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October 1, 2014

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Senate GOP leader in fight of his life

Bill Raggio, 81, pounds pavement to stave off challenge from the right

Image

Kevin Clifford / Special to the Sun

Bill Raggio, Republican state Senate majority leader, passes a sign of Republican rival Sharron Angle while going door to door near Reno to drum up votes before the primary.

Click to enlarge photo

Bill Raggio tries Saturday to persuade Reno-area neighbors John Stieger and Chris Sewell to vote for him in the upcoming primary.

Beyond the Sun

You spend three decades in the state Senate, you have a bust in bronze at the Reno airport, and yet you face the real possibility of ending your public service defeated in your party’s primary.

And so for Sen. Bill Raggio it has come to this: a hot August Saturday in Reno, sneakers and a clipboard filled with the addresses of Republican voters. Now it’s time to knock for your political life.

The 81-year-old Republican Senate majority leader is facing the most watched, and possibly most competitive, primary in the state.

Usually, with a party veteran such as Raggio, first elected to the state Senate in 1972, a primary election could be dismissed. He has the money, the professional organization and the support of just about every high-profile Republican in Nevada. (Reno Mayor Bob Cashell and former Gov. Kenny Guinn walked for Raggio on Saturday.)

But this is a race Raggio can’t take lightly. He’s running against former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, who is respected for her campaigning and has a base of conservative voters forged through the property tax initiatives she’s pushed for years.

On Saturday, Raggio, as he has for the preceding six weekends, met his campaign team and about 20 supporters at an office above a Reno Marshalls clothing store.

In his pep talk, Raggio is self-deprecating. But he grows animated when he holds up a mailer that Angle had sent out, hitting Raggio on taxes and not being conservative enough. But the part of the flier Raggio focuses on is the picture of him. “It looks like I’ve been dead for five days.”

He tells his supporters to mention to voters that he’s out there walking for a final term. “Don’t say anything negative about my opponent,” he tells them.

“So ‘scurrilous lies’ is out?” one supporter says.

“No, that’s fair.”

Raggio has been a singular force in state government for decades, a defender of the North’s interests in the face of the inexorable population shift to the South, a master parliamentarian who also has held onto his chairmanship of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. He rose to majority leader in 1987, and has developed a reputation as a master deal maker and a pragmatist.

If this were a high-turnout election, polling from the campaign shows, Raggio’s popularity would allow him to defeat Angle handily.

But turnout is likely to be low. And conventional wisdom is that the hard-core members of parties — such as those supporting Angle — are the ones who will vote.

Angle’s campaign message is clear: Raggio is not conservative enough. In interviews and literature, she has pointed to his support for the gross receipts tax in 2003. And she has blamed him for not maintaining the North’s power versus the South’s, a claim he and others dismiss.

Raggio says he provides leadership, while Angle “just votes ‘no’ on everything.”

Guinn says, “This upcoming legislative session will be the most important in 40-plus years. It would be devastating to do it without Raggio.”

Of Angle, the former governor says, “She introduced a lot of bills. I don’t remember any of them passing.”

One criticism of Angle is her failures to get a property tax initiative, similar to California’s Property 13, qualified for the ballot. On Monday, the secretary of state said an initial review found her latest attempt at the initiative had enough signatures to make the ballot.

Angle did not respond to repeated requests over the past week to be interviewed and to allow a reporter to observe her campaign.

After delivering instructions to his team, Raggio and his wife, Dale, head out to Mogul, a neighborhood of tall trees and nice lawns up against rocky hillsides west of Reno.

“We’re going into the lion’s den,” Raggio warns, motioning to Angle campaign signs that dot lawns in the neighborhood.

He takes one side of the street, his wife the other. But Raggio insists on knocking on the doors of houses with Angle signs.

Some things are clear after only a few houses. First, Raggio is in excellent shape, often forcing a 29-year-old reporter to labor to catch up. Second, the truth of door-to-door campaigning is that it’s tedious work.

At most houses, no one is home. At these, Raggio takes out a flier and a pen and writes, “Sorry I missed you. I would appreciate your vote on Aug. 12.”

When people are home, he introduces himself thusly: “I’m Bill Raggio, and I’m your state senator.”

He asks if they have any concerns and what he can do for their vote. Most nod and say thank you. He asks if the woman of the house would like a rubber “Bill Raggio” jar opener.

There are some engaged voters.

Bob Kinnaman has an Angle sign in his front yard. But his face lights up when Raggio comes to the door, and his wife, son, daughter-in-law and grandson all come out to meet the senator.

He didn’t realize Angle was running against Raggio, and sure, he can take down her sign and put up one of his.

Raggio asks what it would take to get his vote.

“As long as you do what you think needs to be done,” Kinnaman said. “These times are so different, so perilous.”

Raggio acknowledges the challenges the state faces and adds, “Well, I’m not going to raise taxes, I can guarantee you that.”

“That’s good to hear,” says Kinnaman, who left Southern California for Northern Nevada about 10 years ago. “That’s a biggie.”

About an hour in, with the sun getting hotter, Raggio puts on the hat his wife told him to wear. In a long-sleeved blue shirt and khakis, Raggio dismisses the question of whether he resents having to do this.

“This has energized me,” he says, as he picks up a newspaper from a driveway to deliver to the front door.

The last house he hits, after 2 1/2 hours of walking, is that of John Stieger. And it is the Stiegers of the district who could make this a close race.

“I used to hear Sharron Angle on the radio,” Stieger says, “and she just seemed real concerned with my dollar.”

“Well, I’m not going to raise taxes,” Raggio says.

“Well, that’s going to go a long way.”

At the end, Stieger says he’ll think about it. He wouldn’t agree to a yard sign, but he didn’t have an Angle sign up either.

Raggio thanks him and turns to walk away.

“What about education?” Stieger says.

“What about it?” Raggio says.

“Well, we certainly don’t need to spend any more money on it.”

As Raggio walks away, the senator mutters, “Someone got to him. I think I know who.”

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