As AG, Cortez Masto Left Thousands of Rape Kits Untested. Laxalt Helped Clear the Backlog—And Arrests Followed.

Nevada's former top cops now facing off for crucial Senate seat

Nevada Senate candidates Catherine Cortez Masto (D.) and Adam Laxalt (R.) / Getty Images and Wikimedia Commons
September 29, 2022

With Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto as Nevada's attorney general, thousands of rape kits sat untested. When Adam Laxalt took over the role, the Republican Senate hopeful secured millions of dollars to clear the backlog, leading to more than a dozen arrests.

In October 2014—the tail end of Cortez Masto's eight-year term as Nevada's top cop— a national nonprofit found that just 16 percent of the 5,231 rape kits collected in Las Vegas from 2004 to 2013 were examined, leaving nearly 4,400 untested. Statewide, the number of untested kits reached 7,500, prompting Laxalt to pledge during his 2018 campaign to "clear up the backlog." Within months of taking the attorney general's office in 2015, Laxalt secured $3.7 million to do just that, and by November 2018, nearly 7,400 untested kits had been sent to labs for testing.

In some cases, the testing of those kits led to high-profile arrests. In November 2020, for example, police arrested a 49-year-old Las Vegas man for a sexual assault that a woman reported in 2012, Cortez Masto's fifth year as attorney general. The kit stemming from the assault, however, went untested until 2018, when Laxalt held the office. The kit's eventual examination revealed a DNA match with the alleged assailant, who had prior arrests for battery and domestic violence. Another backlogged rape kit tested in 2016 linked a suspect to a 1997 rape and murder.

Now, Laxalt and Cortez Masto are squaring off for a coveted Senate seat that could determine control of the upper chamber come 2023. Cortez Masto has leaned on her tenure as attorney general in that race—her campaign site says the Democrat "kept our communities safe" and "made it her mission to stand up for vulnerable women and girls." Cortez Masto's inaction on Nevada's substantial rape kit backlog, however, could give Laxalt an opening as the political opponents directly compare their records at the helm of the same office.

"By doing nothing about the thousands of untested sexual assault kits, Masto neglected victims and allowed violent criminals and killers to prey on more people," Laxalt told the Washington Free Beacon. "Fixing this egregious failure was one of my top priorities as AG, and we moved heaven and earth to process those kits quickly and get justice for the victims. I cleaned up her mess before, and I’m ready to do it again in the U.S. Senate."

Cortez Masto, whose campaign did not return a request for comment, faced criticism over the kit backlog during her first Senate run in 2016. At the time, a Senate Leadership Fund ad noted that during Cortez Masto's time as attorney general, "thousands of rape kits were never sent for DNA analysis." Even Cortez Masto's media allies confirmed the charge—a 2016 PolitiFact article said it's "hard to find any evidence that [Cortez Masto] took on the specific problem of the state's rape kit backlog while in office from 2006 to 2014," whereas Laxalt "was able to secure roughly $3.7 million in grants and redirected settlement funds to pay for funding the backlog about a year after taking office."

Beyond her passiveness on Nevada's rape kit backlog, Cortez Masto accepted an array of lavish gifts as attorney general, including a $750 luxury handbag and complimentary tickets to award shows and sporting events. Laxalt, meanwhile, declined to take political gifts as Nevada's top law enforcement officer, saying, "If I want to go to a boxing event, I'll either pay for it myself or not go." Cortez Masto's net worth has also skyrocketed since she was sworn in as senator in 2017—while USA Today called Cortez Masto's finances "relatively modest" during her 2016 campaign, she is now worth as much as $7.5 million, according to her most recent federal financial disclosure. Still, Cortez Masto says she ran for office to "serve and give back."

Cortez Masto and Laxalt are set to square off in November after both candidates advanced from their June primaries. Cortez Masto, who is often identified as the "most vulnerable U.S. senator in America" in her joint fundraising pleas, trails Laxalt by 1 point, according to a Thursday poll from liberal think tank Data for Progress.