During Paul Laxalt’s two terms as a U.S. Senator from Nevada (1974-1987), he acted on three occasions as national chairman for Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaigns beginning in 1976. Given Laxalt’s admiration for Reagan and his penchant for campaigning, which began in earnest with his aggressive and innovative 1962 campaign for lieutenant governor, Laxalt appeared to be the right man for the job.
Early in 1975 after two terms as the 33rd governor of California, Ronald Reagan began considering the possibility of running for president. The Republican Party was still reeling following Richard Nixon’s admitted involvement in the 1972 Watergate scandal and the subsequent pardon offered two years later by President Ford. Testing the waters, Reagan asked Laxalt what type of support he might expect from Republicans on Capitol Hill. The response Laxalt received from the Washington establishment was less than favorable. In fact, Laxalt seemed to be the only Republican Senator in support of Reagan’s initial proposal.
In November 1975, Reagan announced his candidacy with Laxalt acting as the chairman of the campaign. The campaign immediately gained more support than political pundits had anticipated. Regardless of his unpopularity in Washington, Reagan made a dramatic run for the Republican nomination against sitting president and incumbent Gerald Ford. His strategy of directly engaging the voters worked well during the primaries, and Reagan fell short by only a few votes at the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Missouri.
In the end, Democrat Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford in the general election by a small margin. Though the 1976 campaign resulted in a loss for Reagan, he had proven himself as a charismatic and viable Republican candidate for the future. The events of 1976 laid the groundwork for the 1980 presidential campaign and marked a period of revitalization in the conservative movement in America.
In early 1977, Reagan created a political vehicle called Citizens for the Republic headed by Lyn Nofziger. This political action committee (PAC) was designed to advance the conservative cause at a time when it seemed that those ideas were being abandoned in the United States. This PAC gave Reagan the funding to travel around the country to meet with key supporters, advance the conservative messages of self-determination and small government, and support like-minded candidates for state and local offices. By March 1979, the Reagan exploratory committee was formed, and in November of the same year, the campaign kicked off in New York with Laxalt again acting as the chairman.
Reagan emerged as the dominant figure in the 1980 presidential campaign. He was able to muster support from both Republicans and the diverse elements that designated the New Right. After four years of the Carter Administration, many Americans felt demoralized by high inflation, joblessness, and the poor handling of foreign affairs. Reagan vowed to reenergize and revitalize America to make it “number one again.” On Election Day in November 1980, Reagan easily defeated Carter when he received 51% of the popular vote to Carter’s 41%.
In the 1982 midterm elections, Republicans were able to maintain a majority in the Senate losing only one seat. The Democrats, however, cemented their majority in the House of Representatives when they gained 27 seats. The gains made by the Democrats were largely a result of President Reagan’s unpopularity, brought on by a deepening recession. Voters blamed the downturn on Reagan’s economic policies, but despite some national dissension, those close to Reagan, like Laxalt, believed that the prospects for reelection were bright—a win in 1984 seemed much more likely than it had in 1980.
By 1984, the economy had rebounded and Reagan’s popularity had a resurgence. As the 1984 election cycle began, both Reagan and Laxalt were at the zenith of their political careers. Reagan asked Laxalt one more time to be the national chairman for his reelection campaign. Laxalt agreed knowing that campaigning would be much easier than it had been in 1976 or 1980.
Laxalt and Reagan traveled around the country campaigning aboard Air Force One. Many of Reagan’s campaign appearances that year were to college campuses. Reagan was greeted with large energetic rallies that no doubt contributed to the overall success of the campaign. In November 1984, President Reagan was overwhelmingly reelected receiving 58% of the popular vote to Democratic challenger Walter Mondale’s 40%. He won the electoral votes in all the states except for Minnesota (Mondale’s home state) and the District of Columbia.
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.