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Associated Press/Photo by Scott Sady

Tea Party triumph?

Politics | Senate leader Harry Reid wanted a race against Sharron Angle. But Tea Party activism, plus disdain for Reid, is making the Nevada Senate race a very close one

Issue: "At the wire," Nov. 6, 2010

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."

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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."

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