June 1, 2022

‘Outsider’ in Nevada’s GOP Senate primary surges, rattling Trump’s pick

An underdog candidate in the Nevada GOP Senate primary has unexpectedly tightened the race just two weeks before the election, powered by an enthusiastic grassroots base that appears increasingly inclined to turn away from longtime polling favorite Adam Laxalt. 

In recent weeks, retired Army Capt. Sam Brown has won three straw polls, including one taken of the Nevada state Republican Party. He is outpacing Laxalt more than 4 to 1 in small dollar donations, has outspent Laxalt on TV and has some 40,000 individual donations to his campaign. 

“Something is happening. And we believe we know what it is,” Sam Brown said in an interview with NBC News. “Momentum is clearly going in one direction.” 

Laxalt, the former Nevada attorney general who vociferously opposed the 2020 election results, has for months stood as the presumed shoo-in for the party’s nomination to take on Democratic incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto in a key race that could decide control of the evenly divided Senate. Laxalt enjoys former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, and popular Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently attended a rally for him — and the Laxalt name has been a brand in Nevada GOP politics for decades because Laxalt’s grandfather, Paul Laxalt, who died in 2018, served both as governor and a U.S. senator. Former New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, who died in 2017, was his father.

Still, there are signs of interest in an alternative — and indications that the primary, which takes place June 14, is far from settled. Brown is seen as an insurgent candidate whose “outsider” credentials are resonating among Republicans, according to interviews with nearly two dozen party officials, political volunteers, activists and Nevada voters. There is also frustration with Laxalt, who they view as too close to the Republican establishment.

“From what I’m hearing out there, I honestly think Sam has a good chance of winning this,” said Vida Keller, Lyon County commissioner, who’s active in Republican politics and frequently attends GOP events. 

Even as Brown appears to be gaining ground in polls, Laxalt maintains advantages. The Brown campaign’s own tracking polls of the race show the two candidates within the margin of error, according to an internal memo obtained by NBC News. Laxalt’s campaign pointed to public polls that show Brown trailing by double digits, though it would not share their own internal polling.

In March, Laxalt led Brown by 38 points. Last month, Laxalt led Brown by 23 points. Two weeks ago, the latest public polling available, a Nevada Independent/OH Predictive Insights survey, had Laxalt leading by 15.

“Is Laxalt a for-sure walk-in? No,” said Mike Noble, whose firm headed the Nevada Independent/OH Predictive Insights survey. But, he added, “he’s in a great spot, a better spot than where Brown is.”

Rank-and-file Republicans interviewed by NBC News say they were surprised by the crowds Brown has attracted at GOP clubs and at rallies, which at times numbered in the several hundreds earlier in the year. They also say he exudes warmth and is personally engaging. Brown, for his part, has run as a candidate free of ties to Washington and has spent time trying to relate to voters’ economic concerns by talking about his own frugal upbringing in rural Arkansas, in a home he says his parents built “literally with their own two hands.”

Brown’s ability to raise small-dollar donations means he’s been able to outspend Laxalt on TV advertising by nearly 2 to 1 to date, allowing his statewide name recognition to grow.

That an outside PAC, Club for Growth Action, is spending on behalf of Laxalt and that Laxalt is upping his own TV buys are signs that the race isn’t in the bag, political analysts say. Through Wednesday, Brown’s ad spending on TV, radio and digital outpaced Laxalt: about $900,000, to Laxalt’s $730,000. Of that, Brown spent nearly $812,000 on cable and broadcast TV, to Laxalt’s $450,000.

Laxalt to date in the campaign spent far more on digital, at $209,000 to Brown’s less than $2,000, all according to AdImpact, which tracks political ad spending.

For Brown to actually pull off a win would be one of the biggest upsets to date in the midterm primaries and another rejection of a Trump-endorsed candidate. His rise in the polls alone is an  indication of the inner turmoil the Nevada GOP has faced since the 2020 election. 

An upset would also shift the party’s calculations for what’s expected to be one of the costliest Senate challenges in the general election against Cortez Masto. Brown has an uphill battle, given his trailing numbers with certain demographics, like Republican women, according to Noble.

Laxalt’s name recognition and Club for Growth’s spending on his behalf, which could force Brown to fend off any new attacks, will also be difficult for Brown to overcome. Laxalt, in the meantime, has been under attack by the Latino voter mobilization group Somos PAC, which is supporting Cortez Masto in the general election. The PAC has spent or booked at least $1.2 million in negative TV ads running in Spanish and English, according to AdImpact.

With few policy differences between Brown and Laxalt, voters who spoke to NBC News said they felt strongly inclined to break a tie by throwing their support to Brown. While those voters support Trump, they say the former president simply got it wrong in this race by endorsing Laxalt. They also say Laxalt hasn’t spent enough time talking about the economic issues they most care about.

Meantime, Brown’s fresh thoughts as well as his powerful personal narrative has animated these party faithful. Brown was severely burned after an IED explosion while he served in Afghanistan. It left him partially disfigured, and his personal experience has featured heavily in his messaging.

“I wasn’t born into power. I’m from small-town America, where duty and service still matter,” Brown says to the camera in an ad titled “Duty.” He goes on to describe how a “Taliban bomb nearly killed” him in Afghanistan and that “after 30 surgeries, years of recovery, turns out I’m hard to kill.”

Sam Brown
Army Capt. Sam Brown, right, with Iraqi Special Operations soldiers during a visit to their camp in Baghdad on Jan. 2, 2010. Maya Alleruzzo / AP file

For Richard MacLean, a member of the Clark County Conservative Coalition and a former political director of the county Republican Party, Brown is part of a crop of candidates who “bring a possibility of the thing I think we’re missing in our process from top to bottom, and that’s innovation.”

“He has a great story,” said Ed Gonzalez, a 43-year-old Henderson resident who works on local political campaigns. “The first time I heard it, about him in Afghanistan, and being on fire and being ready to go, it moved me to tears.”

“I agree with Sam on the issues,” Gonzalez added. “More importantly, we need a change. To me, it’s not just a personal story. It’s an opportunity to have somebody different.”

Perry Di Loreto, a longtime Nevada businessman and influential donor, said he was “dear friends” with Paul Laxalt.

He’s backing Brown anyway. Di Loreto said Adam Laxalt spent too much time discussing the 2020 election results and not enough energy looking forward. He backed Laxalt’s 2018 run for governor but personally told Laxalt he wouldn’t support him this time. 

“Sam really deserved the chance and our country deserves a change,” Di Loreto said he told Laxalt. “He’s an outsider. A lot of our problem is too many people have been there too long. We have managed to establish a ruling class in this country.”  

Brian Harris, a Clark County business owner who runs the Independent Black Voters Facebook page, said he had already cast his early vote for Brown.

“I like the disruption idea. It has to do with him being an outsider,” said Harris, who switched his party registration from nonpartisan to Republican to vote in the party’s primaries because he was more excited by some of their candidates than many of the Democrats.

Some Republicans were also critical of what they described as Laxalt’s lackadaisical approach to the campaign. 

Image: Adam Laxalt.
Adam Laxalt was Nevada attorney general from 2015 to 2019.Ethan Miller / Getty Images file

“It’s kind of this entitled, it’s his turn attitude,” said Kathy Doyle, a member of several GOP groups in Nevada and a Washoe County Committee member. “He didn’t really start campaigning until late in the game — the feeling was he didn’t have to.”But many conservatives said they were drawn to Laxalt’s positions on the 2020 race. He is the embodiment of the baseless argument that Joe Biden didn’t rightfully win the 2020 election. A newspaper editorial page even dubbed him “the Nevada version of Rudy Giuliani” for his persistent 2020 legal agitations. 

Brown, though, has launched attacks on Laxalt about that very issue, accusing Laxalt of dropping the ball by waiting too long to legally challenge the 2020 election results. 

Brown said this isn’t him trying to run to the right of Laxalt, but an effort to hold Laxalt accountable in what Brown’s campaign argues is a trend of Laxalt failing to take responsibility for his missteps.

Brown pushed this narrative when he squared off with Laxalt in a recent debate, and it’s part of his TV ad messaging. 

“Adam Laxalt aspires to be a leader, but he fails to take accountability,” Brown said. “And when either he earns the position of leadership or it’s bestowed upon him — either scenario, he’s demonstrated that he will not stand up for his actions.” 

The Laxalt campaign, for its part, slammed Brown as “a carpetbagging political tourist who only moved to Nevada because he lost a Texas state assembly primary.”

Laxalt campaign spokesman John Burke said in a statement that Trump, DeSantis and “countless conservatives across Nevada” support Laxalt because they believe he’s best suited to go up against Cortez Masto.  

Brown scoffed at the “carpetbagging” remark, saying he was stationed in Texas before going to Afghanistan and then spent years in the state recovering from his burn wounds. As he and his wife started a family, they chose to move to Nevada, in part because they loved the mountains, he said. He also rebuked any critics who say he was born into wealth because his great grandfather, Paul Brown, founded the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals. Brown said his grandparents didn’t follow in the family footsteps so ownership and wealth of the team lies with another branch of his family. Brown’s great-uncle, Mike Brown, currently owns the franchise.

And to some Republican voters, Brown’s appeal — as the new guy whose strength against Democrats in a statewide race has not yet been tested — is too much to pass on. 

“Republicans here have been losing the last few cycles and I think we need something new,” said Gonzalez, pointing to the strength in recent statewide elections by Democrats and Laxalt’s own loss in 2018 in the governor’s race.

“He’s exciting and he’s new,” Gonzalez said of Brown. “And to me, that’s a bigger issue than the subtle policy differences between the two of them.” 

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