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GOP frontrunner Sam Brown in crosshairs after skipping Nevada Senate debate

Republican candidates for Democratic Nevada Sen. Jacky Rosen's seat sounded off on absent frontrunner Sam Brown during a Thursday primary debate.

Seven Republicans vying for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in Nevada circled the familiar talking points of GOP politics at a debate on Thursday, while also taking shots at the front-runner, who made an apparently strategic decision not to attend.

The debate in a Reno casino ballroom focused on increased border security, anti-abortion stances and cutting government spending and size, but candidates spent much of their time criticizing retired Army Capt. Sam Brown, whose backing in Washington, D.C., and formidable 2022 campaign have made him a fundraising juggernaut above the crowded primary field.

Nearly every candidate called out Brown for his absence and described him as an establishment candidate not willing to face voters, a combative signal by a group of lesser-known Republicans attempting to gain ground in an otherwise cordial debate.


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“Don’t vote for Sam Brown. Look at one of these candidates up here,” said Bill Conrad, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and former deputy mayor of Modesto, California, who co-founded Redmove, the conservative group hosting the debate.

Brown’s campaign said the decision to skip the debate reflected his comfortable lead in resources and grassroots support. The non-engagement strategy has been employed by other campaign front-runners, most notably by former President Donald Trump.

“The numbers say it all: Sam Brown is the only candidate in this race with the resources, support and grassroots energy to take on Jacky Rosen,” Brown’s campaign said in a statement. “Nevada Republicans are uniting behind Donald Trump and Sam Brown because they are the only conservative champions who can defeat Biden and Rosen in November.”

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Former U.S. Ambassador to Iceland Jeff Gunter also was not on stage after backing out last month, due to him speaking at another Republican event, according to a campaign spokesperson.

“I will debate Scam Brown at any time,” Gunter said in the statement, employing a nickname he often uses to disparage Brown.

The other candidates on stage included Jim Marchant, a former candidate for Nevada secretary of state and outspoken election denier; Tony Grady, an Air Force veteran and former candidate for lieutenant governor; Stephanie Phillips, a real estate broker; and Ronda Kennedy, an attorney.

Former President Donald Trump has skipped all Republican primary debates in the current presidential campaign, electing to hold rallies or appear on rival television networks in a strategy that has deprived the events of viewership and media attention while he remains the dominant front-runner. The last GOP primary debate between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley drew fewer than 2.6 million viewers.

Brown, a Purple Heart recipient, was a heavily recruited candidate for Republicans in Washington looking to avoid a repeat of their lackluster showing in the 2022 midterm elections, when flawed GOP candidates helped Democrats win battleground races and hold the Senate majority.

Two years ago, Brown was a longshot Senate candidate who criticized Republican front-runner Adam Laxalt for agreeing only to a pre-recorded debate instead of a live, prime-time broadcast.

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“He must feel safe at 8 a.m., on a Monday morning, in a closed studio, where working-class Nevadans can’t challenge him,” Brown said of the former Nevada Attorney General, who enjoyed the backing of the Republican Party’s most influential figures, from former President Donald Trump to then-Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell.

Laxalt won that primary handily but lost narrowly in the general election to incumbent Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto.

This cycle, Brown often has brushed past questions about his primary opponents to focus attacks on incumbent Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen. He said the crowded field was a product of Rosen’s leadership, not his.

But on Thursday, Rosen was seldom mentioned as Brown weathered attacks from his opponents.

“I hope you remember the one that’s not here,” Kennedy said.

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