The Paranoid Style in Nevada Politics

The balance of power in the U.S. Senate could come down to a single rural county locked in a battle over conspiracy theories about the integrity of the vote

The Paranoid Style in Nevada Politics
Election worker Leah Barney (right) watches over voters as they cast their ballots in Las Vegas, Nevada, in the 2018 midterm elections. (David Becker/Getty Images)

In a land of little rain not far from Death Valley, a national political spotlight shines on this rough-hewn desert town as the midterms approach. To hear some experts tell it, Nye County is suddenly a hotbed of dizzy election deniers in thrall to former President Donald Trump.

But such political conspiracy theory is by no means new to rural Nevada, where anti-government sentiment runs high and county governments serve as a petri dish for far-right branding and experimentation. The decision by the Nye County Commission to embrace the debunked claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election and try hand-counting paper ballots is just the latest example. If the county attempts to hand-count ballots after the polls close on Election Day, it will risk missing the state’s Nov. 17 deadline for certification.

The national spotlight on a community 63 miles west of Las Vegas has briefly diverted attention from Nevada’s U.S. Senate race between groundbreaking incumbent Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto and Republican challenger Adam Laxalt — a race that could determine the fate of the U.S. Senate and by extension the Biden administration’s agenda.

Cortez Masto, a Las Vegas native and former two-term state attorney general, is the first Latina in American history to serve in the Senate and Nevada’s first woman in that position. The Laxalt family name is well-recognized in northern Nevada, where Adam Laxalt’s grandfather Paul rose from sheepherder’s son to the statehouse and the Senate. But not all Laxalt family members are keen on Adam, who was raised and educated in Washington, D.C., parlaying the brand into a Senate career. Some have publicly denounced him.

In the Nevada of 2022, most races boil down to a power struggle between Democrats pursuing the coordinated campaign strategy commonly known as the “Harry Reid machine” (so named for the late Nevada Democrat and onetime Senate majority leader) — while reminding Nevada voters of the election deniers and anti-abortion-rights candidates up and down the GOP ticket — and Republicans who emphasize high gas and grocery prices and unsafe streets, painting Democrats as bad for the economy and soft on crime.

Laxalt, who lost a race for governor in 2018, was raised not knowing that his biological father was New Mexico Republican Sen. Pete Domenici. His mother, Michelle Laxalt, is a former Washington lobbyist. With such connections, it’s little wonder that Cortez Masto’s campaign machine has conjured images of the Machiavellian Roy family from HBO’s “Succession.”

Laxalt also helped lead Trump’s Big Lie litigation efforts in Nevada in the aftermath of the 2020 election. Devoid of facts, the lawsuits were quickly dispatched by the courts, but Laxalt continued to deny the undeniable for months afterward as Trump persisted in spreading his conspiratorial claims.

Some of those falsehoods found a home in Nye, the most prominent county in the United States to change its vote-counting process based on disproven claims of voter fraud. The county will still use its now-maligned but always reliable voting machines to count ballots and submit official results, but its effort to use paper ballots continues to draw press attention.

“In Nevada, election deniers prepare to sabotage the midterms,” read the headline for a recent Dana Milbank column in The Washington Post. “The A.C.L.U. Sues a Nevada County Over Its Plan to Hand-Count Mail Ballots,” The New York Times announced in a story by Joshua Needelman. Both articles featured photos of the man behind this mess, the QAnon conspiracy-curious Republican secretary of state nominee Jim Marchant.

When the early-vote counting began on Oct. 26, the process drew snickers from critics after one group of volunteers took more than three hours to count 50 ballots in a county with more than 33,000 registered voters. “It will get better,” interim Nye County Clerk (and 2020 election denier) Mark Kampf encouraged his charges, with a sign reminding them to “FOCUS, FOCUS.”

It has gotten worse.

The patriot cosplay in the Republican Party stronghold was interrupted on Oct. 27 by Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, who notified Kampf in a letter that the process was unlawful “and may not resume until after the close of polls on November 8, 2022.” The notice followed the state Supreme Court’s ruling agreeing with the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, which has argued that reading the votes received by candidates loudly enough for observers to hear violates state law. In Nevada, votes cannot be tabulated and announced before the polls close on Election Day.

In a statement, ACLU of Nevada Executive Director Athar Haseebullah said, “Nye County’s hand-count process for its short-lived lifespan was an utter disaster fueled by conspiracy theorists. While Nye County’s actions may be a sign of things to come, our response to their actions is also a sign of things to come. … We will combat all efforts to destroy our democracy up and down Nevada.”

If you’re looking for a clear sign of the thin political veneer of the hand-count fiasco, look no further than the simple fact that no one has been able to provide a good reason that it was necessary. Trump won Nye County with 69% of the vote in 2020 (in a state that more narrowly went for Joe Biden). Nearly 90% of Nevadans live in urban Clark and Washoe counties, home to Las Vegas and Reno respectively.

That didn’t prevent members of the county commission for the next two years from defending disproven conspiracy theories about widespread voter fraud and the latest suspicions about the reliability of voting machines with the zeal of true believers.

Suffice it to say they found many like-minded constituents.

Along the way, commissioners also held forth at length about the dangers of the state’s mask mandates and COVID-19 vaccine program. They felt no hesitation discussing the dangers of “Agenda 21,” a deep far-right rabbit hole that imagines the United Nations planning to create a totalitarian world government. At a time when Trump and the national GOP were commonly referring to COVID as the “China virus,” first lady Kathy Sisolak, a Nevada native of Asian heritage, had her character besmirched by a conspiracy-driven Nye commissioner.

By March 15, 2022, the commission was ready to entertain the self-styled experts who toured the country and criss-crossed Nevada with calls to eliminate voting machines and begin hand counting in the state. Among them were retired Army Col. Phil Waldron, who wielded a PowerPoint alleging voter fraud; so-called “cyber forensics expert” Mark Cook; and Russell Ramsland Jr., who held forth with folksy aphorisms while spreading false election fraud claims.

Unfettered by the facts, the commission’s expressed concerns about the propriety of the vote reached a crescendo after Marchant and his band of election deniers denigrated the county’s Dominion voting machines and suggested paper ballots as a potential alternative. After watching Marchant & Co. persuade the commission to weaponize and vilify a previously nonpartisan process, a frustrated county clerk, Sandra “Sam” Merlino, retired early after two decades of working to ensure secure elections in Nye.

Elsewhere in rural Nevada, Marchant’s fear tactics and misdirection found traction. Farther west, sparsely populated Esmeralda County was already using paper ballots and other counties were considering it, with elected officials making no secret of their distrust of election systems that haven’t failed them. To some, it’s further proof that Trump’s Big Lie continues to flourish in the big petri dish of the state’s rural communities.

By then, Marchant, a one-term state legislator who had lost a congressional run in Nevada’s Fourth Congressional District in 2020 and unsuccessfully claimed he was the victim of voter fraud, had arrived in the media spotlight as a frontline promoter of the Big Lie. By December of that year, his election fraud lawsuit was fizzling, but that didn’t prevent him from helping to organize Nevada’s “America First” slate of false electors, aimed at influencing the electoral college vote, to help promote Trump’s claim of voter fraud and plan to interrupt the peaceful transfer of power on Jan. 6, 2021.

In photos of the electoral impostors taken on Dec. 14, 2020, in front of the state legislative building in Carson City, Marchant is clearly visible.

As founder of the America First Coalition (along with QAnon conspiracy promoter Wayne Willott, who calls himself “Juan O. Savin”), Marchant has made no secret of his goal of proving Trump’s debunked election fraud claims. The best way to do that was to place himself in charge of the secretary of state’s office, which oversees elections in Nevada.

In 2021, the GOP censured Cegavske, the Republican secretary of state, after she bravely sided with the facts and declared that there was no “evidentiary support” for widespread fraud claims in Nevada in the 2020 election. At the county level, those responsible for securing local elections have faced threats and protests for nearly two years, with several choosing to bow out rather than be smeared by those who choose to believe conspiracy over truth.

A former Nevada state legislator who voted by mail as a Florida resident but now considers it unsafe, Marchant has basked in his endorsement by the former president. At an October Trump rally in the northern Nevada ranching community of Minden, he told supporters, “When my coalition of secretary of state candidates around the country get elected, we’re gonna fix the whole country, and President Trump is gonna be president again in 2024.”

Weeks earlier, Marchant had boasted to former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, “All we have to do is influence it a little bit, and we win.”

Counting MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell as a chief ally and embracing the bogus claims of the conspiratorial election “monitoring” organization True the Vote, Marchant’s confidence was bolstered by more than his undying fealty to Trump. His efforts were also fueled by thousands of dollars from Trump-aligned political action committees (PACs).

During the primary, Marchant was accused by Republican opponent Jesse Haw of evading Nevada campaign laws by accepting contributions through his own PAC, Conservatives for Election Integrity, that exceeded legal limits. Haw filed a complaint. Marchant moved forward to the general election against Democrat Cisco Aguilar, who reminds voters that his opponent opposes voting by mail and isn’t committed to certifying the results of elections after every vote is counted.

Where dozens of specious voter fraud lawsuits had failed in 2020, Marchant’s brand of madness — he also claimed Nevadans’ votes hadn’t counted “for decades” thanks to a cabal of fixers — was gaining ground in battleground states and especially in Nevada’s rural counties.

But let’s just say that Nye County’s politics are eccentric even by Nevada standards.

For example, when Moonlite Bunny Ranch brothel baron Dennis Hof decided in 2018 to run for the state Assembly from Nye County, he drew ample media attention. When Hof died of a heart attack after his birthday celebration a few weeks before Election Day and still won his race, well, that’s just Nye being Nye. (Dead candidates have been known to win elections. But dead pimps? Only in Nye County.)

The 1970s anti-big government Sagebrush Rebellion movement had its roots in Nevada, where more than 80% of the land is controlled by the federal government. Nye County cattle rancher Wayne Hage, long at odds with the Bureau of Land Management over grazing rights issues, emerged as one of the rebellion’s symbols. Nye County Commissioner Dick Carver, a latter-day Nye-based rebel, would use its battles with the federal government to unsuccessfully attempt to convert all federal public land to Nye County ownership.

But the image created by the Sagebrush Rebellion went viral in the Republican Party long before the creation of the internet. When presidential candidate Ronald Reagan stepped up to a microphone in 1980 in Salt Lake City and said, “I happen to be one who cheers and supports the Sagebrush Rebellion. Count me in as a rebel,” he was channeling its noble cowboy imagery and anti-big government appeal. Over the years, the rebellion’s libertarian cowboy branding has often been used by conservatives seeking to evoke an overreaching federal government.

In 2014, Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy parlayed his long-standing fight with the Bureau of Land Management into a national call for a return to an extremist conservative interpretation of the Constitution and attracted dozens of heavily armed members and associates of the Three Percenters militia and Stewart Rhodes’ violent Oath Keepers. It is little wonder that the “Bundy standoff,” as it came to be known, also drew the interest of GOP dirty dealer Roger Stone and others who understood the potential symbolic power of that western imagery.

Less than a decade later, Proud Boys members and associates are now activists in good standing in the Nevada Republican Party.

The attention of the national press has again turned to rural Nevada, especially to Nye County. Doing his best Inspector Renault impression, the Nevada Independent’s Jon Ralston recently tweeted that “National media is shocked, shocked to read about things” that his news website had been reporting for months.

Let’s remember that American politics didn’t suddenly take a hard-right turn and wind up in Pahrump, Nevada. It has been there for years.

Pundits, reporters and political scientists have come to Pahrump for their own reasons, chief of which is the fact that conspiratorially-inspired changes in Nye County and other rural areas could make a difference if the Cortez Masto-Laxalt race remains as close as predicted.

The national consequences of that race could be enormous. With the Senate evenly split, a Cortez Masto loss may put the Democrats in the minority and scuttle the Biden administration’s agenda. That, Democrats fear, would put in play everything from drastic changes in Social Security and Medicare to support for Ukraine as it fights for its survival against Russia. Recent GOP ads courting Latinos in Nevada have alluded to the billions flowing to Ukraine that might be put to better use at home, while Republican leaders in Congress have already signaled their reluctance to keep aid flowing to Kyiv should the party take over the majority.

A Democratic victory would give a president whose approval rating has been hammered by inflation a chance to climb out of the economic morass that has made even party loyalists wince at the gas pump and supermarket.

In addition to campaigning on the major COVID and inflation relief efforts championed by the Biden administration, Cortez Masto has reminded voters of successful legislation she played a role in pushing through Congress, including legislation ensuring health benefits for Vietnam War veterans who continue to suffer the effects of Agent Orange and improved mental health access for veterans. Meanwhile, Laxalt has stressed his military service and attempted to portray Cortez Masto as part of a radical left agenda.

With so much at stake, millions have poured into the campaigns. Cortez Masto has set fundraising records for the state, with more than $44 million amassed through September, according to the campaign finance watchdog Open Secrets. She has also benefited from an additional $29 million in attack ads against Laxalt from PACs. Laxalt has raised less money, some $13 million through September, but has benefited by a greater outpouring from PACs, more than $39 million.

While bombarding television and social media, both camps have sought pockets of voters willing to cross over in a state whose major political parties are increasingly challenged. That’s why we have seen Cortez Masto court voters and endorsements in rural Northern Nevada, while Laxalt’s campaign has made outreach efforts to the state’s burgeoning Latino community, like with the Ukraine ads.

The Latino vote in Nevada is not monolithic. Although Latinos are an important part of the Democrats’ electoral strategy, Republicans have increasingly made inroads appealing to a constituency known for its emphasis on family, hard work, entrepreneurialism and religious faith. Here is where Cortez Masto and the Democrats’ Reid machine have relied on the political energy of the 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union to get out the vote. With economic conditions hurting working-class pocketbooks and Republican ad campaigns accentuating the challenges families are facing, patience with the Democrats is increasingly strained.

This competitive race reflects not just ideological polarization but potential disaffection with both parties. Through September, registered independents in the state outnumbered Republicans and were second only to registered Democrats, according to the secretary of state. Republicans made registration gains but remained more than 80,000 behind the Democrats.

A Nevada Independent/OH Predictive Insights poll released on Oct. 31 (Nevada Day) showed Cortez Masto leading Laxalt by two points (43% to 41%) with a margin of error of plus or minus 4%. Other polls have shaded in Laxalt’s favor and a recent survey by The New York Times and Siena College showed the race knotted at 47-47.

These poll numbers reflect another reality of Nevada political history: Senate races in the state have more than once been decided by a tiny fraction of the vote. In 1964, the Democrat Howard Cannon defeated Adam Laxalt’s grandfather Paul by 48 votes — just four hundredths of 1% of the 134,624 ballots cast. It remains the closest certified election in Senate history.

In 1998, Reid defeated the Republican rising star John Ensign by 401 votes, out of 435,864 ballots cast.

With so much at stake far from Nye County, the balance of power in the Senate may hang on the veracity of an election process that is increasingly weaponized by dangerous conspiracy theories and the inevitable litigation that further challenge voters’ faith in the process.

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