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July 30, 2014

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Will the Tea Party Express stop in D.C.?

Sharron Angle’s rigid conservatism sold her for an endorsement from a grass-roots anti-tax, anti-establishment movement, but …

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Sam Morris

U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle gets a hug from Fallon City Councilman John Tewell after a Lincoln Day dinner in February. Angle was endorsed last week by the Tea Party Express, but the former Nevada legislator faces an uphill climb in a 12-candidate GOP primary field.

Tax Day 2010

Tax Day 2010, Seg. 2

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Showdown in Searchlight

Dressed in period costume, William Temple from Brunswick, Ga., calls for revolution at the Launch slideshow »
Sue Lowden

Sue Lowden

Danny Tarkanian

Danny Tarkanian

Harry Reid

Harry Reid

Tea Party: "Showdown in Searchlight"

The Tea Party Express buses kicked off their latest national road trip Saturday with a rally in Sen. Harry Reid's hometown of Searchlight, Nev., which only has a population of 700. Sarah Palin gave the keynote address to the thousands who showed up for the "Showdown in Searchlight."

Sharron Angle has been waiting decades for the Nevada Republican Party to catch up.

Before Sarah Palin declared Republicans the “party of ‘Hell No,’ ” Angle, as a legislator, cast so many solitary “no” votes that it was common to say bills had passed “62 to Angle.”

Before the conservative movement became almost exclusively anti-establishment, anti-incumbent, Angle dared to challenge Republican icon Bill Raggio, a state senator for more than three decades — forcing the then-81-year-old to spend a hot August walking his district, vowing not to raise taxes. Angle lost the 2008 race by a few hundred votes.

Before the Tea Party movement formed, anti-tax fervor crescendoed and candidates thumped on copies of the U.S. Constitution like a preacher on a Bible, Angle was doing it.

“I was a conservative before it was fashionable,” she says.

If this is the Year of the Tea Party, this should be Angle’s year.

Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that Angle’s candidacy could be a barometer for the strength of the Tea Party movement.

Despite all of this, Angle remains an outsider in the Republican Party and a dark horse to win its nomination for U.S. Senate.

The GOP establishment, including its political consultants, have shunned her — carefully, so not to alienate her or her base for the general election — and polls and fundraising totals put her a distant third to Sue Lowden, the party’s former chairwoman, and Danny Tarkanian.

A favorite of the conservative movement

Last week, at long last, Angle got some recognition.

The Tea Party Express — organizers of the Searchlight rally against Harry Reid and the national tour featuring Palin — endorsed Angle. “In our opinion she represents the best ideals of the Tea Party movement and we are going ‘all in’ for Angle,” according to a statement.

The endorsement was criticized by local groups in the movement. They said it was from a group in Washington, not Nevada, and they plan to make their own endorsement in the coming weeks.

Some of the backlash to the endorsement carried this subtext: Angle may be popular with the grass roots, but can she beat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in November?

That question remains unanswered, but her popularity with conservatives in the Tea Party is a fact. And it has been so since the movement’s inception.

The first inkling of the Tea Party movement surfaced April 15, 2009, with a rally outside the Legislature. The crowd, an estimated 3,000, was the biggest that legislative police could recall.

The crowd might have gotten there through word spread on Fox News or in Republican organizations, but it wasn’t purely partisan. When a handful of conservative members of the Assembly ventured out to declare how they were fighting tax increases, some of them were greeted by boos. The movement lumped them in with the rest of the bums.

But Angle, despite having held office, was a different story. “She found boisterous support in the gathering,” according to the Reno Gazette-Journal.

“Stimulus, bailouts, pork. That’s the excess. That’s what people are angry about,” she told the crowd.

“It’s safe to say she’s one of the grass roots’ favorites,” said Debbie Landis, president of Anger is Brewing, one of the groups that forms Nevada’s loose coalition identifying itself as the Tea Party movement.

But the 5 percent Angle is polling in a Republican primary — compared with 45 percent for Lowden and 27 for Tarkanian, according to a recent Review-Journal survey — tells another story. She’s not the best candidate to beat Reid in November, the argument goes, and Republican voters are savvy enough to know that.

Chuck Muth, a conservative political consultant who believes Lowden is the GOP’s best hope, acknowledged that Angle may well be the most conservative candidate. “But that’s not the question Republican primary voters are asking,” he said.

“The question is, ‘Who is conservative enough, but can beat Harry Reid in November?’ That’s Sue Lowden, or even Danny Tarkanian.”

The base may love Angle and all she stands for, but they love the idea of defeating Reid more.

‘A soldier in a battle for the soul of our country’

Angle has found herself in this position before, running against the establishment while her better-funded opponents parrot her conservative positions.

She has backed her beliefs with initiative petitions, gathering signatures with friends and her husband, Ted, a retired Bureau of Land Management employee. First, she spearheaded a property tax cap initiative, arguing that the cap on property taxes passed by the Legislature in 2005 was insufficient and unconstitutional. She then fought to limit the growth of government and restrict its use of eminent domain.

“I’ve been in the field, and not one of these people has supported us,” she said, referring to her opponents in the Republican U.S. Senate primary. “They play it safe. I’ve been in the trenches.”

She points out that in the last election, Lowden worked to re-elect Raggio, who went on to help pass the state’s largest tax increase during the 2009 Legislature. Muth walked for Raggio as well.

The pattern is obvious to her, she said. “They run to the right and vote to the left.”

Of Lowden’s conservative bona fides, Angle said, “Do I trust her? Not based on her record. Others I don’t trust because no one else has a legislative record.”

For her part, Lowden, who attended Thursday’s Tax Day protest in Carson City, said she identifies with the Tea Party movement and many of her volunteers are members.

In an interview in Angle’s Reno living room, where a painting of Jesus hangs with some of her art work — she majored in fine arts at UNR — Angle was asked if her opponents’ efforts to lay claim to the conservative mantle frustrated her.

She paused before answering.

“I suppose if all I was in it for was to win an election, if I just wanted to be a senator,” she said. “I’m not. A soldier’s job isn’t to go to war. It’s to defend the Constitution, and sometimes you need to go to war. I’m doing my duty. I’m a soldier in a battle for the soul of our country.”

An uncompromising belief in conservatism

By all accounts Angle is a true believer in the conservative cause.

She believes government is veering from its constitutionally defined role and capitalist roots. The health care reform bill, the bank bailouts and federal stimulus are all prime examples, she says.

When reminded that most mainstream economists and many Republicans are on record saying that the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or bank bailout, prevented a worldwide global depression, she shakes her head.

“I don’t think the government spending more money brings us from the brink. I don’t think you borrow your way out of debt,” she says.

Angle blames the fiscal crisis on “too much regulation across the board.” The United States needs to cut taxes to remain competitive, audit the Federal Reserve and liquidate Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae — all dog-whistle stances for the conservative right.

Former colleagues say Angle is unbending in her stances, unwilling to compromise.

This was evident in her time in the Legislature, where she served from 1999 to 2005. She was the only vote against a property tax cap, which put a 3 percent limit on residential property and 8 percent on commercial property at a time when values were skyrocketing.

Despite the hard negotiations from both sides, she opposed the final deal, saying it violated the state’s constitution by treating residential and commercial properties differently.

Some of her positions in the Legislature were controversial, but Angle remains unyielding in her defense.

In 2003, she tried to arrange a trip for legislators to visit a drug rehabilitation program in Ensenada, Mexico. The trip, funded by an Arizona Scientologist, according to press reports, had ties to the Church of Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard.

Critics said the rehabilitation program involved prisoners getting massages and using saunas.

Angle said the “physical contact” — she doesn’t call them massages — was to relieve cramps associated with drug addicts’ withdrawal symptoms. And rather than “saunas,” prisoners were put in “what I can only describe as a sweat box,” she said.

Despite the bad press — and if her U.S. Senate campaign begins to get traction, watch for opponents to attack her on this — she vehemently defends the program as an innovative approach that could have changed lives in Nevada.

Angle, a Southern Baptist, downplays Scientology’s connection to the prison program, and said her political opponents twisted the story during the 2003 Legislature to discredit her because she opposed a proposed tax increase.

“You may agree with me, but that doesn’t mean I agree with you all the time,” Angle said of her work with Scientologists. “I’m still glad to have you on board.”

Most proud of her legislation allowing home schooling

In Angle’s four legislative sessions she sponsored 70 bills. Seven passed.

Among her successes were bills that: enlarged the pool from whom the governor can choose the adjutant general; required juvenile criminals to pay victims restitution for personal injury as well as property damage; and limited immunity for “good Samaritans” who use a defibrillator.

She says the “crown jewel” of her legislative career was a bill on parents’ right to home-school their children. She requested the bill in 2006, when she was running for Congress but still officially a legislator. She was no longer in the Legislature when it passed in 2007.

She said the legislation is a model for the rest of the country.

Juanita Cox, chairwoman of the Storey County Republican Party, recalls the effort to get the home-school bill passed, saying Angle was key to its success.

“She was standing with us to get it through,” Cox said, “whether she was there as an assemblywoman or lobbyist. She’s not a Republican in name only. She’s a woman who walks the walk.”

But former Republican colleagues say Angle developed a reputation for being so rigid as to be ineffective.

Some say that makes her vulnerable to the criticism — in a general election — that she would merely continue to be a member of “the party of no.”

“Sharron Angle has done a good job in our party of mobilizing grass roots,” said Robert Uithoven, campaign manager for Lowden. “I don’t think she’s a candidate who could win a general election against Harry Reid.”

He continued, “They don’t just want a Republican that shows up and votes no.”

Landis, the president of Anger is Brewing, said Angle’s votes on taxes are conservative enough. But, she said, “My thing is, don’t just come and bring me a problem. Bring me solutions. And she seems very short on solutions.”

The conservative movement has recently focused on opposing health care legislation and higher taxes. But many, like Landis, believe that for the movement to govern, it needs to offer its own solutions. “We have to find someplace between the party of yes and the party of no,” she said.

Still, Landis and other Tea Party activists in Nevada, who will gather this month to debate who the state’s organizations should endorse, won’t rule out endorsing Angle.

Two sides to the anti-establishment argument

While her fellow Republicans question her path to victory in November, an Angle victory in June’s primary is easier to envision.

With 12 candidates, the vote could be so divided that a candidate with a strong, established base slides by with a relatively small percentage of the vote.

The other major candidates — Lowden, Tarkanian and Assemblyman Chad Christensen — all have Southern Nevada roots. Angle is a Northern Nevadan and has been on the ballot, and in the news, in competitive races during the past two Republican primary elections.

Angle’s campaign dismissed polls showing her trailing badly.

The sample size of the Review-Journal’s poll “is very small, and their results are scarcely considerable at this point because the race is still in a very fluid situation,” Jerry Stacy, a spokesman for Angle, said in a statement.

He said Angle’s poll numbers will rise once she begins running TV ads. Stacy wouldn’t say when the ad campaign will begin.

Her endorsement by the Tea Party Express will also likely bring her more media attention and donations. In the past week she has received endorsements from two more conservative groups, the Gun Owners of America and the Nevada Republican Assembly.

But she still remains a long shot to win.

Karen Claudino of Carson City was carrying an Angle sign at the Tea Party rally Thursday in Carson City. She acknowledged that some voters won’t support Angle because they don’t think she’ll win. Still, she sees reason to hope.

“If everybody who likes her thinks that way, just writes her off, then she won’t win,” Claudino, 60, said. But if they take the chance, whoever wins the Republican primary will have plenty of money to take on Reid.

Angle argues that she can win a general election for the same reasons her fellow Republicans believe she can’t: because she’s not an establishment candidate.

Her independence from the Republican Party establishment will appeal to nonpartisan voters, who make up 15 percent of the electorate, Angle said.

“If it comes down to the lesser of two evils, those independents won’t come out,” Angle said. The nonpartisan independents “believe the two-party system doesn’t offer them something. The only one they can trust to do what they think is right is me.”

UNLV political science professor David Damore said given all of the Tea Party activism, he thought Angle would make a stronger showing than she has so far. “I thought this would be the year of Sharron Angle.”

If the polls are accurate, Republicans might be hedging their bets, looking for a candidate they believe can beat Reid.

But Damore has another theory.

Maybe Angle captures the Tea Party vote. And maybe, for all the press and courting by the candidates, the movement is just not as big as some would have you believe.

“The loudest voices get the most attention, the most media coverage. They’re loud, they’re controversial,” Damore said. “But we don’t know how big they are.”

So maybe this isn’t the year of the Tea Party — or Angle.

The tax day Tea Party rally in Carson City invited comparisons to the movement’s rally a year before, which drew 3,000. On Thursday, police estimated the crowd at between 500 to 700.

How significant is that? Angle’s showing at the polls might offer an answer.

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