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Angling for Harry Reid

Will a Tea Party candidate overtake Sue Lowden in Nevada's GOP primary?

By 6.7.10

Have the chickens come home to roost for Sue Lowden? So wags will be tempted to ask if the former Nevada Republican chairwoman comes up short in tomorrow's GOP primary to determine who will challenge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid this fall. After weeks as the undisputed frontrunner, Lowden now has a real fight on her hands.

Two things appear to have jeopardized Lowden's once-solid lead. First, she told an interviewer "before we all started having health care, in the olden days our grandparents, they would bring a chicken to the doctor, they would say I'll paint your house." Panned as a barter-based "Chickens for Checkups" plan, it has had her critics clucking and chuckling ever since.

Lowden's second problem has elicited fewer liberal guffaws: the unexpected rise of Sharron Angle, a Tea Party candidate who has surged from the single digits to the lead in some statewide polls. Angle wants to repeal the 16th Amendment, shutter the IRS, and let young workers shift their Social Security taxes into private retirement accounts. She dissented so often in the state assembly that lopsided 41-to-1 votes were presumed "41-to-Angle."

Republican bigwigs aren't laughing either. As self-appointed guardians of the mainstream, they fear Reid might be able to save himself by running against Angle's conservative views. Lowden still typically polls the best in the general election and the Democratic incumbent has been rebounding slightly of late. Local political columnist Jon Ralston dubbed Reid "the happiest guy in the country with a 38 percent approval rating."

"Harry Reid and his political machine believe they have a better chance of beating Sue in June than in November," Lowden's campaign manager told reporters, recalling a Reid adviser's quote to Politico that the Senate majority leader would use his war chest to "vaporize" his Republican opponents.

Before Angle's rise, Lowden's main conservative challenger was Las Vegas businessman Danny Tarkanian, a former UNLV basketball star. While Lowden has significant conservative support in her own right, Tarkanian hit her for past donations to Democrats (including Reid) and the more moderate positions she was said to have taken in the 1990s. The latter includes Lowden's answers on a 1992 Christian Coalition candidates' survey (pdf), which were noncommittal on issues ranging from life to school prayer, and a Las Vegas Sun story alleging that she backed an effort to remove the pro-life plank from the Republican platform in 1996.

Lowden's campaign has strenuously denied these charges and the back-and-forth did not prevent her from piling up conservative endorsements as the primary approached. But the Tea Party Express and the Club for Growth gave Angle the boost that eluded Tarkanian, throwing the primary race wide open.

A Suffolk University poll has Angle at 32 percent, Tarkanian at 25 percent, and Lowden in third at 24 percent. (Lowden's campaign points out that a Suffolk poll was overly bullish on Jon Corzine's chances in last year's New Jersey gubernatorial race.) A Research 2000/Daily Kos survey has Angle at 34 percent, Lowden at 25 percent, and Tarkanian at 24 percent. Mason-Dixon has the race at 32 percent Angle, 24 percent Tarkanian, and 23 percent Lowden.

Perhaps Angle's ascent at Tarkanian's expense will end up aiding Lowden. Marlin Stutzman's rise at John Hostettler's expense helped Dan Coats win the Indiana GOP primary last month. Angle has lost some painfully close elections before. Or maybe Angle will be another Tea Party triumph, like Rand Paul in Kentucky -- though some Republican leaders won't find that reassuring.

Yet it's too early for Democrats to celebrate Harry Reid's return from the dead. While all three leading Republican candidates have their problems, even the most favorable polls still show Reid in the low 40s. That is a dangerous place for a four-term incumbent to be, no matter how his lesser-known opponents perform. If ever there was a race where a populist conservative who might struggle in other years would have a chance, this would seem to be it.

Reid will make his Republican challenger the issue in the fall campaign. But Sharron Angle, Sue Lowden, and Danny Tarkanian aren't the point men for Barack Obama's agenda in the Senate -- such as the health care law most Nevadans tell pollsters they'd like to see repealed.

The moral of this story: You may be able to barter your chickens for health care, but don't count them before they are hatched.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III is politics editor of the Washington Examiner and the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter @jimantle.