RENO, Nev.-A 150-foot-tall bald eagle balloon towered over the Tea Party Express rally in Reno, Nev., but it couldn't overshadow former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin when she strode onto the stage in a black skirt and red jacket. Facing a parking lot full of Tea Party voters and vendors, she opened her speech with a gleeful, "Tea Party Americans, you're winning!"
In Nevada's Senate campaign, they are certainly coming close. When former State Assembly member Sharron Angle won the GOP nomination to face Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Las Vegas Sun headlined the primary results, "Harry Reid gets race he wanted." Politico called the Angle nomination "a huge gamble" for the GOP, and Salon's Mike Madden wrote that Angle's nomination "may have thrown Reid a lifeline."
Similar predictions of doom seem to be coming true in Delaware where Tea Partiers helped conservative activist Christine O'Donnell take the GOP Senate nomination from a liberal Republican. O'Donnell trails Democratic candidate Chris Coons by double digits. But in Nevada, Sharron Angle leads by 3 points following a debate in which she told Harry Reid to "man up."
Angle's campaign has received national support-she raised a staggering $14 million in a single quarter-and she wouldn't be where she is without the Tea Party. The Tea Party Express, a political operation founded by veteran Republican strategist Sal Russo, and the conservative Club for Growth swept in during the primary to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for Angle. This support, in addition to attack ads by the Reid campaign against Angle's opponent, Sue Lowden, helped the conservative Angle beat Lowden by 14 points.
On Oct. 18, the Tea Party Express bus rolled into Reno again. As vendors set up next to empty storefronts and hawked T-shirts that said, "FOX News Fan" and "Don't Tread on Me," voters carried signs that said, "Barack Obama and Harry Reid are Socialists," "Take back America-throw out the liberals," and "Revolt Against Socialism." The Rivoli Revue, a husband and wife country duo, warned the audience, "There's a new world order coming to your town / Better stand up strong and hold our ground / We'll no longer be the United States, we'll be the U.S.S. of A."
The Tea Party Express leaders took care to address the criticism that they are an opportunistic establishment group herding the Tea Party vote. Howard Kaloogian, who leads an Express-affiliated PAC, said its contributions come only from individuals and the average donation is $62. Amy Kremer, CEO of the Tea Party Express, noted that the Anchorage Tea Party group invited them to work on the GOP primary in Alaska.
"We're a group of normal voters who are suddenly thrust into the middle of something very big," said Tea Party vendor and Reno Tea Party organizer Gia Gallegos. Her group includes a flight attendant and a car wash manager who are suddenly fielding requests from international media outlets. Gallegos went to her first Tax Day Tea Party in April 2009, and she has traveled to over 100 Tea Party events in the last 18 months. "Is Sharron the perfect candidate?" Gallegos asked. "Of course not. I don't know who is. But is she better than Harry Reid?" If Pope John Paul II had run for the Senate, Reid would have tarnished his reputation too, she said.
Reid has slammed Angle in ads that say she wants to eliminate cabinet departments and "wipe out" Social Security and Medicare. Angle says she merely wants to protect old-age entitlements from insolvency by offering younger workers the option of personal accounts. But an Oct. 9 FOX News survey shows that Angle's unfavorability rating has climbed to 58 percent-2 points worse than Reid's. A full 35 percent said they were voting based on their dislike of the other candidate.
A precinct walk revealed these voter attitudes after the Tea Party rally, when homeschooled teenagers and parents knocked on doors and passed out literature in Reno. When asked about his vote for Senate, an elderly man wearing a U.S.A. T-shirt said, "I don't intend to vote for Harry Reid!" But another said that although he was voting Republican in both the gubernatorial and House election, he was skeptical of Sharron Angle.
A less conservative Republican is facing another Reid-Harry Reid's son, Rory-in the race for governor. Pro-abortion Republican Brian Sandoval is leading Rory Reid by double digits. Adam Stryker, Nevada state director for Americans for Prosperity, notes that the gubernatorial campaign has focused more on policy issues like education and budgets, while the senatorial campaign is awash in ads that prompt visceral and emotional responses. Harry Reid is showing ads that feature breast cancer survivors and the message that Angle tried to repeal a law mandating that insurance companies cover mammograms: "More women will die." (For her part, Angle says the free market would weed out insurance companies that offer fewer choices: "Let the people decide where they want to buy their insurance.") Reid has also slammed Angle for her pro-life views, saying she believes "a teenage rape victim should be forced to have the baby." One ad, a mock commercial for "Sharron Angle crazy juice," ends with a mock disclaimer: "She's too extreme for any rational person on the planet and should not be a senator."
But the volunteers who support her are moved not just by Reid-loathing but by love for Angle herself. Barbara Dragon, the energetic homeschool mom who organized the precinct walk and an officer with Nevada Homeschool Network, said Angle, a former homeschool mom herself, has championed homeschool rights in a state that has severely restricted them. She shows a picture of Angle at the signing of landmark homeschool legislation and affectionately recalls hearing Angle sing, "To God Be the Glory" a capella. Doreine Musch, a Tea Party attendee, said she supported Angle from the primary and didn't care how the Tea Party Express or outside groups said to vote: "I voted for the person I thought would represent me. . . . I love her." Musch has been involved in campaigns since the Reagan era and this one is different, she said: "I feel more energy."
"You're winning, Joe Six Pack!" Sarah Palin had told the crowd earlier as they waved Sharron Angle signs, but she reminded the crowd they haven't won yet. Still, with polls showing just 1 percent of the electorate undecided, the race Harry Reid wanted may not be the lifeline he thought it would be.
Facing an electorate suffering a jobless rate that is third-highest in the nation and a state fiscal crisis needing federal aid to patch a third of its deficit, Sen. Barbara Boxer may need more than a record of total support for abortion and same-sex marriage to win re-election in one of the bluest of the blue states, California.
Is the three-term Democrat from San Francisco too liberal for California? Probably not. But Boxer finds herself in a fight for her political life against a pro-life, anti--gay-marriage Republican who emphasizes free-market economics and her experience as CEO of a tech company that was in the top 10 of the Fortune 500. Carly Fiorina trails Boxer, but Rasmussen Reports rated the contest a toss-up less than two weeks before Election Day. It's not that social issues don't matter. Economic ones seem to matter more.
Boxer has enjoyed two successful re-election campaigns in California and is known for staunch pro-abortion views. Yet, a Field Poll released in late October revealed that although Californians advocate abortion as much as they did in 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade, more than half of those expressing support for Fiorina support the current abortion regime. Fiorina has said she opposes Roe.
This Sarah Palin--endorsed social conservative, in her first political race, is proudly pro-life and backs other socially conservative positions generally at odds with voters in California. But California may not be as deep blue as advertised. Field Polls of California voters released in July reveal 49 percent of registered voters approve of Arizona's immigration law, while 45 percent of voters disapprove. On the question of whether to grant same-sex couples marriage rights, when given an option of civil unions, only 44 percent backed same-sex marriage.
Nonetheless, while they are evenly divided on President Barack Obama's handling of the national economy, there's near agreement among California voters that the state's economy isn't doing well. Thus, the clincher in the Boxer-Fiorina race this fall seems to be jobs. Fiorina advocates tax cuts and lighter regulation. Boxer's answer amounts to more of the same government stimulus and targeted tax benefits.
That seemed too little for the liberal San Francisco Chronicle, which refused to endorse either candidate: Boxer, the paper opined, "has failed to distinguish herself during her 18 years in office. There is no reason to believe that another six-year term would bring anything but more of the same uninspired representation."