RENO, Nev. — Common sense more than any campaign strategy dictated that Adam Laxalt not trumpet his own military service in Nevada’s sometimes-heated Republican Senate primary.
After all, the ex-attorney general, who served as a Navy judge advocate general in Iraq, was running against retired Army Capt. Sam Brown, a war hero who was nearly killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan and whose badly scarred face serves as a more powerful reminder of his sacrifice than his Purple Heart.
But with his former foe now turned patriotic ally, Laxalt, the son of a U.S. senator and grandson of another, is trying to make the most of his own military career.
He is relying on familiar GOP buzzwords in appealing to veterans to help save the country from “the left” and calling Democrats the party of the “megarich” as he tries to unseat Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.
In some cases he is also capitalizing further on his military experience — and Cortez Masto’s lack of it — with links to conservative issues from U.S. border safety to government overreach on things like COVID-19.
He warns about the dangers of Afghan terrorists, prematurely released from captivity, sneaking into the U.S. and pledges to reinstate military members who were discharged for refusing to get coronavirus vaccinations.
They're the kind of campaign issues that strike a chord with many rallying around candidates like Laxalt, backed by former President Trump in a Western battleground that Republicans view as one of their best chances to turn a blue Senate seat red.
“First and foremost, there is no substitute for service. And we all know that,” Laxalt said recently at the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Reno, where he and Brown served up free hot dogs. “Obviously, Sen. Masto hasn’t served."
It's a line he couldn’t use in debates with Brown, who denounced Laxalt during the primary as part of the “elite” Washington establishment.
Laxalt — the grandson of former U.S. Sen. and Nevada Gov. Paul Laxalt, and son of former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. — spent much of his early life in the D.C. area.
He graduated from Georgetown law school, was an assistant law professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and served with the JAG Corps in Iraq but didn’t engage in the sort of field combat Brown saw with the 1st Infantry in 2008.
At the VFW, Laxalt was introduced by an ex-commander of a B-2 test squad who created a potentially awkward moment when referencing Laxalt’s role in the military before the room eventually erupted into laughter.
“I’ll forgive him for being a JAG,” Air Force Col. Tony Grady said. “But then, not really, because when I was a commander, the JAG was in my hip pocket, to keep me out of trouble.”
Brown never claimed his military record outranked Laxalt's, but he did make veiled references during the primary to the way each got where they are.
“I wasn’t born into power,” Brown said in his first ad, describing the Taliban bomb that “nearly killed me,” the soldiers who dragged his burning body to safety under mortar fire and his subsequent 30 surgeries.
Each pitch ended with the same tag line: “Career politicians can’t fix Washington; they broke it."
Initially, the quote was juxtaposed with images of Cortez Masto and President Joe Biden but later was accompanied by photos of Cortez Masto and Laxalt.
Now, Brown is singing Laxalt's praises and pleading with vets of all political stripes to rally behind him.
“What we do in primaries as Republicans is identify who can lay down the most effective fire, and they become the main effort,” Brown said. “Our duty is to go out there and be those foot soldiers for Adam Laxalt."
At the VFW, Laxalt linked Cortez Masto to Democratic policies he says have weakened the U.S. military, disrespected its soldiers and made young Americans less likely to enlist. His biggest applause came when he ridiculed those who “wonder why” military recruiting is down.
“Well, how about because they kicked out service members for refusing to take the COVID shots?” Laxalt said. “We have Navy SEALS after 12-year investments and 15 tours of duty to terrible places. I'm a guaranteed vote to reinstate those people.”
Laxalt said he'd heard Cortez Masto hadn't held a town hall meeting with veterans for at least a year.
Not true, her campaign said.
Cortez Masto, whose father and grandfather served in the U.S. Army, hosted at least a dozen events with Nevada veterans in the past year “to make sure she’s hearing their concerns and is able to deliver the federal support they need,” her campaign said in an email.
Her accomplishments include approval of the construction of a national veterans cemetery in Elko that locals had sought for nearly a decade.
She helped pass a bill guaranteeing health and compensation benefits for veterans exposed to Agent Orange. Her legislation to protect VA benefits for student veterans was signed into law, as was a measure she backed to improve veterans’ access to mental health services.
As he did during the primary, Laxalt reminds vets he founded the nation's first state office of military legal services as Nevada's attorney general — a creation the Pentagon eventually embraced and several states later adopted.
He touts his JAG work in Iraq — where his legal team oversaw more than 20,000 detainees — when blasting the Biden administration's withdrawal from Afghanistan, “leaving billions of dollars of weapons behind” for potential terrorists.
He said the “Afghan debacle” marked the first time Americans “took the measure of this commander in chief and knew he was not up to the job."
“Sen. Masto is not holding him accountable,” Laxalt said. “A terrorist that was released in Afghanistan could actually be in this country today. This is a huge issue, and it’s an absolute shame that Sen. Masto is dead silent on this.”
Cortez Masto insists she has pushed back on Biden’s method of withdrawal from Afghanistan after criticizing Trump’s proposal to withdraw without a plan in place.
She gets high marks from Ross Bryant, a retired Army veteran who is the executive director of UNLV’s Military & Veteran Services Center in Las Vegas.
Bryant describes himself as a moderate Republican who has voted for candidates in both parties. He's glad when veterans are elected to Congress and acknowledges the veteran community “is sometimes very harsh: 'If you are not a vet, you don’t know what it’s like.’”
He said that Laxalt “did great for us” as attorney general, and that Brown's backing should carry weight with some: "He’s been wounded, he’s one of us.'”
But, he said, it’s wrong to portray Cortez Masto as anything but a staunch, effective advocate for veterans. He ticks off a list that includes expanding Agent Orange coverage to toxic burn-pit exposures, pressuring federal agencies to set up booths at UNLV's veteran job fairs, and reversing benefit formulas during the COVID pandemic that would have drastically reduced $9 million worth of vet benefits for remote-students at UNLV alone.
“At the end of the day, she has delivered. She’s been a rock star for us,” Bryant said.