LAS VEGAS — If Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wins re-election this fall, it will likely be because a lot of Nevada voters held their noses while pulling the lever.
But the Republicans who hope to emerge from Tuesday’s primary to take on Reid in November are banking on the four-term Democrat’s persistent unpopularity in the state as their ticket to Washington.
In recent weeks, several polls have shown that Reid may be harder to beat than many Republicans initially thought. Two recent surveys show the Majority Leader in a dead heat with all three of the GOP contenders — former Nevada Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Lowden, former state Rep. Sharron Angle and businessman Danny Tarkanian. A Research 2000 poll conducted for the liberal blog Daily Kos found that Reid would beat every challenger by 4 to 5 points. Two months ago, Reid trailed the top contenders by 9 points in similar polls.
But Reid’s improving numbers aren’t necessarily a reflection of Nevadans suddenly realizing they like the 70-year-old Democrat. Forty-nine percent of voters still have an unfavorable view of him, according to a recent Mason-Dixon poll. In April, Reid’s unfavorable rating was slightly worse at 54 percent.
Rep. Shelley Berkley said the nasty GOP Senate primary is the main reason for Reid’s improved fortunes; she said many voters are willing to give him another chance.
“I think there’s a huge sea change in Sen. Reid’s prospects,” the Nevada Democrat said. “It’s almost a palpable difference. People are talking in a very positive way how he is going to win this election. … I think it has a lot to do with the Republican Senatorial primary and the [GOP candidates’] mischief.”
Reid May Yet Prevail
Reid is still suffering from populist anger over his role in pushing President Barack Obama’s health care reform bill through Congress, as well as from voter anxiety over the state’s 14 percent unemployment rate and the highest home foreclosure rate in the nation.
[IMGCAP(1)]Even so, some Nevada voters said that as they look at their options, they may in the end choose what they view as the lesser of two evils: Reid over a weak GOP candidate.
Las Vegas small-business man Glenn Brown emerged from an early voting polling station in Las Vegas on Wednesday saying he is a registered Republican who voted for Lowden in the primary. However, Brown said he would probably support Reid in the general election because of Reid’s power in Washington.
A staunch Second Amendment supporter, Brown said, “The only reason the Democratic Party hasn’t done what they might have done [on gun control] is because Harry is keeping them in check.” Brown cited Reid’s work in bringing the Clark County Shooting Park to the Vegas area.
But he said, “I thought Harry had bigger cojones” and should have stood up to Obama’s push for health care reform.
Indeed, Republicans, Democrats and independents in Nevada said they were surprised and disappointed by Reid’s acquiescence to what many see as Obama’s decidedly liberal agenda. Obama carried the state 55 percent to 43 percent in the 2008 presidential contest against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), but Nevada has traditionally leaned conservative.
One Las Vegas military veteran, who supports Reid but asked to remain anonymous, agreed that Reid has made mistakes by “following” Obama “without following the people.”
Reno resident Marilyn Melton said Reid does appear to have veered away from his independent, moderate roots a bit in recent years. “I’ve known him for a long time, and there’s been a time or two that I’ve thought, What?'” she said, after attending a Reno Women’s Summit at which Reid introduced first lady Michelle Obama. Still, she said she gives the Senator a “B+” in his efforts.
Desire for Change Persists
Still, it’s not hard to find voters who just want some new blood in the Senate.
“I’d vote for anybody other than Harry Reid,” said Ron Simpson, a veteran and an independent voter who attended a meet-and-greet for Lowden at a Las Vegas American Legion hall on Memorial Day. “He straddles the fence too much on major issues. … He’s a prime example of why we need term limits.”
Similarly, a Las Vegas cab driver said Reid has been in office too long. “He’s got to go,” said the cab driver, a Sue Lowden supporter.
The Republican candidates said that’s a refrain they’ve been hearing a lot.
“The one constant that we have here in Nevada is the vast majority of Nevadans want Reid gone,” Tarkanian said.
Indeed, when Tarkanian approached a voter in the GOP-heavy Summerlin neighborhood of Las Vegas, the man declined to promise his support but quipped, “I definitely want Harry Reid gone.”
Yet Reid said at a Memorial Day event in Boulder City that he hasn’t personally heard disapproving comments from voters.
“Of course, people don’t tell me the negative. They only tell me the positive,” Reid said.
Asked what he would tell a voter who was dissatisfied with him, Reid responded: “What can I say? If he has some questions, I’ll answer them, but he has a right to vote for whoever he wants.”
But Reid told reporters last week that campaigning is the last thing on his mind these days, saying his priorities are his wife’s recovery from a car accident that left her with a broken back and neck and the Senate agenda. “We’ve had a very successful Congress, but we have many more things to do,” he said. “I can’t just concentrate on the campaign. I’ve got to concentrate on a lot of other things. … First, I have to take care of my family. Everyone knows I’ve had a wife that’s been hurt. Second, I have a state to take care of. I have a country to take care of and a campaign to take care of. And they’re in that order.”
But even as Reid downplayed his focus on securing a fifth term, he took pains to appear at two in-state events with Michelle Obama last week. At the Reno Women’s Summit, Obama called Reid “one of my favorite people in the world.” The first lady made an appearance with Reid in Las Vegas as well.
Reid Realistic About Chances
Yet Reid, who calls Searchlight, Nev., his home, was careful last week to not overstate his ability to win in November.
“I’m only who I am,” Reid said. “I won’t be anybody else. I’ll just continue doing what I’ve always done. The people of Nevada know me, and they have the right to make that decision. I can’t make that decision for them.”
And even though he appears to have a well-oiled campaign machine up and running, his penchant for making impolitic statements remains a wild card in the race. Reid came under a firestorm of criticism earlier this year when he was forced to apologize for his comments in the book “Game Change” in which he was quoted as referring to President Barack Obama as “light-skinned” with “no Negro dialect.” Another question mark is what role his son Rory Reid’s gubernatorial race will play — a situation that could add to Nevada’s apparent Reid fatigue.
But as Berkley noted, Lowden, Angle and Tarkanian have been beating up on each other in the quest to be the giant killer who defeats Reid. Still, Republicans are concerned that none of the three has what it takes to pull off such a feat, despite the prevailing anti-incumbent mood sweeping the country this year. Republicans have been hoping to topple Reid in the same style that Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) took out then-Democratic leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) in 2004.
Republican Field Struggles
One experienced Nevada GOP strategist, who requested anonymity, said there are several reasons for GOP activists to be worried.
Top among them is the very real possibility that Angle will win the Tuesday primary. A Suffolk University Political Research Center poll released Thursday showed Angle beating Lowden and Tarkanian by a relatively comfortable margin.
Other polls conducted in late May and early June show Reid beating Angle, who has been endorsed by ultra-conservative groups, such as the Tea Party Express and the Club for Growth. Hotline On Call estimated that the two groups have spent as much as $800,000 on TV and radio to promote her bid — a situation that many say explains her rapid rise in the polls.
While in Nevada last week, Reid tried to beat back questions from local and national media that he is hoping to take on Angle and that that is why his campaign has been so aggressive in criticizing Lowden, who has been viewed as the stronger general election candidate.
“They all scare me,” Reid said after speaking at the Memorial Day event at the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery.
Asked Wednesday who he believes he could more easily defeat, Reid said, “I think they all have their own strengths and weaknesses.”
But both Republicans and Democrats believe Angle is the most vulnerable, because of what they describe as her extreme views. She has advocated privatizing Social Security and Medicare, wants to abolish the Department of Education, would have the United States withdraw from the United Nations and supports eliminating the national income tax.
Tarkanian expressed doubts that Angle could bridge the divide between Republicans in the primary and the all-important independent vote in Nevada.
“Do [voters] want a strong conservative? In the Republican Party, they certainly do. The independents? Probably not,” Tarkanian said in an interview. “Can [Angle] carry the 18 percent of independents out there? I frankly can’t tell.”
Angle’s Curious Candidacy
Angle also pursued a curious strategy in the week before the Tuesday primary. Her campaign refused to tell media outlets where she was campaigning or when. Numerous requests by Roll Call over a three-week period were rebuffed by her campaign, including offers to interview her via phone or meet up with her during her bus tour through rural counties in Nevada.
A Roll Call photographer was given permission to come to an Angle meet-and-greet in Las Vegas on May 29 but was later told there would be no access.
Angle spokesman Jerry Stacy told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last week that Angle is not avoiding the limelight and that he has turned down media requests because he can’t schedule them all.
Angle did manage to squeeze in several interviews with conservative talk-radio hosts, however.
Stacy added that the campaign’s refusal to tell people where she has been campaigning was an attempt to keep the other GOP candidates from gaining insight into her strategy.
“The campaign is canvassing votes needed to win an important race, and our opponents are attempting to come in behind us and try to undo our efforts, so for this reason I am remaining tight-lipped about the campaign’s ground game and whereabouts,” Stacy reportedly said.
Oddly, Angle recently complained to the Republican-leaning Daily Caller website that reporters often ignore conservatives such as herself.
“One of the ways to marginalize us is to not even talk about us,” she said in the May 25 piece. “I found that to be more the case. That is harder for us to break in to the media and to get that earned media as a conservative.”
But all three GOP candidates have serious flaws and campaigns that are so badly managed that any one of them could give Reid the opening he needs to win in November, the Nevada GOP strategist said.
For example, none has demonstrated a real ability to fundraise, even though Lowden has loaned herself $1.25 million of a total $3.2 million raised, as of May 19. Angle and Tarkanian lag far behind Lowden in fundraising, having raised $1.25 million and $1.1 million, respectively.
Heading into the last two weeks of the primary, none of the candidates had more than $250,000 in cash on hand.
In comparison, Reid has raised $17.8 million and had $9.1 million on hand as of May 19.
The Nevada GOP strategist said Angle is “a formidable primary candidate, but she’s yet to demonstrate appeal in a general” election. Besides that, Angle lags in fundraising and has had to rely on third-party interest groups, such as the Club for Growth, to spend money on her behalf.
The strategist said Angle and Tarkanian could have a hard time competing with Reid in the big leagues, saying Tarkanian “is not ready for prime time,” and “the more [Angle] talks, the less people will think she is Senatorial material.”
Lowden Loses Early Momentum
Lowden, who had been the frontrunner until recently, suffered a barrage of negative press over the past several weeks, starting with her contention that bartering with doctors could be a way to deal with rising health care costs. Because she used a chicken as an example of the types of things people previously used to trade for health care, Democratic activists began following her around with a man in a chicken suit. Following that flap, she came under fire for allegedly accepting a potentially illegal in-kind contribution of a campaign bus, and her campaign acknowledged that it had accidentally spent money intended for the general election, not the primary.
“With relatively little stress, Sue has folded under pressure,” the GOP strategist said. “She’s shown that she can’t take a punch.”
Of course, Lowden has been taking fire from all sides — with Angle and Tarkanian questioning her conservative credentials and a Democratic political action committee ridiculing her health care bartering comments and criticizing her previous push to impose a $100 fee on noncombat veterans who want to be buried in military cemeteries.
Lowden last week said her fortunes were beginning to look up, despite Angle’s meteoric rise in opinion polls.
“You’re looking at it from a different viewpoint than I’m looking at it,” she told a Roll Call reporter. “I see people … and they’re talking about real issues. They care about real day-to-day problems that they have in their lives in their families. Nobody’s talking about chickens. Nobody is, except you.”
She added that the loss of her previous lead was to be expected: “We never took it for granted that we were up so high.”
Republicans Vow to Unify
Meanwhile, Tarkanian who has been polling in third place, said he could be the dark horse.
As Angle and Lowden attack each other, “I’m able to stay on message and talk about the real issues that are important to people in Nevada, and I believe that in the end result I’ll end up winning this thing because of that,” he said.
Along with the shortcomings of the GOP primary field, Reid could be helped by the scandal surrounding Sen. John Ensign’s (R-Nev.) affair with a former campaign aide, Cynthia Hampton, and the Justice Department inquiry that has resulted from his alleged attempts to cover up the affair and find a job for his mistress’s husband, also a one-time Ensign aide.
The Nevada Republican has been “neutered,” the GOP strategist said. Because of that, many GOP business owners are considering backing Reid to preserve the state’s clout in the Senate, the strategist said.
However, the full weight of the GOP, and financial help from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has not yet been brought to bear on Reid and his record as Majority Leader.
“Nobody has really gone on TV and blown Harry Reid up yet,” the strategist said. “And his [poll] numbers are still where they are.”
Plus, Republicans noted that the food fight in the GOP is almost over, and Lowden said that no matter how unpleasant the battle has been, the state party would close ranks once the primary winner has been certified.
“I think that we’ve had spirited primaries in the past and that unlike Florida we embrace each other afterward,” she said. “The target — the goal in the end — is to beat Harry Reid.”