It’s a testament to the collapse of Harry Reid’s political fortunes that the Senate Majority Leader just got himself a 5th challenger: former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle just announced she would seek the GOP nomination, 6 months after she created an exploratory committee.
Angle joins former party chair Sue Lowden, real estate developer Danny Tarkanian, state Sen. Mark Amodei and banker John Chachas. (While Chachas says he will not take a final decision as to whether he’ll run until early 2010, he recently donated more than $1 million of his own money to his campaign.) Needless to say, such a crowded primary is highly unpredictable and it’s very likely we won’t have a clear idea of who’s likely to be Reid’s opponent until June 2010.
Since the Republican nominee could very well start the general election favored to be Nevada’ next senator, the stakes are high. It’s not that any of the candidates are top-tier contenders - none is as obviously formidable as Dean Heller, Jon Porter or Brian Sandoval would have been - but Reid is so unpopular that he’ll be vulnerable whoever Republicans nominate to face him.
That does not mean that the GOP primary will not be one of the year’s most intriguing - and Angle’s entry certainly spices things up.
After compiling a conservative record in the legislature, Angle ran for the House in 2006: She narrowly lost a brutal three-way primary for NV-2, which was then open: Dean Heller prevailed 35,9% to 35,29% - a difference of just 321 votes. The Club for Growth poured in $1 million on her behalf in that race, and she confirmed after the defeat that they had not misplaced their trust in her: She took a leading role championing last year’s Prop 13, a Property Tax Reform Initiative that would limit the annual property tax increase to 2%.
As such, Angle is best positioned to receive the support of the conservative base in the Senate race. And given how crowded the race will be, Tea Party activists should be a powerful force: In a 5-way contest, getting 30% of the vote could be enough to clinch the nomination and she could definitely reach that if she can impose herself as the contest’s undisputed conservative champion. After all, some of her rivals are facing problems with the base: Lowden is a former Reid supporter (from the 1980s) while Amodei’s record on taxes should make him an easy target for Angle.
The huge question now is whether Angle can expect to receive similar support from the Club for Growth; the financial boost and infrastructure help that would represent would put her in an excellent position. If the Club passes on the race, it should be harder for her not only to have the funds she’ll need to compete with Tarkanian and Chachas but also to emerge as the Tea Partiers’ go-to candidate: If the conservative vote splits between many contenders, a more moderate candidate could split through.
How does any of this affect the general election? That the primary will be more crowded shouldn’t make much of a difference: Whether the eventual nominee’s victor is won over 3 or 4 candidates shouldn’t make much of a difference. But the fact that Angle could emerge as the GOP nominee does.
Democrats will look forward to the possibility that she’ll be their opponent, as the former Assemblywoman looks like she’d be an easier target for Reid. Her conservative profile should give Reid plenty of ammunition to work with in a state that is quickly shifting leftward: In the first part of 2009, Republicans registered less voters not only than Democrats but also than the Independent American Party!
Furthermore, Angle could help Reid mobilize the Democratic base. The Majority Leader is in the position of having seriously antagonized liberals. Unions might not lift a finger to help him and at least one other progressive blogger has pledged to work against him if he contributes to sinking the public option. As has been shown in the comments section of this blog, some Democrats profess not caring about whether Reid wins re-election - a sentiment I haven’t heard expressed nearly as much for others, even for someone like Blanche Lincoln.
Who Reid faces could help determine whether those who are angry at him remain in a position of relative indifference. A confrontation with a Club for Growth-backed contender would raise the election’s stakes, which would be of invaluable help for the Majority Leader.
And yet, Democrats should be careful what they wish for. When we are talking about this well-known and this unpopular an incumbent, it often doesn’t matter who the challenger is as long as he or she is somewhat credible. And Reid is nothing if not well-known and unpopular.
As such, his survival depends first and foremost on finding a way to improve his approval rating, not on turning the spotlight on his opponent. (I am aware that New Jersey is a counter-example, but Corzine would not be in a position to win with such a dismal approval rating if Chris Daggett was not on the ballot.) If Reid improves his image enough to lead against Angle, he should also be able take an edge against Lowden or Tarkanian - neither of whom are formidable enough that their current leads should be attributed to their strength as candidates.