortar fire as well as machine guns coming from the villages on their eastern and western sides. His tank was struck with an explosive while he was on his way to support the troops. “I gave up the will to live as I was burning to death there,” he says. “I fought it as long as I could, and I couldn’t do it.”

He was saved by a fellow soldier. He was then sent to Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio where he spent the next three years recuperating. It’s an experience, he says, that led to an epiphany. “We live in a culture where people are afraid of suffering. If we all run away from it, then no one’s there to give us hope.

“So how does that impact me politically?” he continues. “I believe that my life is here to serve others.”

“How do you run against Brown?”

Brown was in Texas recovering from his injuries when he attempted to run for the Texas House in 2014. Years later, Brown moved to Reno after the Army allowed him to choose his new location. His family was raised there, and he laid the foundations for his Senate campaign.

He seems to have found resonance as an outsider who has a history of fighting for justice. One poll showed him as down 38 points in March. A second poll had him at 15 points. He claims that his internal polling puts him even closer.

Brown was attacked as an opportunity seeker by Laxalt. “Sam Brown is a carpetbagging political tourist who only moved to Nevada because he lost a Texas state assembly primary,” John Burke, Laxalt’s communications director, tells TIME.

The campaign has also tried to discredit Brown’s message of rising from humble origins to serve the common good. “He comes from a billionaire family that started two different NFL franchises in Ohio,” Burke says.

Brown’s great grandfather was Paul Brown, who was a co-founder of the Cleveland Browns, and the team’s first coach. Brown also founded the Cincinnati Bengals. The Brown campaign says that Paul’s fortune never trickled down to his immediate family but rather a distant relative.

“He is so desperate for the perks of power that he would lie about me and my family,” Brown says of Laxalt.

Even amid the political attacks policy differences rarely make it to the forefront. Laxalt, Brown and both want to decrease federal spending.

Brown holds hands with veteran during the Memorial Day Ceremony at Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery (Boulder City) on May 30.

Bill Clark—CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images

While Laxalt has established himself as an unabashed Trump acolyte, Brown isn’t exactly a Trump critic. “I’m a big supporter of the America First agenda,” he says. In fact, he wouldn’t say in an interview that Biden was legitimately elected president. “I believe that Joe Biden is currently sitting in the White House and that people like Adam Laxalt, who claim to have insurmountable evidence, have failed to deliver that to the public in a way that is beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

For primary voters, the race may come down more to questions of identity—and the brand of politics they think has a better chance of defeating Cortez Masto in November.

The incumbent is widely seen as vulnerable, in part due to Biden’s lackluster approval rating in the state. According to FiveThirtyEight, she’s voted with the White House 95% of the time. Cortez Masto also hasn’t made herself visible enough in the state, pundits argue. “She’s a work horse, not a show horse,” Ralson says. “She often drives her supporters and Democratic Party strategists nuts because she hasn’t been out there doing things.”

Some Nevada Republican sources suggest that Laxalt is a better opponent for Cortez Massto, since his MAGA skills would probably alienate moderates or independents who voted in Trump’s favor in 2020.

“If I’m on Masto’s team, I would want Laxalt to get the nomination only because that’s a playbook I know,” says the GOP consultant. “That’s the playbook we’ve run before. It’s safe. This is what we know. You want to challenge Brown. They’ve got to come up with a new strategy and a new message.”

Brown, while Laxalt may be a well-known quantity, would represent a greater leap into unknown territory for Republicans. That sense of unpredictability is part of what has excited Brown’s supporters, and might be precisely what helps him deliver one of the biggest primary upsets of the season.

“I’m looking to be a principled leader. Someone who wants to help our country move forward,” Brown says. “We don’t need more of the same.”

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