No top Nevada Republican has raised more doubts about the state’s elections system than U.S. Senate candidate Adam Laxalt, the former state attorney general who still says the 2020 presidential race was “rigged” after having fruitlessly tried to overturn the results.
But across the state in rural county campaign events, Laxalt spreads a more nuanced message: GOP voters should be confident that the elections are “legitimate” and that they need to turn out because “your votes are going to matter,” according to audio recordings obtained by NBC News.
Laxalt’s tightrope walk — casting suspicion on the integrity of an election won by President Joe Biden in 2020 while seeking to allay concerns prompted by those claims to a select audience — provides an early window into the challenges for Republicans campaigning in the era of what former President Donald Trump’s critics have come to call the "Big Lie."
On one hand, Trump-endorsed candidates like Laxalt are under pressure from the former president and his supporters to echo false claims about widespread voter fraud.
Yet that message also carries the risk of spooking Republicans into feeling so hopeless about elections that they don’t vote — which many Republicans believe happened in Georgia last year, when the party lost two special elections that cost them control of the Senate.
“A majority of Nevada voters know that we didn’t have a secure election,” Laxalt said last week on One America News Network, a far-right media outlet, where he repeated claims he has raised for a year. “If we can’t have fair elections, then people are not going to turn out. They’re not going to believe in the system.”
Laxalt, in his role as a Trump campaign co-chair, helped spearhead numerous pre- and post-presidential election challenges that courts rejected, mostly because of a lack of evidence.
A lengthy investigative report issued in April by the state’s Republican secretary of state found only 20 cases of potential voter fraud out of 4,000 alleged by the state GOP.
Just days after he announced his campaign to challenge Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto in August, Laxalt said he might file pre-emptive legal challenges even before the first votes are cast in 2022. In an interview the same month with a conservative radio show host who falsely asserted that Trump had won Nevada, only for it to be stolen from him by Democrats, Laxalt said, “There’s no question they rigged the election.”
But outside the glare of the media spotlight, Laxalt has gone to greater lengths to soothe jittery Republicans worried about the very election system he’s publicly questioning statewide, according to the audio NBC News obtained of his campaign events in October.
In separate Republican meetings in five of the state's 15 smaller, rural counties, Laxalt zeroed in on the elections conducted in the state’s two most populous counties, Clark and Washoe. Clark County, which contains Las Vegas, is heavily Democratic, while Washoe County, which contains Reno and is considered more of a swing county, also continued its blue trend in backing Biden. Laxalt reassured Republicans that the elections in the 15 rural, heavily GOP counties could be trusted, while the vote in the remaining two couldn't.
"I understand the rurals feel like: ‘You know what? Las Vegas keeps taking these elections, and as long as that’s happening, what vote do we have? What say do we have?’” Laxalt said in his speech Oct. 2 at the Martin Hotel in Winnemucca, according to the audio clip.
"Well look, each election is through each particular county’s voter registrar. Your votes are going to count," Laxalt continued. “Your votes are going to matter. And so you have to vote. We’re going to have to deal with Las Vegas, and we’re going to work on a plan for that.”
On the same day, at another campaign event in Republican-heavy Elko County, Laxalt urged his Republican audience gathered at the Coffee Mug to “insist” that their neighbors go vote and not be disheartened, according to audio clips.
“When they tell you that your vote, ‘You know, hey, our vote doesn’t matter’ — the votes are being counted in Elko County. These elections here are legitimate. Clark County? We got major problems down there. And we've got to fight that,” said Laxalt, who made similar remarks a day later in Eureka, Churchill and White Pine counties.
“I do think votes count here. I do think votes count in at least 15 counties,” Laxalt said at the Owl Club in Ely. “Washoe County can be a little squirrelly.”
Laxalt’s campaign didn't comment on the specifics of his remarks in the rural counties, but he said in a written statement that he singles out Clark County because it was ground zero for election controversies.
“Everyone knows there was fraud, but not a single Nevadan can say how much,” Laxalt said “Every voter deserves more transparency and to be confident in the accuracy of their election results, and I will proudly fight for them.”
Dan Kulin, a spokesman for Clark County’s registrar, said he wasn't familiar enough with Laxalt’s remarks to comment on them fully, but “it sounds like they are repeating false allegations that have been disproven and rejected by the courts and investigations.”
In Washoe County, Assistant Registrar Heather Carmen chuckled at Laxalt’s use of the word “squirrelly” and said elections there were well run. She pointed out that Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske “thoroughly investigated” Republican voter fraud claims and found no widespread fraud.
The fraud investigation blew back on Laxalt after he held a post-election news conference beside a Republican voter named Donald Hartle, who complained that someone cast a ballot in his dead wife’s name.
Investigators later determined that it was Hartle who voted for his dead wife. He was charged and convicted in what a judge called “a cheap political stunt.”
Another Republican, a legally blind woman who complained of voter fraud and who also stood with Laxalt at a news conference, later backed off her allegation after inconsistencies in her story came to light.
Before Cegavske issued a report on her investigation, the state GOP censured her for saying there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud. Laxalt, meanwhile, has tried to cast doubt on the investigation from Cegavske’s office. Cegavske didn't return calls or emails requesting comment.
State GOP Chair Michael McDonald couldn’t be reached for comment, nor could the party’s spokeswoman or the Republican Party chairs in the five counties Laxalt visited in October.
McDonald has been subpoenaed by the House panel investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot for his alleged role in submitting phony electors to help overturn the state’s election results.
Former Nevada GOP Chair Amy Tarkanian said the entire episode has been “very embarrassing.”
“That’s going to follow [Laxalt] for his whole career. ... His little hunt for systemic voter fraud didn’t come to fruition. They didn’t release any hard evidence,” she said.
Tarkanian said she isn't particularly worried about Republican turnout in November. She said the GOP is energized. Still, Laxalt, who is well ahead of primary opponent Sam Brown in recent polls, has veered so far right that it could make it difficult to win in November in the swing state, she said.
The incumbent, Cortez Masto, leads Laxalt in the most recent poll, but she is seen as vulnerable, and Democrats have their own divisions to contend with in the state.
Although she is critical of Laxalt’s election fraud complaints, Tarkanian and others say there were understandable concerns about the way the Democratic governor and Assembly mandated universal no-request vote-by-mail ballots, which were sent to every Nevada voter, in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Clark County’s signature verification process also came under fire from conservatives for being too lax.
“Without a single Republican vote, Democrats radically changed the election rules within the final stretch of the campaign that year, and many voters lost confidence in the system as a result,” Laxalt said in his statement.
Last summer, state legislators made the pandemic-era mail voting expansion permanent, among other changes to elections, which some Republicans have denounced as a state “power grab.”