Senior senator has shaped Nevada politics to slate a race he can win
Sharron Angle waits to take the stage Tuesday night at the Orleans after winning the Republican primary for U.S. Senate.
After years of maneuvering, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid got the race he wanted.
Sharron Angle, a former Reno assemblywoman and Tea Party favorite, emerged from Tuesday’s Republican primary, lifted to a landslide by a solid base of conservative supporters but carrying political baggage that experts say gives the embattled Reid a new lease on political life.
Known as a staunch conservative, Angle now faces the challenge of appealing to the broader electorate, a task made difficult by her rigid ideology — she supports phasing out Social Security and dismantling the Education Department.
Angle’s win matches her ability to rally her base, which is solidly behind her, with Reid’s ability to do the same, as both battle for unaffiliated voters.
“This campaign is about taking back America,” Angle told supporters at the Orleans late Tuesday. “This campaign is about opposing taxes and spending and ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ politics-as-usual Washington, D.C., corruption that has taken a claim on our senior senator, Harry Reid.”
Angle said she would move forward with a “Coalition of the Willing” — 45 groups who would work for her election along with her two former rivals.
On Tuesday, Reid’s advisers telegraphed their coming campaign, saying Angle’s “dangerous ideas are wrong for Nevada.” Once her victory was apparent, the Nevada Democratic Party issued a news release: “Sharron’s ‘Wacky’ Angles: Dangerous Ideas Nevada Can’t Afford.”
Angle’s victory represents a sort of coup for Team Reid, which plotted a years-long strategy to shape Nevada’s electoral landscape, necessitated in part by the senator’s low approval ratings. Most recently, his campaign played an active role in the GOP primary, hammering away on one-time front-runner Sue Lowden. The relentless attacks, compounded by the candidate’s own gaffes, caused a steep slide for Lowden, a former state senator and Nevada Republican Party chairwoman who had argued that she was the most competitive contender against Reid.
“We clearly see his fingerprints and meddling throughout our Republican primary,” said Robert Uithoven, Lowden’s campaign manager said of Reid.
Reid denied meddling in the Republican primary.
“I guess that’s probably wishful thinking on her part. I didn’t focus on her very much,” Reid said of Lowden, adding that Angle had run a “spirited campaign.”
“During the last month she came on like gangbusters,” he said.
Angle won the endorsements of influential outside groups, including the Tea Party Express and the Club for Growth, which in turn poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into TV ads to boost Angle’s threadbare campaign. In a month’s time, Angle, who had languished in single digits in public opinion polling, was suddenly a contender. As Republicans finished early voting last week, she had developed a clear lead, eclipsing Lowden and a third competitor, Danny Tarkanian.
“Reid couldn’t have written this better,” said David Damore, a UNLV political scientist. “They still have a fight on their hands. It’s just a different fight — and an easier fight.”
Reid laid the groundwork for this battle years ago, shortly after he won a fourth term in the Senate in 2004. Tired of watching Nevada Democrats flounder cycle after cycle, he dispatched trusted operatives to transform the state Democratic Party from a ramshackle Election Day operation into an organizing machine run by experienced hands who would cultivate the grass roots.
He then lobbied the Democratic National Committee to award Nevada its first-ever early presidential caucus in 2008. The result: tens of thousands of new Democratic voters, registered and trained by the competing campaigns.
In the 2009 legislative session, Reid’s allies in the state party successfully pushed lawmakers to move the 2010 primary, from August to June, allowing his campaign more time to define his Republican opponent.
The GOP field devolved into a group of second-tier challengers after Rep. Dean Heller declined to enter the race, despite pleas from national Republicans.
Reid’s campaign then set out to attack Lowden, almost exclusively. In January, its focus was on full display: Reid’s operatives had devoted an entire white board at their campaign headquarters to Lowden’s career, complete with a slogan, “Not Ready for Prime Time,” a nod to the candidate’s stint as a TV reporter and anchor. What followed was a series of attacks, scrutinizing Lowden’s record as a businesswoman. Reid’s campaign cited health and safety violations at her and her husband’s casinos and made hay out of the couple’s fights with labor unions.
The campaign assigned a “tracker” to follow Lowden on the campaign trail, filming speeches in hopes of catching a mistake. The effort paid off in April when the researcher caught Lowden, at a town-hall meeting in Mesquite, suggesting that people should barter for health care as a way to reduce costs. She defended the comments, even after they ended up as fodder for the late-night talk show circuit, and inadvertently added a punch line to the controversy: “In the olden days our grandparents, they would bring a chicken to the doctor.”
Reid’s campaign pounded Lowden for the remarks. It soon received help from Patriot Majority, an outside group run by a former Reid staffer, flooding the airwaves with a spot called “Chickens for Checkups.”
The gaffes continued, badly damaging Lowden’s image. Public opinion polling, confirmed by Las Vegas Sun voter interviews, showed a dramatic slide, as supporters defected for Angle, who was gaining in the polls and dominating TV markets with ads from outside groups.
Political scientists and partisan strategists said Reid, whose approval ratings hover in the 30s in part because of the state’s record unemployment and foreclosure crisis, will make good on his promise to “vaporize” his opponent.
“He can’t boost his approval much so he has to drag her down,” Damore said. “He’s going to slash her and it’s going to be brutal.”
As Republican operative Steve Wark put it: “Harry Reid was planning on spending $10 million making Mother Teresa look like a Nye County whore. They were always about driving negatives, so that doesn’t change with Angle ... He’ll keep his mouth shut and fly napalm missions.”
Despite her claim to a Coalition of the Willing, Angle’s victory poses a challenge to unifying the party. Lowden spent the last week of the campaign painting Angle as a deeply flawed candidate who was all-but-certain to lose to Reid.
The difficulty Angle will face in unifying Republicans was apparent at a Reno primary night gathering of establishment Republicans. The crowd, including longtime state Sen. Bill Raggio and former Gov. Kenny Guinn, celebrated Brian Sandoval’s victory over Gov. Jim Gibbons. But the party broke up quickly after it became apparent that Angle would defeat Lowden, who had the establishment’s support.
Guinn had only this to say of Angle: “If she wins, she’ll be the candidate. It’ll be a tough race for her.”
Eric Herzik, a UNR political scientist, agreed that Angle faces a steep challenge in appealing to the moderate wing of the Republican Party, let alone independents and centrist Democrats. He noted she has spent the past six election cycles courting the state’s most conservative voters, first in the Assembly and then in failed runs for Congress and the state Senate. Herzik also pointed to her policy positions, such as eliminating Social Security and withdrawing from the United Nations.
“Reid’s going to hammer her on policy and really paint her far more extreme than she’ll be able to paint him,” he said. “This isn’t an election about loving Harry Reid. Harry Reid just has to convince the center: ‘I’m better than Option B.’ ”
Another challenge for Angle: building a statewide organization and attracting establishment support, including national money. Until now, Angle has relied on a small, committed base of supporters to help her turn out voters — sometimes against establishment figures. In 2008, she narrowly lost a primary challenge to Raggio, who backed Lowden this year.
Unclear is how national Republicans will warm to Angle, who Democrats hope to paint as another Rand Paul, a Tea Party upstart from Kentucky who created a week of bad press after saying he disagreed with parts of the Civil Rights Act.
“Sharron Angle’s challenge is to measure her words knowing the entire world is watching. She hasn’t had to go through that exercise,” Wark said. “When you’re thrust into a situation like this, you have to hold your message but speak a multitude of different political languages.”
Perhaps cognizant of the task ahead, Angle has spent the final weeks campaigning largely outside the view of the media.
If the primary is any indication, Reid still has a problem with his base.
“Reid just can’t take it for granted because Sharron Angle is his opponent,” Herzik said. “He has to get his base to turn out and bring back the middle by scaring them about Sharron Angle.”
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