Laxalt confuses laws, makes false statements about lobbyist support during debate

After covering politics long enough, you think you lose the capacity to be astonished.

But I find, especially in Nevada, this is not so.

How else to explain a forum Saturday during which one candidate for attorney general appeared not to know the difference between the public records law and the Open Meeting Law and finished by declaring he had no support from Nevada lobbyists, when his campaign manager, a registered Carson City advocate, was in the room.

I’ve seen poor debate performances. I’ve seen hopefuls not prepared. And I’ve seen candidates make gaffes.

But never have I seen someone so lost as Republican attorney general contender Adam Laxalt was at the Aliante Casino in North Las Vegas on Saturday morning. Laxalt, who debated Democrat Ross Miller before the Nevada Press Association, had his message points down cold: I was in the Navy, and Ross Miller took compromising gifts!

But outside that comfort zone, Laxalt looked and sounded very much like the “train wreck” described in that devastating law firm evaluation, unfamiliar with basic concepts and what is contained in Nevada Revised Statutes.

Miller stumbled only when confronted with questions about the $70,000 in gifts he has taken as secretary of state, acting overly defensive on what could be a real political vulnerability. But other than that, Miller was fluent in the issues the media folks wanted to hear about and said all the right things about transparency and open government.

Yes, Miller has an obvious advantage because he has spent eight years as secretary of state and Laxalt just moved to Nevada a few years ago. But based on what happened Saturday, Laxalt is lucky this was not televised (it will be posed next week on on the press association's site) and may not make much difference in the race, especially because GOP third-party groups are poised to keep him afloat with a likely seven figures in outside spending. (The Democratic attorneys general are poised to combat that with a TV buy that begins next week.)

The most, ahem, astonishing moment in the debate was when Laxalt, during his closing statement, declared, “I have no support from lobbyists in Nevada.”

This came as one of his key patrons, ex-Gov. Bob List, sat a few feet away from him in the front row and Robert Uithoven, his campaign manager, stood in the back. Both have been registered lobbyists in Carson City as have Laxalt’s other fervent backers, attorney Joe Brown and Las Vegas Sands executive Andy Abboud.

Yes, candidates lie all the time. But rarely can such dissimulations be disproven by the presence of people in the same room!

The debate exposed how much these two candidates don’t like each other, too, with Laxalt saying Miller feels “entitled” to the seat because he is in office, which showed a remarkable lack of self-awareness because the GOP hopeful is only being propped up because of his last name, which his ex-senator grandfather has and whose longtime friends have given Laxalt the appearance of viability.

For his part, Miller repeatedly bristled at Laxalt’s use of the gift issue, pointing to the “outside groups” and “dark money” that have “mischaracterized” the litany of trips and knicknacks, even though it seems clear that if you are going to crusade against lawmakers taking certain gifts, maybe you need to be more like Caesar’s wife.

But whether or not Miller should have taken gifts, Laxalt’s awkward efforts to make the issue one of the secretary of state’s integrity without showing any nexus to official actions for what generally are trinkets and “educational” trips were obvious. On the other hand, what else does he have?

Miller knows the issues much better than he does. Miller has more state support than he does. Miller is much smoother than he is.

So all Laxalt has is the outside money, regular in-kind contributions from The Las Vegas Review-Journal and an ominous year for Democrats. I have seen no private poll that shows Laxalt within the margin of error, even though he boasted to the Gazette-Journal's Ray Hagar that his surveys do.

Miller has let the GOP attorneys general and Laxalt run for a couple of weeks unchallenged, so he probably has lost some of his lead. And that explains why he is going up with two image commercials next week -- one minute-long spot and another 30-second ad.

I did get a kick out of three generations of Millers attending the debate – his parents and his grandmother were there. I gather his kids were busy to make it four generations.

Although I thought Laxalt scored some points on whether the AG should have sued the feds on Obamacare and Miller squirmed a bit, and although the Republican pounded home the gifts and Miller got more defensive, the beginning of the debate was the most illuminating.

The candidates had been told the questions, at a press association forum, would focus on two laws: public records and open meeting. They had weeks to prepare.

But Laxalt, after saying the AG’s “is one of the most unique offices” (SIC!), clearly could not distinguish between the two laws. After being asked twice about the public records law, Laxalt talked both times about the open meeting law, had to be corrected by moderator Steve Sebelius (and then Miller) and defaulted to his talking points on the military and Miller’s gifts. It was really quite embarrassing – or should have been.

That eventually led to one of the more dramatic moments in the debate with Miller defending himself on the gifts issue and then talking about how Laxalt had not been transparent on his military records, claiming not to have them until the law firm evaluation was disclosed and then “cherry picking” the release of some documents to the RJ, which appears to have made no effort to find out more.

“We don’t know who he is,” Miller declared.

Laxalt bristled, called Miller’s question “rather appalling,” hyped his military service and then, rather oddly, criticized Miller for becoming an assistant district attorney out of college because, Laxalt averred, that is an obvious way to get into politics.

“I know he (Miller) can’t understand how anyone would challenge him for this office,” Laxalt said, somewhat churlishly and childishly, repeating what he and his supporters have been saying privately, as if Miller feels a sense of entitlement. The real story, of course, is that while ex-Gov. Bob Miller helped his son get started in politics, Laxalt’s last name is the ONLY thing that makes him potentially viable.

What’s more arrogant: Getting a boost from dad early in your career and the building a record or believing that with almost no civilian legal experience you should be the state’s highest law enforcement officer?

Laxalt also gave a very strange answer to a very strange question when asked by a newspaper executive about the margin tax. Forget that it is bizarre to ask AG hopefuls about a ballot initiative on taxes. Laxalt called it “one of the worst ways to do business” and said as AG he could “ideally blunt the force of the margin tax.”


Miller, by contrast, refused to take a position, emphasizing he oversees elections as secretary of state. (It also provided him a convenient out, even though the question never should have been asked.)

As illuminating – even astonishing – as this debate was, it is unlikely to have much impact on the race. As expected, the RJ gave Laxalt a favorable headline, even though no unbiased observer in that room could have thought the story was anything other than one of the candidates looking, well, like a train wreck.