How Sharron Angle, the choice of the Tea Party, became Harry Reid’s challenger

Alex Pappas Political Reporter
Font Size:

Republican voters in Nevada on Tuesday nominated Sharron Angle to take on Democratic Sen. Harry Reid — something that was unimaginable just two months ago when Angle was polling in the single digits and having a hard time getting anybody to pay attention to her campaign. Then came the Tea Party Express (TPX).

Everything changed when the group, run by longtime Republican operatives in California, threw its weight behind Angle in Washington D.C. at a Tax Day conference heavily attended by the national media.

“When the Tea Party Express endorsed her, everybody took a second look,” said Larry Hart, a campaign consultant for Angle, in an interview with The Daily Caller. “And that changed the whole dynamic of the campaign. So, yes, they do get a lot of credit for giving her the credibility to really build her support up to where it is now.”

Angle defeated frontrunner and establishment choice Sue Lowden, Danny Tarkanian and a host of other Republicans Tuesday night. She will face Harry Reid — perhaps the most wanted of Democratic incumbents by Republicans this cycle — in November.

Though Angle’s campaign concedes TPX’s role in making her campaign, members of the Tea Party organization hesitate to take credit publicly.

“We didn’t create her,” said TPX’s Mark Williams, a conservative radio host, in an email to The Daily Caller. “Sharron was a one-person Tea Party before there was a Tea Party movement.”

Williams said TPX leaders knew Angle’s message would resonate with voters in Nevada. She just needed publicity. “Her challenge was a simple one, well within our skill sets to solve,” Williams said. The group’s backing led to free media for Angle, which she desperately needed, as well as independent expenditures from TPX. (They’ve spent $500,000 so far in their “Defeat Harry Reid” campaign, and plan to spend $1 million more).

It was only after the TPX endorsement and a subsequent poll showing Angle to be in a three-way race with Lowden and Tarkanian, Hart says, that the Angle campaign began to believe it could win.

How did the endorsement come about in the first place?

During an interview last month, TPX spokesman Levi Russell recalled that the group first met Angle during a 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.”

Said Williams: “Sharron is the real deal. All we did was make sure that got out there and the voters of Nevada are doing the rest.”
But the TPX endorsement was not accepted by everybody: Tea Party Nation, a group in Tennessee, criticized TPX for not yielding to local Tea Party groups to make an endorsement in the race. One national organizer described the TPX endorsement as a ploy to be “kingmakers,” so the group could later claim leadership of the Tea Party movement.

[poll id=89]

Tarkanian spokesman James Fisfis told The Daily Caller that his candidate, also beloved by conservatives and Tea Partiers, was never approached by TPX before the group made its endorsement. “There was no interview process or anything like that, they just kinda endorsed her,” Fisfis said. “Nevada Tea Party groups were upset by that. They were saying, ‘Well you’re a national group, but what about us? You’re overshadowing us.'”

Yet, the endorsement definitely helped Angle. Joe Wierzbicki, a founding member of TPX, said of her transformation from long shot to nominee: “It was funny, the first time we met Angle it was so simple and Spartan.  She was considering challenging Reid, and had been doing her grassroots activism thing since leaving office…This week she’s been chased by local, state and national media who can’t get enough of her.”

As for how Angle’s campaign caught fire among the voters, Dr. David Damore, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, listed a number of factors, including how voters began to abandon Lowden after a series of embarrassing gaffes, including her now-infamous suggestion that health-care costs could be lowered through bartering chickens, as well as an initial refusal to take a position on the Civil Rights Act. Damore said Lowden often gave voters the impression that she was a lightweight.

Now that Angle moves from hopeful to nominee, the scrutiny will increase dramatically. Reid, who did not face a legitimate challenger in the Democratic primary, has already spent $10 million on the race. In an interview with The Daily Caller, Angle described herself as a “mainstream Republican” – an acknowledgment that she’s likely to painted as something other than mainstream.

A spokesman for Reid did not return a request for comment. But one Democratic leadership aide said in an interview that Angle’s election shows that Republicans “keep nominating troubled candidates.” The path for Harry Reid’s re-election, the aide said, is now “clearer and easier.”

“She’s going to make Rand Paul look like a reasonable statesman,” the source said, referencing the unquestionably conservative Republican from Kentucky.

Democrats will likely pounce on her stances — like wanting to abolish the Department of Education, proposing withdrawing from the United Nations, suggesting phasing out Medicare and Social Security through privatization, among others — as extreme. Even though she’s a Southern Baptist, her opponents have tried to link her to Scientology through her past support of therapy for state prisoners used by members of the religion.

But Hart hinted that Reid’s campaign isn’t the only with opposition research at its disposal.

“There’s a lot of things about Harry Reid that people don’t know,” he said.

Email Alex Pappas and follow him on Twitter