The stakes are high on Nov. 2 for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. But for his GOP challenger, Sharron Angle, the stakes might actually be higher.
If she defeats Reid on Nov. 2, Angle will become more than the junior senator from Nevada. She'll be widely embraced by Republicans as a folk hero who rose from obscurity to topple one of the most powerful, and partisan, Democrats in Washington.
“It’s a whole range of things,” said Jon Ralston, a top expert in Nevada politics. “Familiarity breeds contempt. He’s (Reid) not charismatic. He’s said all kinds of things over the years that have come back to haunt him. The Democratic agenda is unpopular in this state, and he is the face of that. You put it all together and you have a guy who would be dead in re-election if not for one, his own money and machine and two, the candidate who has been nominated to face him.”
Ralston also believes that Angle won the debate last week that pitted a seeming political novice against one of the most powerful politicians in the United States.
“Angle won because she looked relatively credible, appearing not to be the Wicked Witch of the West (Christine O'Donnell is the good witch of the tea party) and scoring many more rhetorical points,” he wrote Sunday in The Reno Gazette-Journal. “And she won because U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., looked as if he could barely stay on a linear argument, abruptly switching gears and failing to effectively parry or thrust.”
But the paper Sunday endorsed Reid over Angle.
And so it has gone for Angle, 61, a one-time longshot who has, more than most candidates this year, benefited from the anti-establishment wave coursing through the electorate. She catapulted past two prominent and well-funded opponents in the GOP primary by positioning herself as a conservative die-hard who would not carry water in Washington for party insiders.
Angle has been known as an ideologically-driven loner throughout her political career. During seven years in the state's 42-member assembly, Angle voted "no" so often on matters of wide consensus that votes were often called as "41-to-Angle."
But her political career didn't begin until Angle was close to 50 years old. For nearly three decades before that, she worked as a substitute teacher in Reno, ran a small Christian school and taught art classes at a local university. None of which probably prepared her for the rough and tumble of this year's campaign, which has been one of the country's most negative since Democrats pledged last spring to "vaporize" Reid's GOP challenger.
In a recent 30-second ad, Angle accused Reid of voting to allow taxpayer dollars to pay for Viagra for convicted child molesters and sex offenders. “What else,” a narrator asks in the ad, “could you ever need to know about Harry Reid?” In response, Reid’s campaign aired a new spot highlighting a vote Angle cast in the state Assembly in 1999 opposing background checks for youth and church group volunteers. "Sharron Angle voted to protect the privacy of sex offenders," says the star of the spot, a Las Vegas family therapist who works with abused kids.
While polls show the race is close, the eleventh-hour momentum appears to be on Angle's side. During the past three months, for example, her campaign raised an eye-popping $14 million. The Republican's cash haul was larger than any other candidate seeking office during that period and gives her more than enough money to compete with Reid's ample war chest in the race's closing days. Even more importantly, it reflects a level of excitement and energy among her supporters that doesn't appear to exist among Reid's base.
Angle's success stems from one simple fact that even Democrats acknowledge: Voters in Nevada do not like Harry Reid.
For a politician who has held office in Nevada for more than 40 years, how is that possible?
“She’s been able to stay close because Harry Reid is absolutely despised, hated even by a significant portion of the Nevada electorate. Anybody who put their name on the ballot against him was going to do alright,” Ralston said. “But Republicans may have managed to nominate the only person in the state who could lose to Harry Reid this year. It’s very frustrating inside the national Republican chambers that they now have to compete for a race that they thought they had locked up."
Reid is trying to contain his unpopularity by campaigning alongside more appealing Democrats. Appearing with Reid recently, former President Bill Clinton said the senator has been “treated to this unbelievable abuse” by Republicans and that voting for Angle would be “unbelievably negligent.”
“The only reason this is a tough race is because this is a tough time. When people are mad, it's hard to think,” Clinton said in Las Vegas. “I am old enough to tell you, if you forget about politics, any time in your life you make an important decision when you're mad, there's an 80 percent chance you're going to make a mistake.”
"I don't want people to abandon their anger," the former president added, "I want them to channel it so they can think clearly."
That anger was on display Oct. 14 in Las Vegas where Angle and Reid held their one and only debate. "Man up, Harry Reid!" she said to the senator in a discussion of Social Security.
For Angle, however, victory won't be achieved solely by motivating angry voters but by reminding them about the differences between her and Reid.
"I'm not a career politician. I'm a mother and a grandmother," she said at the debate. "I was a teacher for 25 years. Senator Reid has been a politician for over 30 years. I live in a middle class neighborhood in Reno, Nevada. Senator Reid lives in the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C."
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