Paul Laxalt 1922-2018

Former Nevada governor and U.S. senator Paul Laxalt has died at a Virginia health care facility.

Former vice president Joe Biden tweeted that Laxalt was “someone with whom you could disagree without being disagreeable.”

Laxalt, a Republican, brought politics in Nevada up to date in the 1960s by introducing techniques like opinion surveys and modern precinct organizing. He served first as a district attorney, then as lieutenant governor, and lost his first U.S. Senate race after a recount before becoming governor in 1967.

His governorship was of greater import than his later senatorship. Particularly important were enactment of the state’s corporate gambling law, which closed out the family-owned casinos era and brought in massive capital that made the megaresorts possible, and establishment of the community college system. Historian Russ Elliott wrote that the corporate gambling law was a “mixed blessing … forcing [casino regulators] to distinguish between active and passive stockholders, in effect causing the state to lose control of the passive stockholders and making it more difficult to find hidden interests.”

He and neighboring governor Ronald Reagan were credited with creating the bi-state Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, though state legislators were just as instrumental. But TRPA functioned poorly. It became more successful after a 1981 restructuring.

Laxalt served one term as governor, left public life to start a Carson City casino hotel, then ran for the Senate in 1974, winning narrowly after a recount.

In the senate, he started off leading the fight against the Panama Canal treaties and against secondary labor union picketing of construction sites, losing both but making a favorable impression. But that splash of leadership on issues was never repeated. Later, he settled into a role as President Reagan’s friend. There is no Laxalt Act, or any legislation of consequence. Laxalt was helpful in getting the MX missile system in Nevada and Utah killed but grew out of touch with changing times in the state, particularly environmentalism. When opposition to nuclear waste developed, he warned Nevada against becoming a “peacenik” state. His political judgments included convincing Reagan to choose Richard Schweiker as running mate in the 1976 GOP primary race against Gerald Ford and convincing Reagan to make a last minute 1986 Nevada visit in a vain attempt to defeat Harry Reid for the senate.

Many hoped Laxalt would become more engaged in policy making and Senate business, but he did so only episodically, as when GOP leader Howard Baker in 1981 called on Laxalt to help win freshman conservatives to vote to raise the debt limit for President Reagan above the trillion dollar mark.

Laxalt looked half-heartedly at running for majority leader against Howard Baker (and passed), half-heartedly became general chair of the Republican National Committee (Frank Fahrenkopf handled daily duties), sued McClatchy Newspapers half-heartedly for reporting skimming went on at Laxalt’s Carson casino without Laxalt’s knowledge (he settled the case), and ran for president half-heartedly (and withdrew before a vote was cast). There was a feeling of unfulfilled potential about him. He never returned to Nevada to live—his Senate campaign slogan was “One of us”—and he’s little known to many in the state today.