NPR logo Reid Vs. Angle: It May Be Nasty In Nevada

Reid Vs. Angle: It May Be Nasty In Nevada

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, shown in a May file photo, faces a tough re-election Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, shown in a May file photo, faces a tough re-election

Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

Make no mistake.

There is no freshly blooming love for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid back home in Nevada, where he's up for re-election this fall.

The four-term Democratic senator's job approval ratings remain stubbornly dismal in a state where the unemployment rate (13.7 percent) is among the highest in the nation. And surveys show that more than half of his constituents view him unfavorably.

But fractious Nevada Republicans, by roughing each other up for months before choosing Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle on Tuesday to challenge Reid this fall, have succeeded in breathing new life into his candidacy — which for months had been pronounced as good as done.

In picking former state assemblywoman Angle over establishment candidate Sue Lowden, GOP voters have given Reid an opponent whose views — from supporting the phase-out of Social Security to eliminating the U.S. Department of Education — are seen as extreme to all but a narrow swath of her own party. Republican strategists have for weeks been fretting about the case the tenacious Reid could make against Angle over the next five months, and the fact that he's got more than $9 million in his campaign war chest to make it.

"It's worked out just the way Harry Reid would have written it," says David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Angle, who pulled in 40 percent of the vote in a GOP primary campaign jump-started by money from the national Tea Party Express organization and the conservative Club for Growth, reported having $138,609 on hand in late May. She thumped one-time front-runner Lowden, the former state party chairwoman whose campaign collapsed during a series of missteps, and businessman Danny Tarkanian, son of well-known former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian. Lowden got 26 percent of the Republican votes. Tarkanian got 23 percent.

Heading into Tuesday's primary, Reid and Angle were basically tied in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup, according to surveys collected by Pollster.com.

Reid's Script

Reid did, in fact, write part of Angle's improbable success story, as Republicans were quick to point out Tuesday night.

Sharron Angle, who is challenging Reid for his Senate seat, holds a meet and greet at a home in Pahrump, Nev., in May. Isaac Brekken/AP hide caption

toggle caption Isaac Brekken/AP

Sharron Angle, who is challenging Reid for his Senate seat, holds a meet and greet at a home in Pahrump, Nev., in May.

Isaac Brekken/AP

Despite not having a primary opponent, he has already poured more than $10 million into his re-election campaign — a good bit of it into ads that were designed to discredit Lowden, a casino executive and former beauty queen. She had been considered by Republican leaders, and by Reid, as the candidate most able to attract the independent Nevada voters needed to win in November's general election.

"Winning this race will involve getting the 15 percent of Nevada voters who are registered nonpartisan," says Las Vegas Sun political columnist Jon Ralston. "Lowden may have been able to do that. Sharron Angle is incapable of doing so."

Reid has his own significant problems with those same voters, Nevada strategists say, and that leaves him with a simple, if brutal, blueprint for winning: "Starting Wednesday, go scorched earth against the Republican nominee," Ralston says. Define Angle, he says, before she can muster the money and organization, two assets Reid has in abundance, to define — or redefine — herself for general election voters.

Reid, says Ralston, needs to give Republicans and independent voters a reason either to not vote for Angle, or to vote for one of a handful of conservative third-party candidates who will be on the ballot in the fall. Voters in Nevada also have the opportunity to mark the box next to "none of the above."

Anger Goes Back To '08

Reid's vulnerability was supposed to give Republicans a chance to slay the Democrats' top congressional leader, much as they did then-Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota in 2004. But when top-tier potential candidates like GOP Congressman Dean Heller declined to take on Reid, the narrative early on pointed to trouble.

"The dynamic changed quite a bit once Heller decided not to run, and the Republicans were left with less than perfect candidates," Damore says.

In settling on Lowden, the GOP establishment picked a candidate who, as state Republican chairwoman in 2008, infuriated the party's vocal and active supporters of Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Supporters of Paul's presidential bid took over the state GOP convention and were on the verge of having their delegates elected to the presidential nominating convention. Lowden and other party leaders suspended the convention and later, via teleconference, picked delegates who supported John McCain. By getting behind Lowden, the party establishment energized hard core conservatives who still harbor deep anger over the Paul imbroglio — like Tea Party adherent Debbie Landis of Reno, who said she'd support "anybody but Sue Lowden, who tore the party in two."

Lowden also became her own worst enemy on the stump, famously suggesting that a barter system could work for medical care and seeming ill-prepared on the stump even when faced with basic questions about climate change and the Civil Rights Act. That opened the door for Angle, Damore says, "who was the Tea Party in Nevada before there was a Tea Party."

Angle surged when the Tea Party Express and Club for Growth pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the final stretch of her campaign, angering some like Landis — who says she felt the "outside" money manipulated the race. (Landis supported conservative Republican candidate John Chachas, who finished with 4 percent of Tuesday's vote.)

The question now for Angle, who comes from the more conservative northern part of the state, is whether she can broaden her appeal to the state's more moderate southern voters. It's in the south, in Las Vegas' Clark County, where 920,000 of the state's 1.3 million voters reside. After her win, Angle said she planned to put together a "coalition of the willing," including supporters of her two opponents.

Things Could Get Ugly

Reid is expected to highlight Angle's support for the unpopular nuclear repository proposed for Nevada's Yucca Mountain, as well as her more unconventional views on issues that go beyond trimming the national bureaucracy. National Democrats were already characterizing Angle as "wacky."

Republican pollster Whit Ayres warns that Reid's path will be difficult. "Every incumbent re-election campaign is fundamentally a referendum on the incumbent," Ayres says. "And he remains incredibly unpopular in his home state."

"Harry Reid is seen as carrying water for the national Democratic Party rather than the voters of Nevada — and that's the problem," Ayres adds.

But with a boatload of money in the bank, a state organization that even opponents say is among the best they've seen, and a fractured opposition party, Reid's supporters say the embattled senator has reason to hope following Tuesday's primary and is expected to launch a no-holds-barred campaign to win in the fall no matter how ugly.

"Harry Reid is one of the most tenacious campaigners I've ever seen, and I've been watching this guy since 1982," says Jim Denton, a Republican political consultant in Nevada who has endorsed Reid. "He will put together an organization that will match any in the country."

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