11.03.10

How Harry Pulled It Off

A loathed incumbent tied to an unpopular president in a terrible economy—just how did the Reid beat back the Tea Party? Steve Friess on the keys to his victory, from Angle’s awful campaign to the senator’s rapid response.

A loathed incumbent tied to an unpopular president in a terrible economy—just how did Reid beat back the Tea Party? Steve Friess on the keys to his victory, from Angle’s awful campaign to the senator’s rapid response.

As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took his victory lap on Wednesday before a state and a nation that had anticipated his humiliating demise, the reasons for his triumph became so obvious that it’s a wonder the outcome was ever in doubt.

Yes, he ran a magnificent, vicious, and effective campaign, one to be studied by political masterminds for generations. But rival Sharron Angle also ran an epically terrible campaign, one that comes with a sidesplitting blooper reel for the DVD.

It’s not simply that Angle was a tragically flawed candidate given to surprising, polarizing, or baffling statements. Under the right circumstances—say, when running against a loathed incumbent who is the chief lieutenant of an unpopular president, and your state’s economy is at all-time lows—Angle’s peculiarities might have been overlooked or charming.

But the uncompromising Tea Party purist seemed to work actively to avoid expanding her base in a way that would ever have resulted in a win in Nevada, where Democrats are a majority of registered voters, Hispanics are a potent and rising force, and Republicans are in the throes of civil war. Not to mention that the state’s biggest industries, gaming and mining, never found much use for Angle when she was a four-term assemblywoman.

“I like Sharron Angle a lot, I respect her tremendously, but she plays to a passionate but limited base of voters,” said Danny Tarkanian, who came in third in the Republican primary. “She was able to run this race against Reid and expand her appeal because Reid is disliked throughout the state. But that wasn’t enough.”

One of the key constituencies Angle not only failed to reach out to but actively antagonized was Hispanics, who comprise 25 percent of Nevada’s population and ended up accounting for a record 17 percent of those who voted, according to exit polling. In an otherwise painfully vague press conference, Reid said his success with this group was critical.

He got so many of their votes in part because Angle ran TV ads showing what appeared to be menacing Hispanic street toughs and charging, falsely, that Reid had sought to provide Social Security for undocumented immigrants. There was also a late-campaign ad urging Hispanics not to vote at all and her weird appearance at a Las Vegas high school, in which she told Hispanic students they looked Asian to her.

“To me it’s not so much she’s Republican and we’re not, it’s that she is anti-us, she is anti-our people,” said Fernando Romero, president of the nonpartisan Nevada group Hispanics in Politics. “Her ads violated me and my family and those people that I love. They were insulting, they were degrading, they were despicable.”

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Tarkanian endorsed Angle, but an endless list of establishment Republicans, including state Senate Republican leader Bill Raggio, did not in part because she never bothered to ask. Nor, for that matter, did she bother to call Raggio to concede to him after he bucked her 2008 primary challenge—or U.S. Rep. Dean Heller in 2006, when she lost a close primary to him. She sued Heller over the results; Heller didn’t endorse Reid, but he did say in the last weekend of the race that the state would miss Reid’s power and influence in the U.S. Senate.

“It’s a very strange situation that someone who wants to be a representative of the state of Nevada never reached out to the No. 1 industry and even actively attacked Sen. Reid for helping it,” Feldman said. “I don’t get that.”

Angle promoted herself as pro-business, but not in the way big business likes. Her interpretation is that the private sector wants government to get entirely out of its way, but it also does like having cozy relationships with elected leaders, being able to influence legislation, and leaning on the halls of power when it could be advantageous. That she attacked Reid for calling on banks to loan to MGM Resorts International in order to avert bankruptcy and a construction halt on the $8.5 billion, 22,000-employee CityCenter complex in March 2009 was “ mind-boggling lunacy,” said MGM spokesman Alan Feldman.

“Suffice to say, it’s a very strange situation that someone who wants to be a representative of the state of Nevada never reached out to the No. 1 industry and even actively attacked Sen. Reid for helping it,” Feldman said. “I don’t get that.”

On top of that was her bizarre relationship with the news media. Before being nominated, Angle was among the most approachable political figures around. But once her campaign became overwhelmed by requests and infused with national strategists, she avoided almost all but right-wing media outlets, even deploying a decoy at one point to befuddle journalists who wanted to quiz her.

She was so unavailable that she probably lost her shot at the cover of Time, which featured Rand Paul, Christine O’Donnell, Marco Rubio, and Meg Whitman as archetypical Tea Party figures. Angle, chasing the biggest midterm prize of all, surely would have been among that bunch if she had been willing to speak to the magazine and pose for a photo.

Perhaps her reticence was brought on by constant questions about contradictions in her views before and after her nomination. Angle clearly did not want to alter her views to widen her appeal, but that sparked confusion about how she could maintain that she had not made earlier remarks that were on video or audio recordings.

“Her handlers tried to do this, but she never tried to broaden her base, she said things that were pure Sharron Angle,” said John L. Smith, a columnist at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “I’ve been around her for 20 years. She hasn’t changed her tune. They did try to soften her image, they tried to make it, ‘I don’t mean to eliminate Social Security, I mean privatize.’ But she meant eliminate.”

Indeed, a week before her primary victory, Angle told me: “I’m not too far right; there’s no such thing.”

The Reid campaign knew there was such a thing as being too extreme. They exploited every odd or inconsistent Angle remark in punishing TV and ubiquitous Web ads. If she said something about working women, a pro-Reid press conference with prominent Nevada women scolding her would follow. When they believed they had caught her demeaning people with autism, they encouraged parents of autistic children to call journalists.

The Reid operation was a marvel of rapid response, no surprise from a senator who, upon his ascension to majority leader in 2005, set up the Democratic War Room to react more aggressively to President George W. Bush. No concern was too small; when I wrote a whimsical blog post wondering whether a TV ad really was filmed in Las Vegas because of an unfamiliar Strip vista in the background, the state’s top political strategist called me within an hour to provide the precise coordinates of the shoot.

Reid’s manipulation of the state’s broader, long-term political universe also paid off. He engineered the January 2008 caucuses in Nevada, the first time the state was a factor in the Democratic nominating process. A thrilling Obama-Clinton tussle drove a huge surge in Democratic voter registrations and built a database that would become invaluable two years later in pinpointing likely voters and hounding them indefatigably to go cast their ballots.

And then, of course, Reid orchestrated a long list of political maneuvers—ensuring the defeat of a three-term Republican congressman, getting a potential rival a federal judiciary appointment, possibly even having a hand in a specious, later dismissed, indictment of the sitting lieutenant governor—to clear the field of well-known, popular opponents. That opened the door for Angle, who nailed the Tea Party Express endorsement just as the movement was ascending.

By the time he strolled onto the stage on Tuesday arm-in-arm with wife Landra wearing a Cheshire Cat grin, all of Reid’s best-laid plans had gone perfectly and he had not only won but done so convincingly. It was so effective that pundits began sifting through Angle’s ashes for clues to how President Obama could win reelection or how Republicans could avoid such a disaster.

Yet lessons are few and far between. Clearly the importance of the Hispanic vote looms as a complicated national question, and Romero said Obama must push for comprehensive immigration reform more aggressively if he wants to compete in Nevada and similarly diverse bellwether states. Tarkanian said he believes that Tea Party activists must learn that “just because you don’t agree with 100 percent of what I say doesn’t mean I can’t be a Republican.”

But the state’s top Democratic consultant, Billy Vassiliadis, said the circumstances of Reid’s triumph are unique. Reid’s survival does help Obama be competitive in Nevada in 2012 because Reid remains able to activate that voter-turnout effort, but Vassiliadis doubts there’s much more to glean.

“Reid’s victory was not a message,” he said. “Reid was a particular situation running against a very extreme opponent in a state where coalitions still matter. I don’t think you can transfer this to 2012 and a presidential campaign.”

Steve Friess is a veteran Vegas-based freelancer whose work appears inthe New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today, the LA Times and many others. He's a contributing writer for AOLNews, a columnist for the Las Vegas Weekly, blogs at VegasHappensHere.Com and is host of two podcasts, the celebrity-interview show The Strip and the animal-affairs program The Petcast. He Tweets at @TheStripPodcast.