Paul Laxalt was a longtime public figure in Nevada and beginning in the mid-1970s, he became a notable and highly visible player on the national political stage. Part of Laxalt’s appeal to both his colleagues and his constituents was his pragmatic and unapologetic approach to lawmaking. The son of Basque immigrants, Laxalt rose through the local political ranks before becoming the first Basque-American ever elected to the U.S. Senate and “the First Friend” of Ronald Reagan.
In 2014, the Special Collections Department at the University of Nevada, Reno received a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services, administered by the Nevada State Library and Archives, to prepare materials related to Ronald Reagan for public use, which are contained within the larger and as yet unavailable Paul Laxalt U.S. Senatorial Papers.
The Ronald Reagan materials within the Paul Laxalt U.S. Senatorial Papers cover the years 1975 through 1987. They consist of a variety of personal papers, scrapbooks, audio/visual resources, and photographs from Reagan’s three presidential campaigns in which Laxalt served as the national chairman. Presented here is a small selection of these items that have been digitized and organized according to themes that reflect both Laxalt’s political career and his relationship with Ronald Reagan. Extensive biographical information about Senator Laxalt and the contents of his papers can be found in the guide.
Beginning in 1950, Laxalt took the “political plunge” when he was elected as district attorney of Ormsby County (now Carson City). Laxalt resigned in 1954 after one term and began practicing law, which he continued for nine years before re-entering public office. He first pursued statewide office in 1962 when he ran on the Republican ticket for lieutenant governor of Nevada. Through an ambitious and intensive campaign, aimed largely at southern Nevada, Laxalt defeated his opponent, Berkeley Bunker, by a substantial margin.
During Laxalt’s term as lieutenant governor, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater competed with Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential race. It was against this backdrop, that Laxalt developed a lasting personal and political friendship with Ronald Reagan when the two met at a Goldwater fundraising event in California. Following Laxalt’s term as lieutenant governor, he again sought to climb the political ladder when he challenged two-term incumbent Nevada Governor Grant Sawyer for his position.
In November 1966, Laxalt defeated Sawyer by an unexpectedly wide margin of 6,000 votes to become Nevada’s 22nd governor. At the same time in neighboring California, Ronald Reagan bested incumbent Pat Brown to become the governor of California. During their governorship, the men frequently visited back and forth between state capitals Sacramento and Carson City.
Laxalt declined to run for reelection in 1970. In his words, he’d had a “bellyful of politics.” He instead returned to his law practice and remained only in casual contact with Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Suddenly in 1973, Laxalt announced his candidacy for Senator Alan Bible’s soon-to-be vacated seat in the U.S. Senate. He faced off against then Lieutenant Governor Harry Reid, defeating him by only 624 votes. Laxalt’s victory in 1974 was a considerable triumph for the weakened Republican Party following the events of the Watergate scandal just two years earlier.
Laxalt remained in the U.S. Senate from 1974 until his retirement in 1987. His tenure was marked by a dedication to conservative politics, and his friendship with President Reagan. Laxalt acted as the national chairman for Reagan’s presidential campaigns in 1976, 1980, and his reelection campaign in 1984. Noting Laxalt’s close relationship with the president, the media began referring to him regularly as “the First Friend.” By 1984, Laxalt was at the zenith of his political career. He was the general chairman for the Republican Party, chairman of the powerful Appropriations Subcommittee, and he served as a conduit between his colleagues in the Senate and President Reagan.
Following his political successes through Reagan’s reelection in 1984, Laxalt again tired of politics. He had been in the Senate for 10 years and his friend was now a lame duck president. As his second term progressed, Laxalt privately decided it was appropriate to make a graceful exit from the Senate. Amid pressure from friends, colleagues, and staffers, and much self-reflection, Laxalt retreated to Marlette Lake, his refuge in the Sierra Nevada. It was there that he made the decision to retire effective January 1987.
This project is made possible by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services, administered by the Nevada State Library and Archives. The physical collection is housed in Special Collections, a unit of the Libraries, at the University of Nevada, Reno. The digitized materials and website are brought to you by Digital Collections and the Web & Applications Technology departments of the Libraries at the University of Nevada, Reno.