Nevada Republican Sharron Angle is on a roll. The former assemblywoman is surging in late polls of the state's three-way Senate primary battle. She has backing from the deep-pocketed Club for Growth and grassroots Tea Party Express. She even made Joe the Plumber's short list – one of only seven candidates he endorsed this year out of more than 150 requests. "The other 143 or so were just worthless," the Everyman of Campaign 2008 explained on a Tea Party Express fundraising radiothon the other night.
Angle, he said, is the genuine article: "She was conservative before conservative was cool."
Maybe so, but can she beat Harry Reid?
In a year of fascinating Senate races, the three most symbolic and closely watched are for President Obama's old seat in Illinois, Vice President Joe Biden's old seat in Delaware, and the Nevada seat now held by Reid, the Senate majority leader. With the eyes of the nation upon them, Nevada Republicans are desperate not to blow what looks like a very good chance to end Reid's career — and the ultimate rebuke would be for a Tea Party favorite to defeat him.
Yet there are real questions about whether Angle, with some unconventional and uncompromising positions in her portfolio, can get the job done. Even some conservatives fret that if she wins the nomination Tuesday, she will be "painted as a nut," as National Review put it. The fear is that she will turn out to be a Rand Paul conservative – ideological, quirky, and hard-pressed to win centrist voters.
Angle's two main rivals say flat-out that she can't win and only they can. Moderate businesswoman Sue Lowden, a former beauty queen, TV anchor, state senator and state party chairwoman, recently issued a news release headlined "It's Unanimous: Angle in November means Reid in December," and listed 28 media quotes as backup. But a new Las Vegas Review-Journal poll shows her losing to Reid by 1 percentage point this fall while Angle beats him by 3 points. The candidate who does best is the one who has never won an election. Reid trails businessman and former college basketball star Danny Tarkanian, who lost two earlier bids for office, by 7 points.
In Washington, New York Sen. Charles Schumer and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin have been maneuvering for months to succeed Reid – perhaps prematurely. Reid has risen like a phoenix from the rubble of foreclosures, joblessness, hostility to health reform and anger at incumbents. One recent poll shows him beating all three potential rivals. A Republican who supports Reid, onetime Reagan adman Sig Rogich, calls the GOP hopefuls "candidates without a lot of substance." Privately, Republican strategists agree their field is weak. The strongest prospect, two-term Rep. Dean Heller, declined to run.
Angle, the momentum candidate, is an anti-tax, anti-spending conservative and a darling of this year's storm-the-barricades set. In the 42-member Nevada Assembly, she often was the "1" in 41-1 roll calls. Her principles sometimes led her to take unexpected stands, such as opposing a bill to cap property taxes. It set different caps for residential and commercial property – disparate treatment she viewed as unconstitutional.
Lowden has run a tough ad on a sexier matter, Angle's interest in a drug treatment program with Scientology connections. The "Spa" spot depicts coddled prisoners enjoying candlelight massages and saunas and zooms in on a photo of scientologist Tom Cruise. Angle, a Southern Baptist, says the massages are more like karate chops and the saunas more like sweat boxes, and the treatment is working in New Mexico.
"It would have saved us money in prison fees for incarceration," she said on the TV show Face To Face with Jon Ralston. Still, she has removed the names of prominent scientologists from her website. And if anyone's feeling wary for any reason, her TV ads showcase her as "one of us."
The drug treatment and tax cap issues are only some of conservative National Review writer Jim Geraghty's worries about Angle. He also cites problems in her reports to the Federal Election Commission, her D+ grade from the Las Vegas Review-Journal as a freshman lawmaker, and her apparent suggestion that "she grudgingly tolerates" legal alcohol. He predicts Reid TV ads will paint Angle as "a beer-banning, felon-massaging, tax-hiking FEC scofflaw."
Geraghty doesn't even touch on Angle positions that could be far more problematic. For instance, she told Nevada News and Views in March that several federal agencies are unconstitutional. Among those she would eliminate are the departments of education and energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Internal Revenue Service, the National Endowment for the Arts, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. She'd phase out Social Security for younger workers in favor of a free-market alternative. And she would promote Nevada as "the Nuclear Energy capital of reprocessing spent fuels for the United States."
Eliminate EPA and the Energy Department amid a disastrous oil spill? Privatize Social Security right after the plunging stock market decimated 401(K) plans for millions? Lobby to bring nuclear fuel to a state that has fought tooth and nail against the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository? The opposition TV ads write themselves.
As for Lowden, her tenure as state party chair was marked by disarray and a clash with Ron Paul supporters in 2008, but she started out in this race as the frontrunner and establishment pick. She told the conservative Hot Air website in October that she wanted to give voters "confidence that I'm fully qualified, uniquely qualified" to beat Reid. Instead she's sown doubts with a campaign full of missteps.
There's the $100,000 campaign bus that was either donated or maybe leased to her, which she owns or maybe does not own, use of which is either perfectly legal (Lowden says) or could put her in jail (say Democrats, who have filed a federal complaint against her). And there's her notorious suggestion that people barter chickens for medical care. As national ridicule took hold, from Jay Leno to a Democratic "chickens for checkups" satire based on Mad Libs, Lowden kept digging in deeper. "Doctors are very sympathetic people. I'm not backing down from that," she said.
Lowden also refused to answer when asked if the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should have applied to private businesses. "I'm more interested in what we're doing here in Nevada," she said. Lowden's campaign quickly followed up with a statement saying she supports the act, but too late to avoid the YouTube clip of her evading a question that could not have come as a surprise. Kentucky Senate nominee Rand Paul had just ignited a national firestorm by saying he opposed that part of the law.
Another problem for Lowden would be energizing conservatives. She isn't calling for elimination of any federal agencies or privatization of Social Security. Some conservatives dismiss her as a RINO (Republican In Name Only), and former Ron Paul backers have mobilized against her. And like Angle, she promotes Nevada as nuclear-waste central; she envisions a high-tech industry to reduce and eliminate the nation's waste.
Behind Door No. 3 is Tarkanian, son of former Coach Jerry Tarkanian of University of Nevada-Las Vegas fame. He has some Angle-like positions and, he says, some Tea Party support. Specifically, he would erase the tax code, substitute a national sales tax and then eliminate the IRS, which would no longer be necessary. He'd get rid of the arts endowment and shrink the Education Department to fund higher education programs only. Social Security, he says, "should be privatized into individual, private accounts."
Tarkanian took to the Internet last week to express his concerns about Angle's "much more limited base," Lowden's stumbles and the "devastating" prospect that Reid might prevail. Lowden's bus and chicken gaffes, he said on ABC News' Top Line, are evidence that "her campaign's not prepared to run against a guy like Harry Reid." By contrast, he said, "I can stand up to Harry Reid and take the attacks he's going to throw at me."
Heidi Smith, a member of the Republican National Committee and a former county party chairwoman, lamented that the race is ending in a blaze of heated attacks and deep divisions. Smith has stayed officially neutral but other Republicans are "fairly well split" among the three top candidates and "talking in anger," she said. "Thank goodness people only have a six-week memory," she added. The party reunification process should be eased considerably by the fact that all three factions have a common goal that can be summed up in three words: "Anybody but Harry."