Around Las Vegas, could ‘None of These Candidates’ ballot line determine U.S. Senate control?

None of These Candidates

Portion of mail-in ballot in Las Vegas

Nevada elections are quirky, and that was true long before voters in the county immediately to the west of Las Vegas elected a dead pimp to the state Assembly. But two unusual provisions in Nevada election law–banning write-in candidates while affording voters the option in statewide primary and general races to formally choose “None of These Candidates”–might actually determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the U.S. Senate come next January.

That’s because (1) the Senate is now split 50-50, and (2) first-term Nevada incumbent Democratic senator Catherine Cortez Masto is in a surprisingly tight race with Republican Adam Laxalt. Pollsters now rate the contest a toss-up.

This is where None of These Candidates (NOTC) might come into play as the spoiler. It is an article of faith among political experts in Nevada that NOTC attracts far more upset Republican-leaning voters in general elections than it does upset Democratic-leaning voters. There even have been several contests in Nevada where NOTC has gotten more voters than all candidates. (How do you put that on the “winning” candidate’s resume?) NOTC votes are disregarded when determining the winner, but the law requires that the results for NOTC be included in every official voting tally. A public shaming, I suppose.

Think I am engaging in rank hypotheticals? In 1998, long before I became New To Las Vegas, Harry Reid, the incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator (and later majority leader) seeking a third term, won by a scant 401 votes over Republican John Ensign. NOTC received 8,011 votes, 20 times Reid’s margin of victory.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton carried Nevada, with its six electoral votes, over Donald J. Trump by 27,202 votes of 1,125,385 cast. But NOTC polled slightly more, 28,863. In 2020, Joseph R. Biden’s winning margin over Trump, 33,596, was significantly greater than the 14,079 cast for NOTC.

But contrast that with Cortez Masto’s winning race for the Senate in 2016. She beat Republican Joe Heck by 26,915 votes. NOTC received 42,257 votes.

The None of These Candidates line is unique among the 50 states. It was added by the Nevada Legislature in 1975–the year after Richard Nixon resigned his presidency in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. The idea was to attract alienated voters who otherwise might not vote. The preamble to the legislation stated its intent was so “any voter may express his lack of confidence in presidential candidates or candidates for statewide office.”

The GOP in Nevada is well aware of the impact of NOTC on its fortunes. In 2012 several operatives backed by the Republican National Committee sued in Nevada federal court to eliminate the NOTC line, claiming it was unconstitutional. A judge actually ruled for the Republicans, but a federal appeals court paused that ruling and later dismissed the case on grounds the plaintiffs lacking standing to sue. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene.

One reason I think NOTC could determine the Cortez Masto-Laxalt race has to do with some elements of Laxalt’s background. He is a huge supporter of Trump, who enthusiastically has endorsed him in return. In 2020 Laxalt co-chaired the Trump presidential campaign in Nevada. There’s nothing wrong with that. But then–he’s a lawyer and like Cortez Masto a former Nevada attorney general–Laxalt was a front man helping to lead the spectacularly unsuccessful legal effort to prove massive voter fraud against Trump in Nevada. The evidence was lacking and even bogus, along with legal pleadings poorly written and argued.

When the dust settled, the only proven criminal cases of voter fraud in Nevada turned out to be … a Republican, the chief financial officer of the private business of the Nevada GOP’s finance chairman, another Trump supporter. The CFO, Donald Hartle, had called a press conference to claim that someone fraudulently had voted the absentee ballot of his deceased wife. Hartle eventually pleaded guilty to being that someone, but got off with a small fine and probation. It’s hard to believe Hartle didn’t tell the truth earlier to the GOP legal “dream team” challenging the election in Nevada that included Laxalt.

Some national polls have suggested there are a certain number of normally Republican voters looking for a way to avoid supporting Trump. For some Silver State voters, NOTC might seem like a very appealing option.

Laxalt, 44, carries some other baggage, not entirely of his own making. His grandfather was Paul Laxalt, a popular former Nevada governor and U.S. senator.While he was born in Reno, Adam Laxalt lived most of his life around Washington, D.C., where his mother, Michelle Laxalt, was a Republican staffer who later became a prominent lobbyist and guest on cable news shows. Adam took up residence in Nevada about a decade ago.

He has talked a lot about his grandfather, but not his father. Perhaps this is the reason: Born in 1979, Adam is the illegitimate son of one of his grandfather’s Republican colleagues, U.S. Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico. Domenici was one of my senators the 12 years I lived long ago in Albuquerque (one of his grandchildren played on my child’s soccer team). He made political hay touting himself as a family man with a wife and eight (legitimate) children.

Michelle agreed with Domenici, 26 years her senior, to save his political career by keeping his parentage a secret and raising Adam herself as a single parent, which she did. Domenici apparently didn’t tell his own family. The secret held until years after Domenici ended his 36-year career in the Senate. In 2013, to preempt a rumored media expose that never appeared, both Domenici and Michelle Laxalt issued statements admitting to the affair and Adam’s birth. Domenici died in 2017 at age 85.

Given this background, it perhaps is not at all surprising that staunchly conservative Adam Laxalt is anti-abortion, even though Nevada is a state that is pretty strongly pro-choice (In 1990 voters by referendum decreed it would take a public vote to restrict abortion rights rather than mere legislative action). But then there’s that portion of the media advertising for Laxalt not attacking Cortez Masto that tries to portray Laxalt as some kind of life-long Nevadan. Especially given this back story, little could be farther from the truth.

I imagine this is one reason why about half of the far-flung Laxalt clan publicly endorsed Cortex Masto, 58, repeating their 2018 actions in endorsing Democrat Steve Sislolak over Laxalt in the race for governor (Sisolak won.) In a recent reply, Laxalt tweeted, “It’s not surprising that once again a handful of family members and spouses, half of whom do not live in Nevada, and most of whom are Democrats, are supporting a Democrat.”

Again, it’s not hard to see some voters absorbing all this and then checking the NOTC box.

The Senate race includes three other candidates on the ballot. Barry Lindemann is an independent. But the other two, Barry Rubinson of the far-right Independent American Party, and Neil Scott of the Libertarian Party, represent third parties that often draw from the Republican vote.

Nevada is not a runoff state. Whatever candidate gets the most votes wins, even if it is less than 50% of those cast. So keep an eye on NOTC, a non-candidate that may yet prove to be the real winner again.

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