Updated January 28, 2022 - 12:08 pm
A year ago, hardly anyone in Nevada politics knew Sam Brown.
He was a small-business owner, Army veteran and father of three who had never set foot in the Silver State’s political arena, outside of volunteering to get out the vote for former President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.
But in October, he posted a fundraising haul of more than $1 million in one of the nation’s key contests, forcing political observers to take notice of his candidacy for U.S. Senate.
This month, he did it again.
If Brown wants a chance in the Republican primary for the Senate seat, he’s going to have to build on that momentum.
He is trying to position himself as someone who is relatable to Nevadans and has attempted to cast the presumed front-runner in the primary, former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, as an out-of-touch career politician, even if he didn’t mention Laxalt by name.
“I think that the race is shaping up to be one where people have a real opportunity to choose between sort of groomed career politicians, or someone else who has demonstrated public service in a way that has got legitimate sacrifice, skin in the game, but also someone who shares many of the experiences of your common, everyday Nevadan,” Brown said.
Nevada’s 2022 U.S. Senate race will garner national attention because the outcome could decide which party will control the upper chamber.
Brown has said the progressive policies pushed by Congress and the Biden administration compelled him to put his name on the ballot. He and Laxalt will also face pageant winner Sharelle Mendenhall and health care executive William Hockstedler in the GOP primary in June.
Laxalt’s campaign said the former attorney general is the one with conservative credentials and political backing to flip the Senate seat red.
“President Trump and Nevada Republicans support Adam Laxalt because they know he’s the proven conservative candidate who can defeat Senator (Catherine Cortez) Masto and stop the socialist takeover in Washington,” Laxalt adviser Robert Uithoven said in a statement. “But we welcome every Texas resident who relocates to our wonderful state, even if they’re a career politician like Sam.”
Laxalt was born in Reno but raised in Alexandria, Virginia. He moved to Nevada in 2011 before winning the attorney general’s seat in 2014.
Brown and his family moved to Reno from Texas in 2018 after Brown took a job at an Amazon fulfillment center while he got his business helping veterans process pharmacy claims off the ground.
He’s beat back accusations that he is a carpetbagger by saying he moved to Nevada because it is where his family wanted to plant roots and grow a business, not because he was chasing some political ambition.
But Brown has shown political ambition in the past, losing in a 2014 primary race for a seat in the Texas Legislature. That was an effort that he said taught him the business model of campaigns, and that consultants may not have the best interests of candidates and voters in mind.
He returned to school after the loss, receiving an MBA from Southern Methodist University.
Brown grew up the oldest of five children in Conway, Arkansas, about 30 miles north of Little Rock. His mother, Tanya Brown, described her eldest son as a responsible leader with a keen sense of justice as a child.
He was raised in a Christian household, but that faith belonged to his parents, his mother said.
“But when he was on fire out in that battlefield, and he cried out to God, God became real to him then,” she said.
In 2002, Brown left Arkansas to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated four years later. He spent time at Fort Benning, Georgia, and Fort Hood, Texas, before deploying to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2008.
On Sept. 4, of that year, Brown was providing security for a convoy when a platoon of a West Point classmate was ambushed. Brown’s platoon moved into the combat area to help when his Humvee hit a roadside bomb, filling his vision with a flash of orange, he recalled in an autobiography his campaign published.
Brown was soaked in diesel fuel and burning to death, but his gunner helped to extinguish the flames.
He was flown to San Antonio for treatment in a burn unit, where his mother said her son exhibited courage and faith. She cared for him there, cleaning his wounds and helping him set recovery goals.
Brown was in the hospital when he met his wife, Amy, who was a dietitian in the burn unit. During his first stay in the hospital, he showed joy, perseverance and confidence, she said. The two started dating the following March and got married that May.
Amy Brown said the decision to run for Senate came last year after sitting around the dinner table with some friends from the Washoe County Republican Party and Trump campaign who had suggested a run for office.
Brown’s injuries have made him stand out as a candidate, said Chuck Muth, a Nevada campaign consultant who has been a vocal critic of Laxalt.
“It’s a powerful story,” Muth said.
Last year, Brown experienced a level of momentum after viral moments on Twitter and in conservative media circles. The social media platform on one occasion erroneously censored a photo of the severely scarred war veteran and on another suspended his account.
He’s made numerous appearances as a guest on Fox News, and in one instance, Fox personality Laura Ingraham gushed over him and said she wanted to sign up his campaign. He said he’s built support by being authentic.
But he still faces an uphill battle as an underdog candidate.
Laxalt is also a veteran. He was in the U.S. Navy’s Judge Advocate General corps, and served in Iraq. He’s got the support of major GOP figures like former President Donald Trump, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Trump doubled down on his support of Laxalt in October after Don Ahern, a Las Vegas businessman and Brown supporter, tried to get the former president to switch his endorsement in the race.
Muth, who works for Ahern, has said Brown may be a better candidate in his opinion, but Laxalt is running a better campaign.
“It is impressive what (Brown has) done,” one GOP insider said last month. “I have not seen evidence he’s been able to really build the machine it’s going to take to take out someone as known and liked among the base as Adam Laxalt.”
This week, Brown’s campaign announced raising just more than $1 million in the final fundraising quarter of 2021. Laxalt raised $1.35 million in the same period.
Brown has now set a standard for fundraising, but still has to prove he can be competitive in the race, and private polling shows him far behind Laxalt, the source said.
Keeping up with fundraising amounts is not a daily priority, Brown has said. He said he is trying to take time to listen to voters, get to know their concerns and recognize that he still has a lot to learn.
Last month, Brown said he had already started spending money to maintain momentum instead of waiting until the end of the race. It’s a move that he said runs counter to conventional wisdom.
“Conventional wisdom is, once again, something I’m willing to challenge, and I think we’ve got a message that’s important, and people need to know about it,” he said.
The policy stances listed on Brown’s website are generic, but mirror mainstream GOP positions like supporting market-driven health insurance, backing school choice, cutting taxes, repealing regulations, securing the U.S.-Mexico border and opposing critical race theory and cancel culture.
He acknowledges Joe Biden is legally the president, but did not provide a clear answer to questions from the Las Vegas Review-Journal in August about whether he thinks there was widespread fraud in the 2020 election. Numerous lawsuits, audits and recounts have failed to show the election was fraudulent.
Brown said he has taken his campaign’s message to the radio, purchased advertising space on Fox News Channel in October, and is building a network of volunteers across the state.
He already has supporters knocking on doors and making phone calls, he said.
“People want to be able to invest the time and their resources in something they believe in,” he said. “That’s what we’ve done.”