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Remembering Senator Paul Laxalt – One Of The Essential Men Of The Conservative Movement

Former Senator Paul Laxalt of Nevada passed away August 6th, and with his passing one of the essential men of the modern conservative movement left us.

Senator Laxalt’s influence ran much deeper than holding public office and advocating conservative policies on Capitol Hill.

Weyrich Viguerie LaxaltSenator Laxalt, who was often thought of as Ronald Reagan’s political soulmate, was one of a handful of wise conservative leaders, such as Lyn Nofziger, Dick Allen, Ed Meese, Marty Anderson, Jeff Bell, Tom Ellis, and Judge William Clark who built the Reagan coalition.

Laxalt served as Governor of Nevada from 1967 to 1971, the same time that Ronald Reagan served as Governor of California, and the two became close during a time when Nixon’s deviations from conservative principles were widening the divide between conservatives and the Republican establishment.

In the wake of the Watergate scandal, Republicans were trounced in the 1974 congressional elections, losing four seats in the Senate and forty-nine seats in the House. Democrats once again had a better than two to one advantage in the House and held sixty seats in the Senate. The only two bright spots for Republicans in the election were Paul Laxalt’s election as Senator from Nevada and a young Bill Clinton’s defeat by Republican John P. Hammerschmidt in the campaign to represent Arkansas’s Third Congressional District.

During that dark time, even if the Republican brand was practically destroyed by Watergate, the conservative brand was not.

Paul Laxalt ran as an unabashed conservative; although his margin of victory was narrow, Laxalt showed that a principled conservative could win even under the trying circumstances of the 1974 election.

And once Paul Laxalt got to Washington he didn’t slip into the comfortable “we’re bound to lose” mentality that so many Republicans displayed at that time.

In March 1977, President Carter announced that he wanted to make four changes to the election laws. He wanted to abolish the Electoral College, mandate Election Day voter registration, abolish the Hatch Act, and have federal funding of congressional elections.

Paul Weyrich and I were alarmed at this prospect and along with others, such as Senator Laxalt and Congressmen Steve Symms and Robert Dornan, we began to meet regularly once or twice a week to develop a strategy and plan to defeat Carter’s proposed election law changes that would put the Republicans out of business and make sure Democrats had a lock on elections going forward.

In an early meeting, Dick Dingman from Paul Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation told us that he had a copy of a San Francisco underground newspaper that was carrying an advertisement for a firm that, for five dollars, would send you an official-looking ID— no questions asked.

Congressmen Steve Symms and Robert Dornan got national coverage in July 1977 with dummy ID cards obtained to demonstrate the possibilities for fraud in Carter’s instant voter registration plan. The ID cards each had the photo of either Symms or Dornan, but the names of liberal Democrats on the House Administration Committee who supported Carter’s plan.

The reporters and photographers loved it, particularly when liberal committee chairman Frank Thompson blew his top in public over the IDs.

The Washington Star published an enormous five-column photo of the phony IDs on page one, which had been blown up to poster size for a news conference, and the Carter plan died that day. That September a group of conservatives hosted a dinner recognizing Senator Laxalt and me for helping to lead the effort to defeat Carter’s plan, with me representing our coalition on the outside and Laxalt representing the inside of our coalition.

Senator Laxalt was also very involved in our fight against Jimmy Carter’s effort to return the Panama Canal to Panama.

As Carter’s plan moved forward, the Republican National Committee was mailing millions of letters signed by Ronald Reagan asking people to contribute to the RNC in an effort to defeat the Panama Canal treaties. Approximately $700,000 was raised.

However, when Paul Laxalt asked RNC chairman Bill Brock for $50,000 to help underwrite the cost of a “Truth Squad” media tour, the RNC chairman refused. The outrageous fact is that Brock refused to spend any of the money raised by Reagan’s anti-treaty letter on any anti-treaty activities. At their insistence, Laxalt and Reagan talked with Brock on December 15, 1977, via a joint telephone call—and came away very angry.

As I recounted in my book TAKEOVER, someone present during this conversation said he heard Reagan use words that he didn’t know Reagan knew, but Brock would not budge.

Of course, many suspected that Brock’s refusal had something to do with the fact that he was from Tennessee, and establishment Republican Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker of Tennessee was prepared to go along with Carter and ratify the treaty giving away control of the canal.

I was asked to raise the $50,000 Laxalt and Reagan needed to help fund the “Truth Squad,” but instead of raising $50,000, The Viguerie Company, on a pro bono basis, raised over $110,000—one more demonstration of the reduced importance of political parties and proof of the New Right’s ability to engage in and finance important political activity outside of the Republican Party.

Naturally, critics will argue that we lost the Panama Canal Treaty fight, but Senator Laxalt and Governor Reagan understood that, while we wanted to win, we were also building a movement and engaging in the battle was almost as important as winning.

The Old Right had become defeatist; they were used to showing up and getting beat two to one and then retiring from the fight until the next vote.

However, Laxalt and Reagan and their New Right supporters were different.

In the same situation, those in the New Right would cinch up their belts, organize, call meetings, develop plans, and send out a couple million letters explaining why the way to win the next battle was to defeat those who voted wrong—be they Democrats or Republicans—and keep pushing forward toward our goal of having conservatives govern America.

That was really the defining difference between Old Right and New Right Republicans like Paul Laxalt – we weren’t afraid to try, even if there was only a small to no chance of success.

We were interested in building a movement and getting grassroots conservatives engaged in that movement. In the waging of the Panama Canal Treaty battle over one hundred thousand people got involved as activists or donors, and thousands had the opportunity to develop leadership skills that were essential to organizing Ronald Reagan’s winning 1980 presidential campaign.

Senator Laxalt was one of the good guys of American politics: Humble, pleasant to be around, always seemingly happy in the battle to sell conservative ideas. I saw him often during the 70s and 80s and even though he was regularly on TV as one of the most prominent faces of the Republican Party, and known to everyone in the room, he never failed to put one at ease by offering his hand and saying, “Hi Richard, Paul Laxalt.”

Many have rightly eulogized Senator Paul Laxalt as one of Ronald Reagan’s closest political confidants, but that does not properly credit Paul Laxalt’s essential contribution to the modern conservative movement. 

As a former Governor, the easiest path for newly elected Senator Paul Laxalt would have been to join the Washington establishment, but that wasn’t his way. Instead, Senator Laxalt, along with Ronald Reagan, stood by his conservative principles and put in motion a rebellion against big government and the Washington establishment that changed history. The ideas and principles he espoused were taken up by the 1995 Contract with America Congress, the Tea Party and the rebellion he helped put in motion is still being carried on by the conservative – populist coalition assembled by Donald Trump.

And I might add, Senator Laxalt’s political legacy is being carried on by his grandson, Adam Paul Laxalt, the Attorney General of Nevada, who recently won the Republican primary for Governor, and with President Trump’s strong endorsement is now the conservative standard bearer in the November General Election.

I remember Paul Laxalt as a humble man and one of a handful of wise conservative leaders who saw that the way to electoral success was not to go along and get along with liberals, but to proudly run on and sell conservatism and American exceptionalism to the millions of American voters who were hungry for a change and through whose leadership we broke the liberal order that had at that time dominated American politics for almost five decades.

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