Published Tuesday, June 21, 2022 | 8:15 a.m.
Updated Tuesday, June 21, 2022 | 11:25 a.m.
RENO — The attack ads already are airing and campaign fundraising emails are flooding into inboxes as one of the most competitive U.S. Senate races in the country gets rolling in Nevada, where candidates will be juggling voters' concerns about a volatile economy and inflation that is rising at its fastest pace in decades.
The race between incumbent Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto and former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt will hinge on the candidates' respective ties to both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, political watchers say.
Laxalt, the grandson of a former U.S. senator from Nevada, co-chaired Trump’s reelection campaign in Nevada and led failed court challenges to overturn the state's 2020 election results based on false election fraud claims.
His campaign drew endorsements from top Republican Party leaders including Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and U.S. Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri, Ted Cruz of Texas and Tom Cotton of Arkansas.
Days before the primary, Laxalt hosted rallies with Donald Trump Jr. and 2020 election result deniers in Las Vegas and Carson City.
In 2020, Biden won Nevada by just over two percentage points. The state has rejected every GOP presidential candidate since George W. Bush in 2004.
Unknowns ahead of the November election include how Trump’s endorsement will sway voters, whether Cortez Masto will seek Biden’s help and whether the GOP and Democratic campaigns can reach nonpartisan voters.
Democratic voters just slightly outnumber Republicans in Nevada, according to the latest numbers from the secretary of state’s office. The state also has more than 627,000 nonpartisan voters who could swing the outcome either way.
Cortez Masto, who is the first Latina to serve in the Senate, won six years ago as the hand-picked successor to longtime Senate Democrat leader Harry Reid. She had the backing of Reid’s formidable political machine.
Today, she's seen as a vulnerable incumbent whose loss in an off-year election could tip the Senate to Republican control.
It used to be that candidates would shift to the center as part of their post-primary strategy, said Christina Ladam, an assistant political science professor at the University of Nevada-Reno.
“Really, since 2016, we’ve seen candidates kind of stick with some more extreme views in the general election," she said, especially conservative candidates.
Whether to mobilize the party base or reach out to swing voters is a question that all campaigns have to ask as they shift to the primary, said Dan Lee, a political science professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
By tying Cortez Masto to wider topics, including the Biden administration, rising gas prices and inflation, Lee said Republicans can potentially do both.
“That’s essentially what they were doing in the primaries," he said. ”When they weren’t attacking, the (Republican primary) candidates, they were attacking Biden and the Democratic policies."
In his victory speech in a casino backroom away from the sounds of slot machines, Laxalt appealed to his base and derided what he called the “Biden-Masto vision for America.”
“She’s worked very hard to serve the progressive left in Washington, D.C.,” Laxalt said from a podium where large screens nearby were tuned to Fox News.
He accused Cortez Masto of being "a rubber stamp for a radical ideology that attacks our values, our culture and the very fabric of our nation.”
He spoke against high gas prices and inflation, open borders and human trafficking. He alluded to gun control measures pushed by Democrats in the wake of mass shootings. Naming Biden and Cortez Masto, he blamed “radical elites” for failed policies.
For her part, Cortez Masto has often distanced herself from her own party and instead relayed a message of what she said she has brought to Nevada. Her campaign pointed to federal support to bring unemployment rates down from pre-pandemic levels.
In campaign events, speeches and advertisements, Cortez Masto has highlighted Laxalt's work for a Washington, D.C., law firm that has oil company clients. She also has called him corrupt for efforts to overturn Nevada’s 2020 presidential election results and has tried to put him at odds with women voters due to his stance on abortion.
She has painted Laxalt as being “out for himself, not Nevada."
The morning after the primary, a Cortez Masto ad attacked Laxalt, accusing him of blocking a state investigation into ExxonMobil when he was attorney general in 2016. The ad linked $2.5 million that Laxalt received toward his 2018 gubernatorial campaign to oil companies and wealthy conservative political donors the Koch brothers.
Laxalt, who ended his primary season campaign with a blitz of ads showing him standing with Trump, was quick to roll out his own ad to kick off the general election race. In it, a narrator talks of “chaos in our streets,” insecure borders, inflation and dependence on foreign oil while showing a picture of Cortez Masto and Biden standing side by side.
Gabe Stern 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 undercover issues.