LAS VEGAS — Nevada’s attorney general candidates start with three priceless political ingredients — presidential good looks, law degrees and a pedigree in state politics.
Democrat Ross Miller’s father was Nevada’s longest-serving governor. Republican Adam Laxalt’s grandfather was former governor and two-term Sen. Paul Laxalt.
But while their family trees have elevated the race to replace termed-out Catherine Cortez Masto, experts say a standout surname can work against a candidate.
“Adam is really coming in as a fairly recent resident of Nevada and skipping all those things in between and going right to the top,” said Warren Lerude, a professor emeritus at University of Nevada, Reno and former journalist who covered Paul Laxalt’s political career. “Ross Miller will not be accused of being an opportunist because he has been in Nevada building his career.”
Laxalt, 34, grew up in Washington, D.C., and served as a judge advocate general for the Navy in Iraq and an assistant law professor at the U.S. Naval Academy before becoming a private attorney in Las Vegas. His campaign has burnished his image as a clean-cut former lieutenant and family man who is getting back to his roots after returning to Nevada three years ago.
There’s a rich legacy to tap into. The elder Laxalt, a prominent politician in the 1970s and 1980s who was sometimes called Ronald Reagan’s “First Friend,” was “very popular, very amiable, could light up a room,” according to Lerude. Books by the senator’s brother — prolific author Robert Laxalt — pumped up the family image.
His political genes extend beyond his grandfather. While he was raised by single mother and political operative Michelle Laxalt, his father is former New Mexico Sen. Pete Dominici.
Laxalt has raised about $591,000 this year compared with about $1.3 million for Miller over the course of the campaign, according to campaign finance disclosure forms filed with the secretary of state’s office in June.
But a late-summer leak, first reported by Nevada political journalist Jon Ralston, threatens to scuttle Laxalt’s chances.
Internal notes from a Las Vegas law office’s 2011-12 job performance review describe Laxalt as a “train wreck” whose work was sloppy and who had trouble executing basic tasks. Reviewers suggested a salary freeze and possible termination.
Lewis and Roca, the law firm where Laxalt worked until he quit to campaign, decried the leak of internal documents and said the review didn’t reflect subsequent positive reviews. Laxalt’s campaign issued a statement condemning the “petty politics” of the leak and shared flattering reviews from the Navy that praised him as a model citizen and sailor.
Laxalt’s campaign also hopes to discount Miller as rusty in the legal realm after years in a secretary of state post that doesn’t require a law degree, according to Laxalt adviser Robert Uithoven.
Miller, 38, grew up in the governor’s mansion during his dad’s decade-long tenure that ended in 1999.
He worked for five years as a Clark County prosecutor before being elected secretary of state in 2006. He’s presided over the implementation of a website that allows online access to campaign finance disclosures and garnered media attention for a short-lived foray into mixed martial arts. A movie trailer-style campaign ad and witty dispatches to 17,000 Twitter followers reinforce his cool, effortless image.
“I’m running on my experience,” he said, noting that he’d tried murder and kidnapping cases as a prosecutor. “The secretary of state oversees cops and attorneys. I’ve been heavily engaged (in the legal realm).”
David Damore, assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said Miller has taken a traditional route toward the top law enforcement position in the state.
Starting out in the more populous southern Nevada, he moved to a post in Carson City and developed a name for himself in northern Nevada. He even garnered support from members of the extended Laxalt family — including Adam Laxalt’s aunt, Neena Laxalt.
Adam Laxalt recently moved to Reno and is working to develop support in the north, where his face is less familiar than his last name.
A political family history can give boost a candidate because it offers “entrée to a lot of places (other) people might not have,” Damore said.
But it only goes so far. After Nevada’s explosive growth in the past decade, fewer voters know the legacy of either name.