The remarkable story of the Republican U.S. Senate primary race in Nevada is part comedy, part tragedy, and now, a piece of political history. Shakespeare himself could not have penned a better drama, nor set before us a more fascinating general election battle for Act II of this extraordinary tale.
The campaign season curtain opened on the presumed heroine, a beautiful golden-haired aristocrat poised at center stage and surrounded by nearly a dozen GOP candidates with varying (lesser) degrees of promise. Up on television early with ads featuring black and whites of her humble heritage, Sue Lowden – beauty pageant queen, school teacher, award-winning journalist, businesswoman, millionaire and former state legislator – was polling at 45 percent and expected to easily win the GOP nomination come summer.
Recognizing the threat, her opponents on both the left and right levied fierce attacks. Harry Reid’s campaign strategy was to portray her as a wealthy businesswoman who had in the past mistreated her employees, while fellow Republican Danny Tarkanian painted her as an establishment candidate who was both a bailout-lover and former tax-hiker. Both strategies were good; neither was likely to drag Lowden down to losing levels.
But then began a bardian comedy of errors the likes of which have rarely, if ever, been seen in a political campaign, never mind one ambitiously aimed at taking down the most powerful man in the United States Senate.
In April 6 remarks to a small gathering of voters at a small community theatre in the small town of Mesquite, our leading lady uttered an innocuous line that would, through her subsequent reiterations, explanations and irrational commitment to increasingly silly rationalizations, become the biggest mistake of her political career.
During a conversation about health care costs, Lowden advised her audience “go ahead and pay cash for whatever your medical needs are, and go ahead and barter with your doctor.” When questioned in a television appearance a few days later, she insisted that bartering for services still goes on in Nevada’s rural communities and said that in the olden days, “people took a chicken to the doctor.” She then added, “I’m not backing down from that system.”
Enter some clever street theatre orchestrated by the Democrats who showed up at the Lowden campaign headquarters with a goat and a chicken, a Jay Leno joke, a couple of chicken exchange rate websites, and a YouTube video or three, and Lowden became the one thing a candidate simply cannot be and still hope to win an election: ridiculous.
The Lowden campaign tried say it was all much ado about nothing, but their indignant protests were drowned out by laughter. The hilarity of Bartergate was just too good. The media’s mirth combined with the merciless mockery of her antagonist went on as we witnessed one of the fastest free falls in the political annals.
Enter Busgate, a relatively minor controversy over whether Lowden was given and owned or had been leasing her campaign RV – she and/or her campaign claimed all three things before finally settling on their story – and voters began to question the once foregone conclusion: Could Sue Lowden, now damaged goods and plummeting in the polls, still hope to topple the Reid dynasty?
As the electorate vacillated and Lowden no doubt lamented the cold cruelty of the fates, uber-conservative former state legislator Sharron Angle earned the coveted Tea Party Express and then Club for Growth endorsements. The two groups raised over one million dollars for her and threw every dime of it at Nevada’s airwaves in the form of television and radio ads.
Angle stumped her way from the rural north to Sin City in the south and back north again. She did well with adequate if not award-winning performances in speeches, debates and media appearances, and line by line, slogan by slogan, the plain-faced understudy became the star of the show.
Rising in statewide surveys from five to 17 to 32 percent in less than eight weeks, while Lowden slipped lower and lower, Angle on election night won 40 percent of the vote and earned the opportunity to fight it out with Harry Reid. And a down and dirty fight it will be.
Harry Reid and his surrogates have this week already begun the work of coloring Angle as a wacky, right wing ideologue who wants to steal Social Security and Medicare benefits from seniors, abolish the Department of Education and render America’s children illiterate, and contaminate the entire state of Nevada with nuclear waste she’d like to see trucked in to Yucca Mountain. They will not relent with this, and more, from now until November.
Sharron Angle will also spend all summer on script, talking about the evils of the tax-and-spend Obama-Pelosi-Reid triumvirate, as well as the terrible state of the Nevada and national economy including high unemployment and foreclosure rates, not to mention the routine defiling of the Constitution by Congress, all of which (she will say) “dingy Harry Reid” is pretty much single-handedly responsible for.
Will that argument, combined with strong anti-incumbent, anti-establishment sentiment evidenced by Reid’s dismally low approval ratings be enough to defeat the Majority Leader in November? Or will he succeed in convincing at least some of Nevada’s disgruntled “Dump Reid” crowd that it is not “Anybody But Harry” but rather “Anybody But Angle” for whom they should wish?
As the final curtain falls in November, the nation will be watching to see if the loser will be exiting from stage right, or stage left.
Elizabeth Crum is the editor of the Nevada News Bureau and an award-winning political blogger. She is also the political analyst for KTNV Channel 13 Action News, the ABC affiliate in Las Vegas, NV.