Catherine Cortez Masto defeats Adam Laxalt in Nevada, clinching control of Senate for Democrats

Incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto has defeated Republican challenger Adam Laxalt in Nevada by the slimmest of margins, ensuring that Democrats will keep control of the U.S. Senate.

Along with neighboring Arizona, Nevada was one of two battleground states where the Senate result remained up in the air long after Election Day as officials tallied every last batch of ballots to determine the winner.

A third key Senate race — the contest between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and former football star Herschel Walker in Georgia — is headed for a Dec. 6 runoff after neither candidate secured the 50% of the vote required to win outright.

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But Cortez Masto’s crucial victory in Nevada now gives Democrats 50 Senate seats regardless of what happens in Georgia. In a 50-50 Senate, Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris casts the tie-breaking vote.

Holding the Senate despite this year’s high inflation — and a deep-seated historical pattern of intense midterm backlash against the president’s party — ranks as the one of the most surprising and consequential results of an election in which Democrats performed far better than anyone expected. It also makes Joe Biden the first Democratic president since John F. Kennedy in 1962 to not only keep control of the Senate but possibly even expand his majority there.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-N.V., and Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak hold their hands up after giving remarks at an election night party.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-N.V., and Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak at an election night party in Las Vegas on Nov. 8. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

While Laxalt led narrowly in the vote count for much of the week, his rural firewall was ultimately not strong enough to withstand Cortez Masto’s two-to-one advantage among the tens of thousands of eleventh-hour mail voters from in and around Las Vegas and Reno whose ballots were counted last.

With more than 95% of votes counted, the Associated Press called the race for Cortez Masto late Saturday. Her margin of victory was approximately half a percentage point, making Nevada 2022’s closest Senate contest.

It was a fitting end for a race that was tied in the polls right up to Election Day.

When legendary Nevada Sen. Harry Reid announced his retirement in 2015, he handpicked Cortez Masto — the state’s former attorney general — as his successor. She won Reid’s old seat the following year by 2.5 percentage points, becoming the first Latina senator in U.S. history.

With inflation hitting especially hard in Nevada, a largely working-class state, national Democrats openly worried about Cortez Masto’s chances in 2022. Often described as a “workhorse” rather than a “show horse,” the senator had struggled to raise her profile back home despite helping to deliver pandemic relief for the state’s hospitality industry and to cap monthly costs for insulin.

Recent elections had shown Republicans gaining ground statewide, boosted in part by a rightward drift among Latino men. And no one knew which way the state’s growing independent electorate would break.

Republican Senate nominee Adam Laxalt speaks at a campaign event.
Republican Senate nominee Adam Laxalt at a campaign event in Las Vegas on Nov. 5. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

For his part, Laxalt seemed almost destined to run for office. His grandfather was “Tall” Paul Laxalt, the widely admired Nevada governor and senator who was so close to President Ronald Reagan that the New York Times dubbed him the “First Friend.” His mother is Paul’s daughter Michelle, a lobbyist who was working as a Reagan operative when Adam was born in 1978. And in 2013, Michelle revealed that Adam, then 34, was the secret son of longtime New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici.

Laxalt succeeded Cortez Masto as attorney general in 2016, then launched a failed bid for governor two years later. In 2020 he embraced Donald Trump’s baseless claims that the election had been rigged and stolen and waged a seemingly endless campaign alleging that “thousands of illegal votes” had cast “grave doubt” on Nevada’s results.

(When Nevada’s Republican secretary of state reviewed 3,963 alleged election integrity violations submitted by the state GOP, she found no evidence of widespread fraud.)

Laxalt’s hope this year was that after locking down his party’s pro-Trump base in the primary — which he won by 20 percentage points — he could pivot in the general election with soft-focus ads that portrayed him as the once wayward son of a single mother who overcame alcoholism to become the “protector” of his own young children.

“I turned my life around,” he told the camera. “That taught me helping others gives life meaning.”

Laxalt largely avoided the press. And he downplayed his support for a state referendum banning abortion after 13 weeks of pregnancy by saying the issue should remain up to each state. In Nevada — where a 1990 statute protects abortion rights from “legislative amendment or repeal” up to 24 weeks of pregnancy — “that means the only people who can alter Nevada’s abortion policies are the voters of Nevada,” he said.

But thanks in part to a massive $44 million war chest — and a relentless barrage of attack ads slamming Laxalt as the “charmed” scion of an “elite” family as well as “the proud face of the Big Lie in Nevada” who “made it clear he wants to make abortion illegal” to boot — Cortez Masto was able to hang on.

Preliminary exit polls show Cortez Masto winning Latinos 62% to 33% — much better than some pre-election surveys had predicted, and almost precisely in line with Hillary Clinton's margin there in 2016. The same surveys also showed Cortez Masto (48%) beating Laxalt (45%) among independents, who make up roughly a third of Nevada's electorate. Typically, the president’s party loses independents by double-digit margins in midterm years.