See update at end of story
In this space on October 24, I made a bold prediction. Nevada’s unique and even cynical “None of These Candidates” ballot line could cost Republicans control of the U.S. Senate. No one else I saw at the time wrote about the spoiler scenario I envisioned from the New To Las Vegas world headquarters.
Now I’m getting ready to take a bow.
For four days in a painfully slow vote count, first-term incumbent Nevada Democratic senator Catherine Cortez Masto trailed upstart Republican Adam Laxalt. But on Saturday night, mainly on the strength of continual counting of mail-in ballots from heavily Democratic Clark County (home to Las Vegas and 74% of the state’s population), Laxalt finally fell behind. If that holds–and almost all the uncounted votes are from Clark County–Cortez Masto will become the 50th Democrat in the 100-member U.S. Senate. With Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote, that would give the Dems control for another two years regardless of who wins the run-off election next month in Georgia. CNN and the Associated Press just called the race for Cortez Masto.
Laxalt is now trailing Cortez Masto by 4,982 votes. But None of These Candidates is pulling more than twice as many votes, 11,877 votes. It’s widely believed among political pros in Nevada that NOTC disproportionately draws far more votes away from disaffected Republicans than it does from disaffected Democrats.
The GOP certainly thinks that. A decade ago, the Republican National Committee backed a court effort by Nevada operatives to have the NOTC line declared unconstitutional. The GOP bid failed.
Why is there even a NOTC line in Nevada? You can thank Richard Nixon–and maybe some forward-looking Democrats in Carson City.
Nixon resigned as U.S. president in August 1974 in the face of certain impeachment over the Watergate burglary scandal. In November 1974, the mid-term national elections were a bloodbath for Republicans, as many party faithful opted to show their disgust. A few months later, five Nevada legislators co-sponsored a bill, AB 336, adding the NOTC line ostensibly, as the bill’s preamble stated, so that “any voter may express his lack of confidence in presidential candidates or candidates for statewide office.” The NOTC count is required to be included in all official vote results. A published summary by staffers from that year of “significant legislation” called AB 336 “unique” and said a NOTC selection “is intended to provide an additional measure of voter sentiment.” The explanation at the time was that it was better to at least get disaffected voters to the polls.
Maybe. But, according to my review of the legislative history, all five listed co-sponsors of AB 336 were Democrats–who controlled the Legislature–with no Republicans. It strikes me that someone might have thought at the time NOTC would become a convenient way in a state with little ticket-splitting of giving certain voters–i.e. angry Republicans not prepared to back a Democrat–a way of not voting for a Republicans.
It’s worked before. In 1998, Harry Reid, the incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator (and later majority leader) was seeking a third term. He 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 over Donald J. Trump by less than the NOTC count. Hell, in 2016 Cortez Masto beat Republican Joe Heck for her first term by 26,915 votes. NOTC drew 42,257 votes.
As I see it, NOTC was a trap waiting to be sprung on a Republican candidate like Adam Laxalt in a tight race. His campaign advertising falsely made it seem like he was a lifelong Nevadan. In fact, while born in Reno (his grandfather, Paul Laxalt, had been a Nevada governor and U.S. senator), he was raised by his single-parent mother, a Washington lobbyist (who conceived him in an affair with then-U.S. Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico) in the Washington, D.C. area and only moved back barely a decade ago. About half of the far-flung Laxalt clan publicly endorsed Cortex Masto. Voters took note.
A big supporter of Donald J. Trump, who enthusiastically endorsed him, Laxalt, a former Nevada attorney general (like Cortez Masto), co-chaired the Trump campaign in Nevada. Laxalt was a lead lawyer in what proved to be an unsuccessful, bogus and even comical effort to prove voter fraud in Trump’s unsuccessful 2020 campaign here. Meanwhile, the only person criminally convicted was a Republican who worked for Trump’s Nevada finance chief and had held a well-publicized press conference with GOP backing to claim that someone stolen and voted his dead wife’s absentee ballot. He didn’t mention he was that someone.
Laxalt–maybe understandably, given the circumstances of his conception–also was stridently anti-abortion in a state whose voters long ago wrote into law pro-choice protections. This was all grist for a NOTC vote by a registered Republican who couldn’t bear to vote for a Democrat but found Laxalt to be wanting in so many ways.
London’s DailyMail.com is reporting that “the knives are out” within Laxalt’s campaign as to who is to blame for the failing effort. Of course, I’d say it’s always the fault of the candidate. But this is Nevada, with its NOTC. The whole country now knows, but you read it here first.