Republican U.S. Senate candidate Sam Brown stands for a photo at his campaign office on June 14, 2022 in Reno, Nevada. (Josh Edelson/Getty Images)

(WASHINGTON) — Nevada Republican Sam Brown cruised to victory in the GOP Senate primary earlier this week. Now, he’ll have to compete against a well-heeled incumbent — and Republicans are nervous.

Brown, an Army veteran with an inspiring personal story after being gravely wounded in Afghanistan, stomped two opponents in the race this week with about 60% of the vote, setting him up to face freshman Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen in November. He enters the general election with widespread backing from the GOP establishment both in Washington and Carson City, and a high floor of voter support in a narrowly divided purple state.

But, Republican operatives warned to ABC News, being competitive and actually winning are two different things, and it’s unclear whether his personal story and unvetted policy chops are enough to convince Nevadans he can tackle the issues they care about.

“I think a lot of Nevada Republicans are anxious to see how he is able to pivot into a general election. It’s his first experience, not only in a general election, but in a race of this magnitude,” said Nevada GOP strategist Robert Uithoven.

Brown has already flashed widespread support and some political skill with a resounding win Tuesday against Jeff Gunter, former President Donald Trump’s ambassador to Iceland and a wealthy dermatologist who partly self-funded his campaign, and Jim Marchant, a former Nevada state representative and election conspiracy theorist.

Besides backing from the GOP establishment in Washington and an 11th-hour endorsement from Trump, Brown’s win was fueled by his campaign highlighting his personal story of recovery from a roadside bomb attack in Afghanistan, an explosion that forced him to undergo 30 surgeries and left him permanently scarred.

His support from leaders such as Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and Montana Sen. Steve Daines, the chair of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, marks a departure from Brown’s first run in 2022, when he lost the GOP Senate primary to former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who swallowed up establishment support that year.

“Steve Daines made a great choice recruiting Brown to challenge Sen. Rosen. Brown is an excellent candidate. He has a compelling story that resonates with voters,” said Dan Eberhart, a prominent Republican donor who recently met with Brown.

On top of that, Brown inherits what Republicans estimate to be a favorable political environment for his run.

Nevada’s tourism-reliant economy has been slower than that of most states to recover from pandemic-era closures and travel restrictions, along with national voter frustration over inflation.

Rosen will also be running on the ballot with Biden, who is taking the blame for many of those frustrations. And while Republicans under-performed expectations in 2022, they still found at least some success in Nevada that year, when Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo knocked off a Democratic incumbent. Also, while Laxalt lost to incumbent Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, he only fell short by less than 1 percentage point.

“What’s promising about this environment in Nevada right now is that this is a ‘change election.’ People are looking at what’s happening with cost-of-living issues, with what’s happening with the economy, inflation and the high cost of housing,” said John Burke, a Nevada Republican strategist. “And I think when you have voters looking for a change like they are in this election, that’s always going to favor the challenger.”

Other Republicans weren’t as bullish.

While strategists universally agreed on the benefits of Brown’s story and this year’s political atmospherics, some told ABC News that relying on those would be insufficient to knock out Rosen and that they hadn’t seen Brown flex his policy chops yet.

Brown has touted the need to alleviate economic pressures on families and clamp down on undocumented border crossings — messages operatives chalked up to a national playbook rather than the specifics that Nevadans might care about in the voting booth this year.

“It’s very admirable, and we’re grateful for his service. But do you know the issues? Is he able to bring more to the table than what he had unfortunately gone through physically while serving in the military?” asked one Nevada GOP strategist, who spoke anonymously about the race. “Of course, I would love to have a Republican senator, but we’re in a purple state, and you need to have somebody who knows the inside and outs of what the people actually need.”

Republicans pointed to abortion and Yucca Mountain — a shuttered depository for nuclear waste — as two issues that are both important to Nevadans and on which Brown offered differing opinions.

Brown, who moved to Nevada from Texas in 2018, supported a 20-week abortion ban in Texas before appearing noncommittal on the issue in 2022, saying only that he was “pro-life” and that he would want to see “specific language” in any proposed federal ban. He now says he supports leaving the issue up to the states. Nevada currently allows the procedure up to 24 weeks into a pregnancy.

He also says on his website he “will oppose any bill that pushes for federal funding of abortion, late term abortions, or abortion without parental notification.”

And in 2022, he dubbed Yucca Mountain as an “incredible loss of revenue for our state” over its closure following hard-fought battles by residents over safety concerns. He now says it is “dead” and “should not, and will not, be revived.”

“If you’re still stumbling around on your message on Yucca Mountain and abortion, God help you,” a second Nevada GOP strategist added. “I think by and large, when you have a national playbook, you overplay certain things like immigration and such that it plays to your base over and over and over again, but it certainly doesn’t grow votes. The mistake isn’t that they fumbled the narrative, I think they fumbled the priorities.”

Brown’s campaign fired back at the criticism, leaning on his military experience.

“A general election is nothing in comparison to facing the Taliban in combat. As a veteran and small businessman, Captain Brown knows exactly what Nevadans need: lower prices, border security, and ending the Biden-Rosen nightmare. Captain Brown will defeat Senator Rosen in November and will have the more difficult job of fixing her mess,” Brown campaign communications director Kristy Wilkinson said in a statement.

Operatives viewed Trump’s late endorsement — delivered two days before primary day and after early voting had already ended, and in a social media post rather than at a rally that same day — as a sign of trepidation about Brown’s chances in November, with polling also showing headwinds ahead for Brown.

A recent New York Times/Sienna College poll showed Trump up a whopping 12 points in Nevada, while Rosen had a 2-point edge.

“I think he’s got an uphill battle,” said the first anonymous GOP strategist.

While unseating Rosen isn’t necessary for a future Republican Senate majority, with only one flip needed in a map that also includes Democratic-held seats in Montana, Ohio and other purple states, the GOP would still like to press its advantage as much as it can in a state as competitive as Nevada.

Democrats are already going on offense.

Rosen put out an ad on Wednesday touting Brown’s past support for abortion restrictions in Texas, and Senate Democrats’ campaign arm released its own clip citing an array of Brown’s past stances, including on abortion and Yucca Mountain.

And Republicans predicted Rosen would head into November with a fearsome war chest and a reputation as an inoffensive lawmaker without firm ties to Democrats’ far-left flank.

“I can already see the campaign that Rosen’s going to run, but it’s yet to be seen what kind of campaign he’ll put together and run. But [Brown] will need to be crisp, focused, disciplined,” Uithoven said.

When asked if Brown had campaigned that way so far, he replied, “Not to the level that it needs to be for the general.”

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.