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Mudslinging begins in Nevada Senate race with control of the chamber at stake

Among the tasks for Republican Adam Laxalt and Democratic incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto, the first Latina elected to serve in the Senate: Wooing Latino voters.
Nevada Republican Senate candidate Adam Laxalt
Nevada Republican Senate candidate Adam Laxalt speaks as he celebrates his victory with family, friends and supporters in Reno, on June 14, 2022.Tom R. Smedes / AP

RENO, Nev. — Adam Laxalt’s GOP primary win launched Wednesday what is poised to become one of the most closely watched, costliest and perhaps among the nastiest Senate races in the country, with results that have implications for how the battleground presidential state swings in 2024. 

Republicans see the fight over Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s seat — already declared a “toss-up” by campaign prognosticators — as one of their best pickup opportunities in the country. The fate of the race could ultimately dictate Senate control.   

Millions of dollars have already poured into the race — from both parties — with Democrats and allied groups beginning their attacks on Laxalt during the primary election. Both campaigns were already up Wednesday morning with attack ads, with Cortez Masto hitting Laxalt on ties to big oil and Laxalt’s campaign blaming Cortez Masto’s leadership for rising crime and dismantling the border. 

That was on top of Cortez Masto’s campaign attempting to get a head start in messaging for the general election, already having spent $4 million in TV ads since April. It will all be in service of what interviews with more than two dozen Nevada voters, activists, party leaders and elected officials suggested are the camp’s tallest tasks: winning over the state’s rapidly expanding Latino population, while also courting voters in the swing county of Washoe and political independents who make up roughly one-third of active registered voters in the state.

Within minutes of Laxalt’s race being called, both sides flipped into attack mode, each accusing the other of being beholden to special interests while being out of touch with regular Nevadans. 

“Senator Masto hasn’t spent her time in Washington serving the people of Nevada,” Laxalt said to roughly three dozen supporters Tuesday night as he declared victory in his primary race against retired Army Capt. Sam Brown. “She’s worked very hard to serve the progressive left in Washington, D.C., spending six years as a rubber stamp for a radical ideology that attacks our values, our culture and the very fabric of our nation.”

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto appears before a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, on June 8, 2022.Francis Chung / E&E News/POLITICO via AP Images file

The Donald Trump-endorsed Laxalt, who previously served as the state’s attorney general, ran a campaign that heavily focused on the former president’s support and highlighting his efforts to contest the 2020 election results. But Democrats didn’t go after Laxalt for supporting the so-called "big lie" — the false contention that Joe Biden was not the rightful winner of the presidential election. Instead, Cortez Masto leaned into new messaging that highlighted Laxalt’s ties to big oil, calling him a “corrupt politician” who only beat Brown, a little-known underdog, because of a last-minute infusion of cash and flashy visits from outside interests. 

Her campaign says it’s part of a strategy to link Laxalt to an issue at the top of the list for local voters and where Democrats are potentially the most vulnerable — high gas prices and who’s profiting from them.  

J.B. Poersch, the president of Senate Majority PAC, the main Senate super PAC for Democrats, said Brown’s insurgent primary campaign against Laxalt “did a lot of work for Democrats in terms of defining who he is,” and said the work ahead for Democrats involves linking him to “special interests, especially tying Laxalt to oil interests.”

While Democrats face a dire political climate, with rising gas prices — which are north of $6 a gallon here — growing inflation and a president with ever-tanking approval ratings, Cortez Masto still enters the race with distinct advantages. Without a viable opponent in her primary, the senator for months ramped up her engagement with Latino voters, spending on Spanish-speaking TV ads beginning in March, according to the ad tracking firm AdImpact. She also stockpiled cash, leaving her with $9 million to move into the general election, compared to Laxalt’s $2 million, according to the latest federal campaign finance data. 

Overall, Nevada Democrats far outspent Republicans to date on Spanish-speaking TV ads. Democrats spent $2.7 million in Nevada on such ads from January 2021 to the Tuesday primary, according to AdImpact. Republicans by that same measure spent $176,000. Most of the spending by both parties or their supporting interests focused on the Senate race.  The Somos PAC, a Latino advocacy group that is backing Cortez Masto, was a significant contributor with negative ads targeting Laxalt.  

Republican state party chair Michael McDonald said the Nevada party is partnering with the National Republican Senatorial Committee on operation “Vamos,” which deploys more personnel on the ground in battleground states to reach out to Latinos door to door. He predicted an advantage for Republicans with the electorate because their concerns are not unlike those of other voters, chiefly revolving around the economy. 

Mike Noble, who conducted independent polls throughout the Nevada primary, said both parties must pay close attention to Latinos, who can hold major sway in the general election. 

“You’re seeing Latinos getting more and more engaged,” he said. “That can be an X factor in the general [election].” 

After voting at Reno High School in Washoe County, Brown issued a warning to Republicans about his party’s turnout Tuesday. 

Conservatives and others may have stayed on the sidelines, he said, because of the belief that someone else would carry the party.

“It’s shockingly low. You hear a lot about the idea of a red wave. You expected it to be higher,” Brown said. “I think that this could be a result of overpumping the idea of a red wave.”