Nevada Republicans think they can oust Reid, but fractious primary nears

The GOP wants to paint Reid as a Washington insider.
The GOP wants to paint Reid as a Washington insider. (Alex Wong - Getty Images)
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2010

LAS VEGAS -- Elevator technician David Shurtliff, 48, strolled out of an early voting station at the Clark County Government Center the other day, happy to proclaim whom he voted for in Tuesday's Republican primary for the U.S. Senate: "Not Harry Reid, that's who!"

Nevada Republicans are seeking the Not Harry Reid vote with a vengeance this year as they attempt to dethrone the powerful Senate majority leader by portraying the four-term incumbent as a deal-making Washington insider.

But someone other than his Republican rivals may benefit Tuesday from the anti-Harry Reid movement: Harry Reid. In their zeal for a third big win this spring after victories in Utah and Kentucky, "tea party" groups are lining up behind the most uncompromising GOP candidate they see: Sharron Angle, a former state assemblywoman with steadfast views against taxes and government spending. She has led a 12-person pack in recent polling.

But by backing someone who many times was the lone "no" vote in the Nevada assembly, these groups may be handing Reid the candidate he can most easily beat.

Reid's unpopularity is deep among Republicans across the country. He played a key role in every controversial initiative, from health reform to the stimulus bill, to emerge from Washington in the past year.

Reid, 70, is also a blunt-spoken politician more skilled at tactics than tact. Perhaps most famously, he described Barack Obama in 2008 as a strong candidate because he is a "light-skinned" black man with no "Negro dialect." Some published polls show that more than half of Nevada voters are unhappy with Reid.

Groups mobilize

His opponents are seeking to capitalize on that. The Tea Party Express and Club for Growth have flooded the airwaves in an effort to take Reid down. The fruits of that campaign are evident everywhere.

At a Saxby's Coffee Shop in suburban Henderson, south of Las Vegas, Danny Tarkanian, the son of former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian and another top contender in Tuesday's Republican primary, schmoozed easily with supporters. One was wearing a "Dump Reid!!" T-shirt.

"When he became majority leader, he lost his focus on Nevada," Bill Borzick, 75, a retired engineer, said of Reid. "The worst case is to have one party that's liberal and in charge of everything. You need some checks and balances."

Nonetheless, the dynamics of the Republican primary may be helping Reid, the son of a miner from tiny Searchlight, in southern Nevada. Talk of Reid's vulnerability this year peaked with the rise of GOP contender Sue Lowden, a former state senator, casino executive and beauty queen whom published polls have shown beating Reid in the fall. But Angle, seen as more conservative by a number of influential Republicans, has attracted the backing of the Tea Party Express, the Club for Growth and another tea party group, FreedomWorks.

Controversy for Lowden

Lowden also waded into a couple of minor controversies, including some fundraising irregularities and a highly publicized remark about the days when consumers paid their medical bills by bartering such items as chickens. But her numbers really plummeted after her rivals saw that she was the one to beat. Focused mostly on Lowden's moderate voting record and her past support for Reid, they began firing away at her with millions of dollars in negative TV ads.

Even a Democratic PAC with ties to Reid has run ads ridiculing Lowden's remark about bartering chickens -- compelling evidence that Reid wants Angle to win as much as tea party followers do.

As Lowden's fortunes faded, Angle's rose. Tea party activists flocked to her promises of lower taxes, less government spending and what they view as stricter adherence to the Constitution.

But Angle is vulnerable to the caricature of being out of touch with the mainstream; pragmatic voters may view her as too uncompromising about the size of government -- at the expense of Nevada. Also, when she was in the state assembly, Angle supported a prison rehabilitation program promoted by the Church of Scientology and involving saunas and massage. She is also a passionate advocate for reversing Reid's efforts to ban nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain, an effort that Nevadans overwhelmingly support.

Those positions are likely to come under the same scrutiny in a general election that another tea party favorite, Rand Paul, has faced since his Senate primary win in Kentucky last month.

Perhaps the biggest factor in November's elections will be the economy. Nevada is one of the recession's epicenters, with unemployment close to 14 percent and the mortgage-foreclosure rate among the highest in the nation.

The signs of economic hardship are everywhere in Las Vegas: a two-story banner on the side of the Planet Hollywood casino reading "Retail Space Available"; the stalled construction site of the Hotel Fontainebleau. In many of the suburban stucco neighborhoods skirting the city, vacant houses speckle nearly every block.

Angle and other Republicans put part of the blame on Reid, but he won't go down in that battle without a fight. His campaign will remind voters of the more popular evidence of his work within the state: a veterans hospital; a huge new hotel development on the Las Vegas Strip; and the demise last year, after nearly 30 years of planning, of the Yucca Mountain site.

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