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Nevada, a longtime presidential battleground state, is hosting another key race in 2022 — the fight to control one of the state’s two seats in the U.S. Senate.
The seat is currently held by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat first elected to the chamber in 2016. The Republican primary field features two key contenders: former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt and Afghanistan War veteran Sam Brown.
Beyond being a first-term senator running for reelection for the first time, Cortez Masto faces a challenge from basic historical patterns. Parties that hold the White House — currently the Democratic Party — tend to fare poorly in midterm elections, especially when the president has low approval ratings. And Nevada is a state that Democrats won only narrowly during the 2016 and 2020 presidential races.
Democrats are hoping the eventual Republican nominee comes off as too extreme for a purple state. They also hope that the May 2 leak of a Supreme Court draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade could energize Democratic voters.
For now, the race is considered highly competitive between the parties, regardless of who wins the GOP nomination.
An April poll by the firm OH Predictive Insights for the Nevada Independent found Cortez Masto leading Laxalt by 8 points. But a Reno Gazette-Journal/Suffolk University poll taken that same month found both Laxalt and Brown holding leads over Cortez Masto, although both were within the survey’s margin of error.
In the two surveys, Cortez Masto was taking less than 50% of the vote, an ominous position for any incumbent. Cortez Masto "is really going to have quite the fight on her hands," Mike Noble, the chief of research and managing partner of OH Predictive Insights, told the Independent on April 18.
Another concern for Cortez Masto, as it is for any Nevada incumbent, is that her state is one of the nation’s most transient, meaning that many people who moved in during the past few years know little about her and her record.
Voter registration data shows recent gains for Republicans and nonpartisan voters and not for Democrats, according to tallies by the Independent.
One comfort for Cortez Masto is fundraising: She has easily outpaced both Republican contenders. Since the start of the election cycle, Cortez Masto has raised almost $21.8 million, and she had more than $11 million in the bank at the end of March. She also doesn’t have to contend with any significant primary challenge.
Over the same period, Laxalt raised far less — $4.3 million — with only about $2.2 million in the bank. Brown raised $3.2 million and has a war chest of just under $680,000. Spending by outside groups has been limited on all sides so far.
In the run-up to the June 14 primary, Laxalt and Brown have been battling each other aggressively.
Laxalt, the grandson of Paul Laxalt, a prominent Nevada governor and senator from the 1960s to the 1980s, was endorsed early by former President Donald Trump and proceeded to win the backing of other key figures in the national party. This gave Laxalt early momentum: An early May poll by Emerson College for The Hill newspaper found Laxalt leading Brown by 23 points in the GOP primary, and a late May poll by OH Predictive Insights found Laxalt leading by 15 points.
Brown has sought to leverage his military service and background outside of politics in recent weeks. The state party endorsed Brown over Laxalt.
"Brown is giving Laxalt much more of a run than many initially thought," said University of Nevada, Las Vegas political scientist David F. Damore. "He has been able to raise more money than expected and is leaning heavily into his military service and biography."
PolitiFact is fact-checking candidates for U.S. Senate seats in key states. If you spot a claim in an ad, speech, debate or on social media that you think may warrant a fact-check, email us at [email protected]
Catherine Cortez Masto: Campaign website
Biography: Cortez Masto succeeded Democrat Harry Reid in the Senate; she is the first Hispanic woman to serve in the chamber. Cortez Masto has variously served as an aide to then-Gov. Robert Miller, as a federal prosecutor, as executive vice chancellor of the state’s higher education system, and as assistant county manager of Clark County, which includes greater Las Vegas. In 2006, voters elected her attorney general; she was reelected in 2010. In 2016, she defeated three-term U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, a Republican, by a little over 2 percentage points to win the Senate seat. During the 2020 election cycle, Cortez Masto chaired the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm; despite some high-profile losses, she led her party into a tie in the chamber that was broken by Vice President Kamala Harris. In the Senate, Cortez Masto chairs the Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee that oversees public lands, forests, and mining — issues of crucial interest to Nevada, a state where about four of every five acres is federal land.
Core policies: Cortez Masto has backed a blend of progressive and moderate positions. She voted to increase the minimum wage and urged negotiations for drug prices, solar energy tax credits, and a comprehensive immigration overhaul with a pathway to citizenship. Especially since the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, Cortez Masto has touted her stance on abortion rights. "I have a record in support of a woman’s right to choose. And my opponent, Adam Laxalt, opposes it, and will take it away," Cortez Masto told Politico after the leak.
As the Democrats’ midterm political peril has become clearer, Cortez Masto has broken with some of her party’s stances. She voted with Republicans to sanction companies involved with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would carry Russian natural gas to Germany. She also voted with Republicans to scuttle a federal mask mandate on public transportation. And she opposed the White House’s plan to lift enforcement of Title 42, a policy invoked during the COVID-19 pandemic that allows immigration authorities to expel immigrants arriving at U.S. borders without letting them apply for asylum or other immigration protections.
Key backers: Every notable Democratic and liberal group; Cortez Masto has no significant primary challengers.
Adam Laxalt: Campaign website
Biography: In addition to being the grandson of Paul Laxalt, Adam Laxalt is the son of former New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, which was not publicly known until 2013. He earned undergraduate and law degrees from Georgetown University. He served in the U.S. Navy in the Iraq War, helping oversee 20,000 detainees. In 2014, Laxalt was elected attorney general, narrowly defeating Ross Miller, son of former Gov. Bob Miller. Instead of seeking a second term in 2018, Laxalt ran for governor but lost to Democrat Steve Sisolak by about 4 percentage points. In 2020, he served as co-chair of Trump’s Nevada campaign, and he took a leading role after the election when the campaign sought, unsuccessfully, to overturn Biden’s victory in the state.
Core policies: Laxalt has articulated conservative themes common in other Republican Senate campaigns. He supports building a wall to stop illegal immigration, gun rights, and voter identification requirements at the polls while opposing what he calls "soft-on-crime" Democratic policies and mask mandates. After the Supreme Court leak on Roe v. Wade, he called a decision to overturn the ruling a "historic victory for the sanctity of life," although he added that abortion access was already settled law in Nevada due to passage of a measure to keep abortion legal.
Key backers: Former President Donald Trump; Donald Trump Jr.; Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Josh Hawley of Missouri; Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida; former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn; conservative talk radio host Mark Levin; the American Conservative Union; Gun Owners of America; and the Club for Growth.
Sam Brown: Campaign website
Biography: After graduating from West Point, Brown trained at the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Ga., and was assigned to Fort Hood and, eventually, Kandahar, Afghanistan. A few months into his deployment, a vehicle he was in was struck by an improvised explosive device, causing injuries that required three years of rehabilitation and that left extensive scarring. He later earned a master’s of business administration from Southern Methodist University and founded a small company that provides assistance to veterans. In his Senate run, Brown has positioned himself as a political outsider, in contrast to Laxalt’s (and Cortez Masto’s) extensive political pedigree.
Core policies: Brown takes conservative stances on issues as immigration, voter ID, guns, abortion, and crime. Brown has focused somewhat more on social issues than Adam Laxalt, targeting "critical race theory" in schools and efforts to "silence conservative voices" in social media.
Key backers: The central committee of the Nevada Republican Party endorsed Brown over Laxalt in early May.
Catherine Cortez Masto: Campaign website
Adam Laxalt: Campaign website
Sam Brown: Campaign website
OpenSecrets, Nevada Senate fundraising, accessed May 11, 2022
Nevada Independent, "Poll: Cortez Masto leads Laxalt for Nevada Senate; ominous signs over Biden approval," April 18, 2022
Nevada Independent, "Laxalt, Brown spar to unseat Cortez Masto, flip Senate seat for GOP," May 2, 2022
Nevada Independent, "Cortez Masto reserves record-smashing $10 million for ads in election’s final stretch," March 24, 2022
Nevada Independent, "Poll: Laxalt has 15 point lead over Brown ahead of upcoming GOP Senate primary," May 19, 2022
Reno Gazette-Journal/Suffolk University poll, April 12, 2022
Reno Gazette-Journal, "Nevada Republican Party picks Joey Gilbert, Sam Brown in vote on midterm candidate endorsements," May 2, 2022
Politico, "Vulnerable Senate Dems campaign as last hope against abortion ban," May 6, 2022
Politico, "Threat to Roe puts GOP on defense in 2022 battlegrounds," May 7, 2022
NBC News, "'Outsider' in Nevada’s GOP Senate primary surges, rattling Trump's pick," June 1, 2022