All the Difference: Tea Party endorsement pushes little known Republican to the front in race to unseat Harry Reid

Alex Pappas Political Reporter
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Republican Sharron Angle was polling in the single digits, hardly a serious contender to take on Nevada Sen. Harry Reid in November, when the Tea Party Express endorsed her candidacy in April.

A month later, a new poll shows Angle ahead of a host of other Republicans, some of them nationally known, in the race to unseat the Democratic majority leader. Among those Angle has pulled ahead of are Sue Lowden, Danny Tarkanian and John Chachas. The survey, by Public Policy Polling, has Angle at 29 percent, Lowden at 26 percent and Tarkanian at 24 percent. Tea Party Express is calling on Tarkanian, another Tea Party favorite, to drop out of the race.

So who is this Joe the Plumber-endorsed, Tea Party-backed candidate who has swooped in to displace Lowden, the establishment pick, from the lead position?

Angle served four terms in the Nevada assembly, and narrowly lost a primary bid for Congress in 2006. She’s a Southern Baptist, but has faced rumors — which  she has denied — that she’s affiliated with Scientology. Angle’s campaign did not immediately return requests to interview the candidate. She’s a Tea Partier, and has a voting record that proves her conservative bona fides, the Tea Party Express says.

Earlier this week, the Club for Growth endorsed Angle, a snub to Lowden, the former state GOP chair, who has been lampooned since suggesting recently that bartering (including with chickens) might be an effective way to lower health-care costs. RedState’s Erick Erickson tells The Daily Caller that he has switched his support from Tarkanian to Angle.

Lowden is regarded as the favorite of the Republican establishment, which considers her more moderate than Angle, as well as a better fund-raiser. Angle’s rise has angered some in the party. “Anything’s possible with so many people in the race, but if Angle’s the GOP candidate there would be a lot of supporters who would turn to Reid,” Reno state Sen. Bill Raggio told the Las Vegas Review-Journal this week.

Meanwhile, some grassroots activists have complained about the Tea Party Express endorsement of Angle. One rival organization, Tea Party Nation in Tennessee, issued a heated statement this week Friday reminding the Tea Party Express that when “there are multiple conservative candidates, we should not make an endorsement.  We should have the candidates endorse the Tea Party Movement.”

“At Tea Party Nation, we do not consider asking a conservative candidate to quit a race to be an appropriate thing to do,” said the group’s leader, Judson Phillips, of the call for Tarkanian to drop out.  “Especially when this comes from a national group. Nevada has many good Tea Party groups and any call for a candidate to withdraw should come from those groups who are familiar with local politics, not a national group.”

Phillips warned that “this statement should not be read as a civil war in the Tea Party movement.” The Tea Party Express’s “hearts are in the right place, just not their strategy,” he said.

The Tea Party Express has made electing Angle a priority, firing off e-mails on her behalf several times a week. When a Nevada businessman named Scott Ashjian announced he was running for Reid’s seat on the Tea Party third party ticket, the group released a TV ad calling him a fraud.

“I think they want to be kingmakers,” said the leader of one rival Tea Party group. “If they bring Angle from third place to knocking off Reid, they claim the leadership of the tea party movement. The guys who run TPX are experienced political operatives and are no fools.”

But Levi Russell, the spokesman for Tea Party Express, said the group endorsed Angle because they don’t want to just solely replace Reid — they want to replace him with the “right person.”

They met Angle during their first cross-country bus tour. “We did five or six stops through Nevada, and Sharron came to them all. And we spent a good amount of time talking to her before and after the rallies.”

“Everywhere she went she had the ear of the people,” Russell said. “It was a little confusing that she wasn’t higher up in the polls,” he said, considering her “flawless voting record.” As for Tarkanian, Russell said “nobody has anything against him at all,” but “all he’s done is lost momentum.”

FreedomWorks, a Tea Party group run by Dick Armey, has not endorsed a candidate in the Nevada race yet, but isn’t ruling out supporting Angle.

“We haven’t yet, but we’re looking at it closely,” said Max Pappas, managing director for FreedomWorks PAC. “We met with Angle and were impressed.”

The primary is June 8.

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