Yet in Nevada, where Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is up for re-election, there’s a peculiar twist: The national Tea Party Express’ endorsement of former state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle in the GOP contest has moved her from also-ran to front-runner in six short weeks. But it’s also ticked off in-state tea partiers who resent having outsiders meddling with their election and fear Angle can’t beat Reid.
That meddling is about to get even more intense as the Tea Party Express buys two hours next week on the top-rated AM talk station in Las Vegas to promote and fund raise for Angle.
The Tea Party Express “basically told us to go to hell,” said Nevada tea party activist Debbie Landis of Reno, whose group, Action Is Brewing, has about 7,000 members on its e-mail list. “They told us, ‘Listen, this is none of your business. This has nothing to do with Nevada, this is the Tea Party Express.’ In my view, that’s not how grassroots is supposed to work.”
The latest poll in the race, published today in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, has Angle at 29 percent and longtime front-runner Sue Lowden at 30 percent. Lowden is a former state Republican Party chairwoman and state senator who, the same survey showed, is ahead of Reid by three points in a head-to-head match-up, whereas Angle polls three points behind.
Because of the margin of error, however, Reid is virtually tied with both of them, as well as the third major candidate in the race, businessman Danny Tarkanian.
The primary is June 8, but early voting — when more than 60 percent of ballots are usually cast in Nevada elections — began on May 22.
The turnaround for Angle has been remarkable. She netted just 5 percent in a Review-Journal poll in early April, a week before the Tea Party Express’ endorsement; Lowden led that survey at 45 percent.
But Lowden created problems of her own soon after by becoming a national punch line for suggesting that bartering with doctors could be a way for some people to reduce their health care costs. More recently, there have been controversies surrounding who owns and paid for the charter bus Lowden rode to the massive March 27 tea party event just outside Reid’s rural hometown of Searchlight.
This week, she refused on a local TV show to say whether she believes the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should have applied to discrimination by businesses. Lowden’s campaign tried to avoid the morass that recently ensnared GOP Senate candidate Rand Paul of Kentucky by issuing a statement clarifying that she does support banning discrimination by private companies, but by then MSNBC and numerous other outlets had showed a prickly Lowden evading the query.
Still, it’s clear Angle’s endorsement by the Tea Party Express, which has 450,000 members nationally and about 10,000 in Nevada, has been a potent force in pumping life into her campaign at the opportune time. The Tea Party Express also has recently called on Tarkanian to leave the race.
Those are moves that another national group, the Tea Party Nation, says it wouldn’t have done.
“Our philosophy — and this is what our members agree with — is that in a case where we’ve got multiple good conservative candidates, we’re gonna stay out of it,” said Tea Party Nation President Judson Phillips, who touts 30,000 members. “Particularly where we’re not local, I don’t think it’s appropriate to endorse.”
Yet Tea Party Express spokesman Levi Russell said that because this race involves efforts to oust the top Senate Democrat, it is not merely a local matter. That’s why the group is buying two hours of airtime, 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday on the AM station KXNT in Las Vegas helmed by Tea Party Express Chairman Mark Williams, a prominent Sacramento, Calif., talk show host. Russell did not know what the radio time would cost.
“The reason we endorsed [Angle is] because we felt like she was the candidate people wanted, but they weren’t hearing the name as much as Lowden and Tarkanian,” Russell told AOL News. “She didn’t have the star power, and we felt if we could put more spotlight on her and turn voters towards her, they would push their support to her.”
In the state, however, it is hard to imagine Republicans were unaware of who Angle is. The 60-year-old from Reno served four terms in the Nevada Legislature and lost races in recent years for the Republican nomination for state Senate and Congress. A longtime anti-tax crusader, she’s tried for years to get a property tax cap initiative onto the statewide ballot.
Angle’s standing with the state’s tea party activists is shaky, Landis said, because those failures show she’s not “solution-oriented.” Landis’ group this week endorsed businessman John Chachas, a native Nevadan who moved back to the state after a career on Wall Street to run for the seat. Chachas got 2 percent of the vote in the new Review-Journal poll.
Lowden insisted she always expected the race to tighten and that she can unite the tea party activists should she be the nominee.
“What I do know is I have attended tea parties, I have spoken at tea parties, I have encouraged people to be a part of … a great movement that has emboldened people who have never felt that they’re engaged before,” she said. “All of the tea party people have said good things about me.”
That’s not exactly so. In a straw poll of 210 tea party leaders in Nevada on ConservativeCats.com, Lowden got just 11 votes, one-fifth the number of votes Angle received. Landis even suggested that many will stay home in November instead of voting for Lowden, who as Nevada’s GOP chair in 2008 halted the state Republican convention when it appeared that supporters of Texas Rep. Ron Paul might force the party to give Paul their delegates instead of Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Lowden’s campaign in recent weeks has taken aim at Angle, citing votes to raise legislator pay as proof she’s not as conservative as she claims and painting her support of a plan to reduce criminal recidivism by providing saunas and massages to inmates as wacky.
Yet many worried about Angle’s chances against Reid aren’t worried that she’s not a bona fide conservative — they fear she’ll be easily painted as an extremist. Reno Mayor Bob Cashell told the Reno Gazette-Journal that he and other prominent Republicans might even endorse Reid if Angle is the nominee.
“Nobody’s going to buy that Angle’s not a conservative. She is,” said Chuck Muth, a Nevada activist who said he has advised the Lowden campaign but disagrees with this tactic. “I just don’t believe Sharron has the best chance to beat Harry Reid in an election where you’re going to have to attract moderates and independents. The only way you think Sharron has as good a chance of winning is if you believe a ham sandwich can beat Harry Reid. … Someone like Harry Reid is going to know exactly how to eviscerate her.”
For her part, Angle is nonplussed. She’s been ignored and marginalized before by the state’s Republican establishment, as recently as last year, led by Lowden as state chair.
“I’m not too far right,” she told AOL News. “There’s no such thing.”