Harry Reid's favorability numbers are in the gutter, voters hate the new health care law, and Nevada has the highest foreclosure rate and the second highest unemployment rate of any state in the country. By all indications, the Senate majority leader's seat should be ripe for the picking.
But Republicans are worrying that they just might snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Though previous polls had shown onetime frontrunner Sue Lowden, a former news anchor, beauty queen, state senator, and state party chair, beating Reid by double digits, a Mason-Dixon poll last week showed the race had tightened to just 3 points. So, what's going on in Nevada?
"He has a chicken following me," Lowden says of Reid. Not a real chicken, mind you, but a man dressed up in a chicken suit, meant to mock Lowden's comment on bartering for health care: "In the olden days, our grandparents, they would bring a chicken to the doctor. ... Doctors are very sympathetic people. I'm not backing down from that system."
"He’s trying to change the subject from his very unpopular health care bill," Lowden says in a phone interview. According to Lowden, bartering "is not a policy. It’s a fact that folks here in Nevada are bartering and that people did years ago do that. It’s just a fact." It's true that negotiating prices and paying cash can bring down costs, and it's true that some people in Nevada are bartering. But Lowden did initially endorse "that system" of bartering and has tied herself in knots explaining her comments.
Meanwhile, her opponent Sharron Angle, a former state assemblywoman, has surged to within just one point of Lowden in the Mason-Dixon poll, and 8 points ahead of Lowden in a new Suffolk poll (where Angle is also 7 points ahead of former UNLV basketball player and real estate business owner Danny Tarkanian). Angle, endorsed by the Tea Party Express and the Club for Growth, is admired by her supporters for her unvarnished conservatism. "Harry Reid has waterboarded our economy," she says.
Angle is "completely opposed" to all earmarks--no ifs, ands, or buts. Lowden and Tarkanian say they're against earmarks too, but have a more nuanced understanding of the definition an earmark. "Is the Boulder Dam an earmark?" Lowden asks. "All projects should be debated and thoroughly vetted" and voted on an "up or down vote," she says. Tarkanian says it's okay to direct dollars for things like "military spending in your state."
But Angle's straight-talking conservatism is cheered on not only by Tea Party activists; it's bringing a smile to Harry Reid's face, too. Angle polls a few points worse than Lowden and Tarkanian against Reid (she was losing by 3 points in that Mason-Dixon poll), and Democrats see her as too conservative to win. On Social Security and Medicare, for example, although Angle thinks seniors should be guaranteed "that safety net that they paid into," she would eventually like to completely do away with both programs. That's well beyond what Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin's "Road Map" has called for--a voucherized, means-tested, free-market Medicare (an idea Lowden supports exploring). "I don't believe that government should have any hand in our health care or our retirement," says Angle. She adds: "I’m not certain exactly over what period of time we phase that in, nor at which age level we say to them, 'You have to go onto the private system.'"
Lowden's campaign has been hitting Angle for once supporting a drug rehab program in Mexico with ties to Scientology, where prisoners ate organic beef, got massages, and had access to a sauna--"what I can only describe as a sweat box," Angle told a Nevada paper. "I believed [the program] would cut the expenses related to the revolving door recidivism on especially drug-related crime in our prisons,” Angle told me. The fact-finding trip to Mexico, to be paid for by a Scientologist, never took place, but the story is supposed to be evidence that Angle is a wild-eyed Tea Party nut.
Angle is not a slick candidate--her TV ads do have a home-video aspect to them--but she seems to be perfectly level-headed. And she's managed to avoid major gaffes during the campaign (though she has faced less scrutiny than Lowden). "I support the Civil Rights Act of 1964," Angle says, showing how easy it is to avoid the controversy that has dragged down Tea Party candidate Rand Paul in Kentucky. "Of course, I do," says Tarkanian of the Act. But Lowden refused to state her position on the Civil Rights Act multiple times, eventually releasing a statement endorsing it, making another controversy for herself where there didn't need to be one.
"All three of these candidates can lose to Harry Reid," says one GOP operative who has interacted with each candidate. "All three of these candidates can beat Harry Reid." The operative sees Lowden's "bartergate" as evidence that she could be a "trainwreck" in the general election, and Angle could eventually have her own Rand Paul moment and implode. The rap against Tarkanian? He's a stiff candidate--the "anti-Rubio" in terms of charisma--not that Harry Reid is exactly thrilling. With Angle and Lowden beating each other up, there's a decent chance Tarkanian, who's been very focused on branding himself as an anti-illegal immigration stalwart, might pull off a win.
It seems that the Nevada GOP, already beleagured by an embattled governor polling in the teens, is doing its best to make what should be a boring Senate race interesting. But in November, voters might just care about stopping Obamacare, bailouts, and constitutional rights for terrorists more than chickens for checkups or spas for prisoners.