Monday, Nov. 01, 2010

Nevada Senate: Harry Reid vs. Sharron Angle

The most important race in these midterm elections has also been one of the wackiest. But we've learned to expect little else from Nevada. Senate majority leader Harry Reid is fighting for his political life, and the race is so much about him, it hardly matters who is running against him. The fact that his opponent is Tea Party darling Sharron Angle simply adds more color to a race not short on only-in–Las Vegas moments.

Angle, a former state representative and perennial candidate, has been mocked more than lauded for her positions, from a plan to give massages to prisoners going through drug detox to old statements in which she linked abortions to breast cancer and advocated getting rid of the Departments of Education and Energy and the 16th Amendment (direct taxation), to an incorrect assertion that Dearborn, Mich., is under Shari'a law. She also recently told a classroom of Latino kids that some of them looked Asian. Not to mention that the onetime weight-lifting champ often proudly packs a .44 Magnum at rallies.

Yet virtually anything Angle says or does has yet to appear worse, in Nevada voters' minds, than Reid's record in the past two years: pushing through the stimulus bill and health care reform with highly publicized backroom deals — the ugly sausagemaking business for two bills that polls show Nevadans don't particularly care for. Just about the only thing Nevadans hated more than health care reform was the process by which it passed.

Despite his hefty clout in the Silver State and his record of taking home more federal dollars than the entire rest of the delegation combined, Reid has struggled to pull away from Angle. Angle's campaign has benefited from a terrible economy — Nevada's unemployment rate is above 14%, nearly 50% higher than the national average, and it was one of the hardest-hit states in the housing crisis. Angle has also been buoyed by national anger directed at Reid, garnering endorsements from the Tea Party Express, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who rallied a big crowd in Reno — Angle's hometown — last week. In the past quarter, Angle raised an eye-popping $14 million — most of it from outside Nevada — bringing her total this cycle to $21.5 million, $4 million ahead of Reid. A TIME/CNN/Opinion Research poll last week found Reid trailing Angle among likely voters, 45% to her 49%, just outside the margin of error, with independent candidate Scott Ashjian pulling in 2%. Strikingly, those poll numbers are reversed among registered voters — 43% for Reid, 39% for Angle and 5% for Ashjian — which means Reid's success depends on turning out his supporters.

And that very well might happen. In his 24 years in the Senate, two terms in the House and stints as lieutenant governor and at the helm of the state's powerful Gambling Commission, Reid has built a vaunted get-out-the-vote machine that should not be underestimated. He has the backing of the powerful Vegas unions. "Do it for Harry Reid! He's our champion," AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka told a large crowd last week. Also appearing on Reid's behalf: President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, former President Bill Clinton and a coterie of other powerful Democrats and Hollywood celebrities. In the two weeks of early voting that ended Friday, Reid's operation seemingly successfully blunted the GOP enthusiasm gap: registered Democrats led registered Republicans by 6,594 votes, or 162,774 Democratic votes to 156,150 cast by Republicans, according to the Secretary of State's website.

Throughout the campaign, Angle has refused to speak with any non-right-leaning media, a liability when trying to appeal outside the Republican base. She says if she's elected she'll start granting mainstream-media interviews. To finish off this oddball race, she has begun using decoys to distract members of the press chasing her after events. She was on the receiving end of a Joy Behar rant on The View for her race-baiting TV ads — think big, scary, tattooed Latino men in prison cells. Behar called her a "bitch" and said Angle is "going to hell." Angle sent Behar flowers with a note: "Joy, Raised $150,000 online yesterday. Thanks for your help. Sincerely, Sharron Angle." If Reid ends up winning, his note to Angle could read, "Thanks for your help. Appreciate all the distractions from my unpopular record."