Sharron Angle wants to wipe out Social Security, shutter the Education Department and return to the days almost a century ago when the federal income tax was unconstitutional.
A tea party conservative testing the limits of anti-government sentiment, she's also the Republican on the rise in an unpredictable race to pick an opponent for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a top Democrat in Washington who's in trouble at home.
What's more, she is evidently the Republican whom Reid would like most to run against. Witness a costly television campaign financed by the majority leader's backers to erode the support of the shaky Republican front-runner, Sue Lowden.
"I am the tea party," said Angle, a 60-year-old former Nevada lawmaker.
With early voting under way for the June 8 primary, Angle has nearly erased Lowden's double-digit lead in recent polls, thanks in part to endorsements from the Tea Party Express and other conservative groups, including the anti-tax Club for Growth. Lowden, a former state senator, has stumbled after she suggested people might barter for health care using chickens and she faced financial questions about the use of a leased bus.
Club for Growth began airing an ad statewide Wednesday that calls Angle a fiscal conservative and common-sense fighter and argues that Lowden supports huge spending increases and that she backed Reid.
The three top Republicans in the 12-candidate field — Angle, Lowden, 58, and Danny Tarkanian, 48 — have in earlier surveys polled better than Reid, a four-term senator taking the heat for the state's 13.7 percent unemployment rate, soaring home foreclosures and bankruptcy rates.
Angle is among hundreds of candidates nationwide testing how far voters want to go in 2010 to remake the federal government.
"A tsunami of conservatism is coming in waves across our country," she says. "My message is what the people want."
The loosely organized tea party movement has galvanized conservatives with its push for limited government, spending cuts and free markets, but their candidates could face risks if voters see them as too far out of the mainstream, particularly in states like Nevada where independents play a crucial role in statewide races.
Kentucky GOP senatorial candidate Rand Paul, a tea party favorite, has been on the defensive since last week, when he expressed misgivings about the 1964 Civil Rights Act and suggested the federal government shouldn't have the power to force businesses to serve minorities.
In a tough year for incumbents, particularly Democrats, who control the White House and Congress, Reid and other lawmakers could benefit from Republican divisions.
Former Nevada GOP Chairman Chris Comfort fears the infighting could weaken the party's chances in November coast to coast. "There is a lot of fracturing occurring within the Republican Party," Comfort says.
Angle calls Social Security "a broken system without much to recommend it." She hasn't offered a detailed plan but says seniors now collecting benefits would not be cut off. Workers over time would be shifted to private retirement accounts, an idea that is similar to what former President George W. Bush proposed six years ago only to see it flop.
"I really don't trust big government," Angle told voters gathered at a private home, explaining her support for ending Social Security. "When big government gets in control, we know those great ideas turn out to be something that hits us right in the wallet."
Tinkering with Social Security has long been politically perilous, and none of Angle's leading GOP rivals agree it should be phased out. Social Security faces a $5.3 trillion shortfall over the next 75 years and it's projected to run out of money by 2037.
Angle's proposal "is completely out of step," says Robert Uithoven, campaign manager for Lowden. "In a state that has a huge number of retirees, it's not a proposal Nevadans ... would back."
Angle also says cutting taxes isn't sufficient. She wants to repeal the 16th Amendment, which created the federal income tax, a move that would make it impossible for the government to operate. Angle says the federal income tax — and the entire Internal Revenue Service code — could be replaced with a flat-tax-type system.
The government plans to collect about $935.8 billion in individual income taxes and about $156.7 billion in corporate income taxes, according to the Obama administration's estimates for the current budget year, which ends on Sept. 30. The two taxes together make up about half of the total revenues the government estimates it will take in.
Angle has a long record as an oppositional figure in Carson City. During four terms in the state Assembly, she was known for her consistent votes against tax increases, sometimes unconventional views and a folksy, Sarah Palin-esque style. She wanted female inmates to enter a drug rehabilitation program devised by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, an idea she still defends.
"Those folks in the federal government, at the United States level ... should be the least powerful in the nation rather than the most powerful because of the way our founders set up our government," she says.
She found a receptive audience in Pahrump, a ranching area-turned-exurb of 37,000 about 60 miles west of Las Vegas.
Brian Shoemake, 52, a Web designer, said Angle was the kind of conservative who could help remake the Republican Party, which he said has drifted from its roots.
"I have the tea party mentality," Shoemake said. He said he was leaning toward Angle in the primary because "I don't believe the other candidates are well-versed enough in the Constitution."
Republican Donna Geiser, 63, a goat rancher and retired telecommunications analyst, said she and her husband pay $1,000 a month for health insurance and fear Washington's health care overhaul will drive up those costs.
Their mortgage is paid off, so health care is their biggest bill each month and a strain on the household budget.
In supporting Angle, Geiser said she wants to "send a message to Washington that we are tired of the bureaucrats. They are not looking out for the little people."
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