In Nevada’s extremely tight U.S. Senate race between incumbent Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto and GOP challenger Adam Laxalt, energy policy and oil have emerged as attack issues alongside inflation, the economy and abortion.
Cortez Masto, the first Latina senator and a climate progressive who supports the development of renewable energy and wants to limit fossil fuel exploration on public lands, has attacked Laxalt for his ties to “Big Oil companies that are price-gouging our families.”
Laxalt, a former Nevada attorney general and staunch ally of former President Donald Trump who has championed Trump’s election fraud lies, blames Cortez Masto for high gasoline prices and says the Democrats’ climate policies are depriving the nation of “energy independence.”
According to an average of 13 polls monitored by FiveThirtyEight, a website that analyzes politics, Cortez Masto led by 0.4 points as of Oct. 31. Real Clear Politics shows a lead for Laxalt of one point as of Oct. 31. Their poll average also shows that Cortez Masto was leading until Sept. 14.
The Nevada seat is among a handful of closely contested Senate races that could determine control of the upper chamber, in which each party currently holds 50 seats and the Democrats control by virtue of Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote. Cortez Masto is considered by many analysts to be the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent.
On Laxalt’s campaign website, there’s an image of Cortez Masto taking a selfie superimposed over pictures of gas station prices across Nevada. He blames the state’s high gasoline prices on what he sees as the inefficiency of Democratic policies that prioritize renewable energy.
While Laxalt typically says little about his stances on environmental issues and doesn’t mention anything about them on his campaign website, he attacked Cortez Masto’s “green agenda” in an interview. He said that “solar and wind is simply not enough, it will never get the job done.”
As of 2021, one-third of the energy produced within Nevada came from renewable resources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The state has already set a goal of increasing this percentage to 50 percent by 2030 through a renewable portfolio standard. Cortez Masto’s website notes that she has cosponsored a number of bills meant to spur renewable energy development and production in Nevada and across the country.
Last month, Laxalt tweeted that Cortez Masto’s “support for Biden’s anti-energy policies” will only further stress the electric grid during periods of extreme heat and energy demand. He does not connect extreme heat to a warming planet caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
While serving the state in 2016, Laxalt joined 10 other attorneys general in filing a court brief supporting an attempt by Exxon to stop a fraud investigation into whether the company lied to the public about the risks of climate change.
As Laxalt’s television advertisements blamed Cortez Masto and President Joe Biden for inflation and rising gasoline prices, the incumbent Senator put out an ad reminding Nevadans of her opponent’s ties to the oil and gas industry.
The Laxalt family name has been present in Nevada politics since the candidate’s grandfather, Paul Laxalt, served as state governor from 1967 to 1971 and then as a U.S. senator from 1975 to 1987. Adam Laxalt’s hard-right politics and embrace of Trump’s election lie starkly contrast with his grandfather’s relative moderation.
Fourteen members of the Laxalt family have come forward to endorse Cortez Masto. They praised the incumbent Senator’s advocacy for preserving the public lands of Nevada and tackling the growing threat that wildfires and drought pose.
“Senator Cortez Masto was pivotal in recently securing over $3.4 billion in wildfire prevention, suppression, and restoration activities in the national bi-partisan infrastructure bill,” wrote the family members in a statement on Oct. 12. “In addition to wildfire threats, Catherine has also led an effort to lessen the impact of drought on Nevada. She has even requested surrounding states to engage in comprehensive conservation efforts that are currently in place across Nevada.”
David Damore, the chairman of the Department of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, credited her work on water conservation. In the Las Vegas Valley, every drop of water used indoors is reused and returned to Lake Mead, he said.
“We’re really the only place on the [Colorado] River that does that,” he said, and the Southern Nevada Water Authority is contributing financially to the construction of a water recycling system for Los Angeles.
The issue of Laxalt’s ties to the oil and gas industry has come up in previous elections, including his failed run for Governor in 2018. The Reno Gazette-Journal wrote about Laxalt’s attempts to block a 2016 investigation into what Exxon knew as early as 1977 about the link between burning fossil fuels and global warming. The Freedom Partners Action Fund, backed by oil industry billionaires Charles and David Koch and other oil interests, spent $2.5 million in 2018 to support Laxalt’s campaign for Nevada governor.
OpenSecrets reports that the oil and gas industry has contributed $233,952 to Laxalt’s current Senate campaign. This doesn’t account for donations made to support Laxalt that do not go directly to his campaign from Super PACs funded by those directly involved in the interests of the oil and gas industry.
The Sierra Club took an unusual step for the organization and explicitly opposed Laxalt’s 2018 bid for governor in the Reno Gazette-Journal, calling him “toxic for Nevada.”
The Sierra Club has endorsed Cortez Masto for reelection to the Senate, and the League of Conservation Voters has given her a lifetime score of 97 percent, which means she has voted in line with the environmental group’s positions on almost every issue. In 2021, she received a score of 100 percent.
“Senator Cortez Masto is one of our greatest champions in the U.S. Senate and her reelection is one of our top priorities,” said Craig Auster, the league’s vice president of political affairs. “She understands that means continuing to grow the clean energy economy and creating good-paying clean energy jobs in the state.”
Keep Environmental Journalism Alive
ICN provides award-winning climate coverage free of charge and advertising. We rely on donations from readers like you to keep going.Donate Now
The Nevada Conservation League, an affiliate of the League of Conservation Voters that endorses state political candidates, also praised Cortez Masto’s commitment to bolstering the clean energy economy through the introduction of legislation that would support the solar manufacturing supply chain and protect public land from new oil and gas leasing.
Angelyn Tabalba, communications director for the Nevada Conservation League, said that she expects Nevada voters to notice Cortez Masto’s track record on climate change issues at the polls this year.
“It’s not just Senator Cortez Masto,” said Tabalba. “Down the ticket we really need to hold the line on making sure we reelect and elect climate champions to office because when we don’t I think our ability to make progress on these issues is going to all but disappear.”
The LCV Victory Fund, a PAC separate from but affiliated with the League of Conservation Voters, launched a $1.5 million television ad in August featuring a Nevada business owner who is struggling with the impact of high gas prices and frustrated with Laxalt’s connection to the oil industry.
Laxalt also landed a spot on the victory fund’s Dirty Dozen list, which features 12 candidates who consistently side against the environment regardless of party affiliation. The webpage cites Laxalt’s $80,000 investments in the oil industry, including stock in ExxonMobil worth up to $15,000.
According to the Environmental Voter Project, polling data in Nevada, Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania shows that despite high gas prices and inflation, voters are still likely to back climate-first candidates. This polling data, completed in partnership with Beacon Research, suggests that motivating environmentalists to vote could have an impact on the Senate election results in these four swing states.
While the Laxalt campaign did not respond to a request for comment, the Cortez Masto campaign shared a number of its advertisements about combating wildfires and adding solar energy jobs across the state. Nevada’s solar economy is already one of the largest in the country, providing about 15 percent of the state’s electricity as well as thousands of jobs, according to The Nevada Independent.
Nevada has been a leader in solar energy production since 2010, when it became the first state to approve solar energy projects on public land. The Bureau of Land Management is currently considering an expansion of proposed solar projects across the state’s vast and sunny deserts.
As polling in the Laxalt-Cortez Masto race shows a virtual tie, the impact of voters who care deeply about climate and the environment remains unclear. The Environmental Voter Project found that voters who are less likely to turn out for the midterms were twice as likely to list climate as their most important consideration when choosing a candidate.