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In Nevada Senate race, it’s no popularity contest

As a campaigner, Sen. Harry Reid is prone to verbal blunders and punch lines that fizzle. A slight 70-year-old with glasses and a whispery voice, he recently needed President Obama to implore a crowd to chant, “Harry! Harry!”

But in recent weeks, the veteran Democrat has acted like an upstart challenger, barnstorming at fish fries and canvassing events around Nevada.

Rival Sharron Angle at first waged a bare-bones campaign from her aging GMC pickup, often bringing along a .44 Magnum nicknamed the “Dirty Harry Hand Cannon.” She grumbled that reporters overlooked her dark-horse candidacy.

Now Angle, 61, who’s so petite that lecterns often dwarf her, is mimicking an incumbent. Her campaign brushes off journalists and taunting Democrats, who shadow her events with a staffer dressed as a chicken.

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The final slog of the nation’s marquee Senate race says much about the closely fought contest. Neither Reid nor Angle is beloved in Nevada, which is reeling from epidemic joblessness and hollowed-out neighborhoods. On Tuesday, many voters will cast ballots not for the candidate they admire, but against the one they abhor.

To win a fifth term, Reid must drum up support among his weary base, mostly by demonizing Angle and relying on the voter turnout operation Democrats have spent years and millions of dollars building. Angle must avoid any lightning-rod statements that could scare off moderate Republicans and independents, and hope “tea party” fervor and the ground operation of deep-pocketed conservative groups carry her to victory.

“What Sharron Angle offers is ‘I’m not Harry Reid,’ ” said Eric Herzik, head of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno. “And he’s saying, ‘Here I am, love me or hate me, I’m going to talk to every group I can.’ ”

A former state lawmaker, Angle was widely viewed as Reid’s preferred challenger. His team pounced on her talk of how the jobless were “spoiled” by unemployment checks, and how impregnated rape victims might turn a “lemon situation into lemonade.”

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“I can’t believe she’s allowed to talk,” said Candice Howard, a 36-year-old medical assistant and nonpartisan voter in suburban Henderson. She recently cast her ballot for Reid — though she wrinkled her nose at his name — partly because of Angle’s antiabortion beliefs.

In recent weeks, since a video surfaced of Angle telling dozens of Latino high schoolers that some of them appeared “a little more Asian” — which her camp said was a commentary on avoiding judgments based on skin color — the tea party favorite has been a ghost to journalists. When TV reporters greeted her at the Las Vegas airport last week, Angle said she’d answer questions about foreign policy once she was elected. Her aides, comparing the confrontation to paparazzi hounding Paris Hilton, banned at least one reporter from joining state Republicans on election night.

Angle supporters are unfazed. On Friday, hundreds of them packed into a casino ballroom, booed video of Obama and — without prompting — chanted, “Dump Harry Reid!” Angle bounded onto the stage, flanked by giant video screens saying “I [Heart] My Country; I Am Voting for Sharron Angle.”

Dressed in a cream jacket and black skirt, her reddish hair neatly bobbed, Angle maintained a chipper tone, even while calling for Reid, at least five times, to “man up.”

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Among those cheering was Anson Cosio, 34, a Republican; he believes Obama and Reid have wrongly expanded the federal government’s reach. Cosio, who is Latino, also praised Angle’s commercials bashing Reid on immigration, which feature Latinos so sinister-looking that comedian Joy Behar called Angle an expletive on national TV. (Angle’s aides sent her flowers in return.)

Cosio was offended when Obama, in a recent radio interview, referred to Republicans blocking comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship, as enemies. “Am I his enemy?” the convenience store owner sniffed.

But Democrats are counting on the divisive commercials to help fire up Latinos, who make up at least 12% of the electorate. Carla Cervantes, a 30-year-old sales associate in Henderson, offered to knock on doors for Reid after watching them.

A few years back, Cervantes left Guadalajara, Mexico, to join her sister here. She has since become a citizen, and bristles at how Angle referred to undocumented immigrants.

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“She says ‘aliens, aliens,’ ” said Cervantes, her voice rising. “We’re not aliens. I was so upset, I almost cried.”

Reid alone could not have stirred her so deeply. The Senate majority leader boasts legislative prowess but so little flair that he rarely headlines his own events. Angle has portrayed him as an aloof, wealthy technocrat who enjoys a condo at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington while Nevadans struggle to pay their mortgages. Reid’s stiff persona has done little to convince some voters the accusations are hyperbole.

Last week, Reid campaigned up and down the state, selling himself to union members, blacks, Asian Americans, Latinos and women. One breezy afternoon, actor Kal Penn, star of “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” and Gary Locke, the U.S. commerce secretary, joined Reid in the parking lot of his Henderson campaign office.

After brief words to several dozen volunteers, the gray-haired senator, wearing an ill-fitting pinstriped suit, passed the microphone to his high-profile guests. As he has done while Obama and former President Clinton trumpeted his accomplishments during campaign stops, Reid mostly pursed his lips and clasped his hands.

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When Locke mentioned Yucca Mountain, the proposed Nevada nuclear waste dump project Reid is credited for halting, the senator chuckled. When Locke mentioned an obscure tourism bill that Reid pushed through Congress, he clapped softly.

After the tributes ended, volunteer Cervantes called out to Reid and denounced Angle’s tough stance on immigration. He turned and grinned. Riffing on Angle’s “a little more Asian” comment, Reid gave a reply he has perfected on the campaign trail: “You look like a Nevadan to me.”

ashley.powers@latimes.com


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