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August 30, 2014

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Politics:

No front-runner among the five who would challenge Harry Reid

A look at the field that could unite the Republican base — and squander resources — with a competitive primary

Meet the Challengers

Sharron Angle, a former four-term assemblywoman from Reno, remains popular with northern and rural conservatives. Launch slideshow »
Harry Reid

Harry Reid

National Republicans, having so far failed to recruit a blue-chip challenger to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid next year, face the prospect of a long — and potentially divisive — primary in which any one of a handful of candidates could clinch the nomination.

Partisan strategists and operatives say that degree of uncertainty is highly unusual for such a high-profile race, costing the party valuable time it could otherwise use to groom a candidate for what promises to be the most expensive, hard-fought campaign in the country. Reid has said he expects to raise $25 million.

That said, recent public opinion polls suggest the eventual nominee could beat Reid. The senator has a 37 percent approval rating.

To be sure, this was not the scenario Republicans envisioned when they set out to topple the Senate majority leader. They had been hoping for a repeat of 2004, when the party successfully ran South Dakota’s lone congressman, John Thune, against Reid’s predecessor as majority leader, Sen. Tom Daschle.

Republicans, looking for a well-known name, courted Nevada Rep. Dean Heller — and then former Rep. Jon Porter.

Both took a pass.

A third candidate, Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, fell off the list when he was indicted for allegedly mismanaging a college savings program while serving as Nevada state treasurer. Krolicki has denied any wrongdoing, saying the charges were politically motivated.

Republicans were dealt another blow when Sig Rogich, the longtime GOP operative with decades of experience in national politics, endorsed Reid, becoming co-chairman of a group the senator’s campaign calls “Republicans for Reid.”

That series of events ultimately led Nevada Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Lowden to resign and enter the race herself this month, joining a crowded field. Among those encouraging Lowden to run: Dick Wadhams, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party and the GOP consultant who ran Thune’s campaign against Daschle.

Nevada Republicans argue that a spirited primary could be just the thing to reinvigorate a sluggish base after last year’s devastating losses. President Barack Obama won Nevada by 12 percentage points and Democrats won a House seat and retook the state Senate, giving them control of both chambers of the Legislature for the first time in two decades.

Meanwhile, the party’s chief elected officials have been marginalized. Gov. Jim Gibbons is burdened by an embarrassing divorce and a civil lawsuit filed by a Las Vegas cocktail waitress who claims he assaulted her in a parking garage. Sen. John Ensign is embroiled in scandal stemming from his behavior in the wake of an affair with the wife of then-top aide Doug Hampton. The Senate Ethics Committee and the FBI are investigating whether Ensign’s efforts to mollify Hampton with lobbying work violated federal law.

As one Republican operative put it: “We’re starting to make Louisiana look good.”

But party officials say the GOP is poised to capitalize on the public outrage over government bailouts and the Obama administration’s health care plan.

“There was a good deal of disappointment and concern about the fact that we did so poorly in the last cycle,” said former Gov. Bob List, a Republican national committeeman. “But now the party is totally fired up. People are revving their engines and preparing to go to war politically based on what’s happening back in Washington.”

The ultimate beneficiary in a Republican primary is unclear. Political scientists and party strategists, including Steve Wark and Ryan Erwin, say a few candidates have strengths and could pull from different sectors of the Republican base. Also, the number of votes needed to win in a contested primary will be relatively small, given that public interest is lower in non-presidential years. (In the 2006 primaries, nearly 288,000 Nevadans voted statewide, representing 30 percent of all registered voters.)

In 2010, experts see as many as five credible contenders.

Motivating core activists or a running a slick mail campaign could mean a win. And, operatives say, the competing campaigns could create a patchwork of field organizations, something the party desperately needs after Sen. John McCain ran an underwhelming presidential campaign in the state last year.

Lowden has name recognition as a former local TV reporter, anchorwoman and state senator and benefits from her political connections as state party chairwoman. She and her husband are wealthy casino owners who netted $150 million more than a decade ago when they sold the Sahara.

In an interview last week, Lowden declined to say how much of her money she would be willing to spend, saying she had attracted considerable contributions over the past month. Still, she added: “It’s nice to have that cushion.”

She polled roughly even with Reid in an August poll.

Danny Tarkanian is banking in part on his family name. His father, Jerry, is UNLV’s legendary former basketball coach. His mother, Lois, is a Las Vegas councilwoman. Tarkanian himself is a former UNLV basketball star and lawyer who runs a real estate business here. He’s the only candidate who has run a statewide race, coming up short in a bid three years ago to become Nevada secretary of state.

In that same August poll, Tarkanian led Reid by 11 points.

He said a successful defamation lawsuit stemming from a previous failed state Senate run has given him a degree of protection from future attacks, putting to rest fraud allegations that dogged him in 2006.

Former state Sen. Mark Amodei has the longest legislative record of anyone running. He represented Carson City in the state Senate since 1999 before being forced out by term limits this year.

As former president of the Nevada Mining Association, he has deep ties to one of the state’s wealthiest industries — but his work for the group has prompted conflict of interest charges because he held the post while serving in the Legislature.

His vote for one of the state’s largest tax increases in 2003 will likely be used against him by his primary opponents, some of whom have signed anti-tax pledges. Amodei said he countered a proposed gross-receipts tax that year with his own tax plan after talking to a number of stakeholders, including the Nevada Taxpayers Association. He ultimately approved the governor’s budget.

“We thought it was important to be in the mix of discussions,” Amodei said. “Those people who would condemn me for daring to have an idea, I simple disagree with that analysis. I’m an open-minded guy who is not afraid to vote to get the policy right.”

Sharron Angle, a former four-term assemblywoman from Reno, remains popular with northern and rural conservatives. In 2006, Angle, with the support of the national group Club for Growth, nearly beat Dean Heller in the Republican primary for Nevada’s 2nd Congressional District, losing by 421 votes. Last year, she mounted a similar primary challenge, nearly knocking off longtime state Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio. She lost by 548 votes.

Republican operatives say about half of the votes in the party’s primaries traditionally come from outside Clark County.

John Chachas is an Ely native and banker who brings big money to the race. He says he’s raised $343,000 from donors and contributed $1 million of his own money to his campaign. Although he has lived in New York for most of his adult life, he maintains a home in Ely and vacations there. As an advisory banker, he’s given financial advice to media companies and says that Wall Street experience positions him to better understand the country’s crises, from the deficit to housing to health care.

“I’m putting my money where my mouth is,” Chachas said. “I feel passionately that this is a pinnacle moment in American political life. This race is terribly important for the country. If we get this wrong, the consequences could be monumental.”

The eventual winner is assured millions of dollars in national money, but will also face arguments for Reid’s reelection from Republicans.

“I think it would be deadly wrong for us to turn out the leadership we have in Congress now when our state is in such critical need of assistance,” said Rogich, a former adviser to President George H.W. Bush. “Nevadans have to ask themselves, do ... we want someone with a say in every major committee or do we want someone at the bottom of the ladder who has nothing to say?”

UNR political scientist Eric Herzik said Reid can be beaten, but it won’t be as easy as some early polls have suggested.

“It’s easy to run a hypothetical candidate,” he said. “It becomes harder when that candidate has to explain issues, answer questions and respond to the attacks that come.”

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