Why Sen. Harry Reid is pulling for a conservative Republican

If Republican Sharron Angle wins her party’s Senate primary Tuesday, it will be a victory for the soft-spoken perpetual candidate, Nevada’s conservative diehards, the national “tea party” movement and underdogs everywhere.

It will also be a huge win for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

The Nevada Democrat has been working for months — some might say years — to cast his own opponent in the against-all-odds drama that is his reelection campaign. With dismal approval ratings and an anti-incumbent political climate, Reid is so vulnerable that Washington insiders have been debating who the next majority leader might be.

But Reid, known to some in Nevada as the “meddler in chief,” is considered a master of nudging pieces to fall just so. And so it appears that during the GOP primary he is trying — with some success — to boost his chances of a general election victory.

Angle, a strict fiscal conservative and political loner during her days in the state Legislature, is widely viewed by political strategists as the weakest candidate against Reid — a perception some polls back up. The 60-year-old former teacher supports dismantling the Department of Education and the federal income tax code, phasing out Social Security and withdrawing from the United Nations.

Angle has long had a devoted grass-roots following, but she has never proved that her appeal extends to independents and moderates. Still, Angle appears to be surging past former state legislator and casino owner Sue Lowden, once considered the front-runner, and businessman Danny Tarkanian.

“Should Angle win, the Reid campaign will be pretty happy,” said Nevada Democratic strategist Dan Hart. “OK, they’ll be dancing in the streets.”

Reid can’t — and doesn’t — claim to be working the levers behind the GOP primary. Nor could he have anticipated how tea party forces would fuel Angle’s shoestring campaign or how gaffes would dog Lowden’s. And no matter who wins Tuesday, Reid will face a fierce election fight.

Still, politicos watching Nevada express surprisingly little shock that an unpopular Democrat has reason to feel optimistic about his chances for reelection.

“There’s a certain amount of serendipity involved in what has happened, but the important thing is the [Reid] campaign didn’t make any mistakes in the run-up to this primary,” Hart said. “They’ve been incredibly disciplined and very effective.”

Many in Nevada would trace Reid’s electoral chess game back several years. The senator lobbied hard for the state to win an early spot on his party’s presidential primary calendar. That drove candidates here in 2007, sent Democratic voter registrations soaring and strengthened the state party’s reach.

Despite Reid’s dismal approval rating, Republicans have had a difficult time recruiting a top-shelf candidate to run against him this election cycle. With the help of Reid and his allies, two promising candidates went down in defeat in other elections in 2008, weakening their senatorial chances. A third demurred despite significant Republican pressure as Reid built a war chest he once boasted would reach $25 million.

His campaign has already spent $10 million, although he has no Democratic primary opponent to speak of. That’s three times as much as Lowden and nearly 10 times Angle’s spending.

Helping Angle’s surge meant blasting Lowden early and often. Reid’s camp began drubbing Lowden months ago with a flurry of memos unearthing potentially damaging material about safety violations at Lowden’s casinos, low employee salaries and her husband’s bonus.

Allies have also used Twitter to dissect and mock nearly every Lowden statement, employing a harsher tone than they might in the print media.

When Lowden’s campaign recently tweeted that it was “time to send a business leader to DC,” a Reid aide retorted, “You made yourself rich by laying off workers & paying hubby $200k bonus. It ain’t you.”

When Lowden, a former beauty queen and TV anchor, appeared to speak fondly of a time when people could barter with chickens for healthcare — a now-famous gaffe — the Reid campaign and the state Democratic Party wasted no time in trying to make Lowden’s name synonymous with poultry.

Democrats sent an activist in a chicken costume to Lowden events. The Democratic secretary of state made hay by banning chicken costumes at primary polling places.

Union and Democratic allies, in the form of an independent group run by a onetime Reid aide, have attacked Lowden on television: first in a spot dubbed “Chickens for Checkups” and again last week in an ad that suggested she wanted to “charge a fee on the burials of our veterans.” The Lowden campaign called the ad outrageous and evidence that Reid fears her most.

“They know the polling,” said Lowden campaign manager Robert Uithoven. “There’s a reason why we’ve had a bull’s-eye on our back.”

In recent days, the Reid campaign has tried to tamp down the perception that it’s rooting for Angle. Democratic allies say they believe Lowden has been irreversibly damaged by her own missteps.

“We are prepared to run an aggressive campaign against whomever emerges from the Republican primary,” Reid spokesman Zac Petkanas said in a statement.

Hennessey reported from Washington and Powers reported from Las Vegas.