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July 26, 2014

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Cultivating conservatives

GOP candidates seek embrace of small-town Nevada by touting their ideological zeal, bashing Harry Reid

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Sam Morris

Patriotic balloons appear at an auction Feb. 21 at a Lincoln Day dinner in Minden. Republican candidates make an annual pilgrimage through Nevada’s reddest counties, and this year’s Lincoln Day circuit is energized by the prospects of ousting Enemy No. 1: Harry Reid.

Lincoln Day Dinner Circuit

A poster at the Hide-A-Way Steak House displays a common sentiment in rural Nevada during a swing through Northern Nevada on the Lincoln Day dinner circuit Saturday, Feb. 20, 2010 in Battle Mountain. Launch slideshow »
Harry Reid

Harry Reid

Carolyn Mering can’t believe the news: Harry Reid is coming to town.

At least that’s what the local airport operator told her a minute ago, calling to organize the opposite of a welcoming party. See, the Senate majority leader will be using the airport’s sole loaner car when he lands — and workers want to cover it in anti-Reid bumper stickers.

Mering, vice chairwoman of Nevada’s Republican rural caucus, is wild with excitement, her voice shaking at the prospect of sticking it to the state’s senior senator.

“This is big national news,” she tells a reporter. “You can borrow my car, but get your ass over there fast because he lands in 30 minutes.”

This is the gravy to her Lincoln Day lunch at the Hide-A-Way Steakhouse, a roadside restaurant decked out in stuffed elk. On a bone-chilling Saturday in February, more than two dozen candidates and party officials have gathered to eat broccoli salad and corn chowder and ask for the support of some of the state’s most conservative voters — all 40 of them, the biggest turnout in years.

Too bad Mering got bogus information from her airport conspirators. Turns out the plane was carrying the campaign staff of Republican Mike Montandon, the former three-term North Las Vegas mayor running for governor. Even Reid’s son, Rory, would have been a small consolation to this crowd. He’s running for governor, too. That’s how much people hate Harry Reid.

And to hear locals tell it, there’s plenty to be angry about.

After all, Battle Mountain has a long memory. Residents still haven’t forgiven Washington Post scribe Gene Weingarten for dubbing the place the “Armpit of America” nine years ago, a “pathetic assemblage of ghastly buildings and nasty people on a freeway in the midst of a harsh, uninviting wilderness, far enough from the nearest city to be inconvenient, but not so far for it to develop a character of its own.”

So, while Weingarten isn’t welcome, Reid is banned.

Republicans here — and across rural Nevada — are looking for their Scott Brown, a pickup-driving savior to knock off Reid, Nevada’s equivalent of Ted Kennedy. As far as they’re concerned, Reid has forgotten his humble Searchlight roots and his home state in the quest for Washington power, complete with a yoga mat and an apartment in the Ritz-Carlton. They say he’s pushing President Barack Obama’s liberal agenda, saddling the country with debt and remaking America into a socialist nation.

On this weekend, a half dozen would-be challengers donned bluejeans and cowboy boots and gave red-meat speeches to win them over on the Lincoln Day dinner circuit, where the name “Glenn Beck” is an applause line and weapons are top prize in the fundraising auction. The annual pilgrimage through Nevada’s reddest counties is a must for Republican candidates, with Reid’s Senate race giving this year’s events a sense of urgency and excitement.

The state’s top Republicans did their part to stir conservative passions.

In Battle Mountain, Rep. Dean Heller, sporting jeans and a country-style sport coat, attacked Reid over health care legislation, which he said would lead to “higher taxes, bigger government and Medicare cuts.”

“You pick off Harry Reid, the world changes,” Heller said. “I truly believe any one of these candidates could beat Harry Reid.”

Sen. John Ensign told an audience in Fallon that Republicans were better positioned than they were in 1994, when the party took control of Congress. He said Reid’s Senate seat was one of a dozen being targeted in November. “We lost our principles and we deserved to lose” in 2006 and 2008, Ensign said. “We have to get back to those core principles.”

Because the GOP field is so crowded, the mostly unknown candidates used every edge they could find to curry favor, racing from lunches to cocktail receptions to dinners — sometimes with little to no reward.

In Winnemucca, the hopefuls arrived to a meet-and-greet at the Flying Pig only to find the barbecue joint empty. The candidates spoke among themselves, waited for local customers and tried to blend in.

In keeping with Flying Pig tradition, Montandon wrote his name on a dollar bill, climbed on top of the bar and taped it to the ceiling. John Chachas, a Wall Street investment banker seeking Reid’s seat, followed suit. Addressing his biggest vulnerability, Chachas, who was born and raised in Nevada but lives in New York, wrote: “John Chachas. From Ely.”

In Fallon, Bill Parson, a 23-year Marine with the flat-top haircut of a drill sergeant, donated boxes of ammunition to the Churchill County Republican Party’s auction. Leaving no doubt as to his stance on gun rights, his wife took the microphone to say he supported the 2nd Amendment.

In Lovelock, Sharron Angle, the former assemblywoman from Reno, told a crowd not only that her parents were married in the small ranching community — but that she was likely conceived there.

Then, there was the rhetoric, each candidate striving to capture the Tea Party zeitgeist in the three-minute time limit.

Danny Tarkanian, a Las Vegas lawyer and son of the famous UNLV basketball coach, tells crowds he’s a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, favors limited government regulation and wants to turn Yucca Mountain into a reprocessing plant for nuclear waste. He caps his speech by promising to finish President Ronald Reagan’s last campaign against the “tax-and-spend liberal Harry Reid.”

“We’re going to win this last one for the Gipper,” he says.

Angle touts her record as a conservative state lawmaker in a speech chock-full of slogans. “I was a conservative before it was popular,” she says.

A crowd favorite: “Harry Reid has been waterboarding the economy.”

Angle’s campaign literature features a picture of her firing a .44 Magnum, the handgun Clint Eastwood made famous in “Dirty Harry.”

Chad Christensen, an assemblyman from Las Vegas, quotes NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon and says that Nevada “deserves a regular guy” in the Senate.

Sue Lowden, former chairwoman of the Nevada Republican Party, says she’s not a professional politician, but a businesswoman who knows what it means to make payroll every two weeks. She tells the story of her first and only campaign in which she ousted Nevada’s state Senate majority leader in 1992.

She’s positioned herself as the front-runner, traveling the state in a custom-painted tour bus. Lowden also highlights the fact that she has raised the most money in the primary, a skill she says will be necessary to take on Reid and his massive war chest.

Parson describes himself as a “strict constitutionalist,” champions “state sovereignty” and promises to reduce the size of government by 60 percent.

Chachas emphasizes his Ely roots but doesn’t mention that he’s lived in New York since college. He touts his experience as a financial expert and, having donated more than $1 million of his money to his campaign, tells crowds that a “well-executed, well-funded campaign” will beat Reid.

Yet for all their excitement, Republicans have no clear favorite.

Amy Nelson, a middle school principal in Battle Mountain, said she’s looking for a “10th Amendment advocate,” referring to the part of the Constitution that gives states all powers not relegated to the federal government. She likes Parson.

“We need to get federal government mandates back in line,” Nelson said. “We’re off kilter. You can’t tax yourself out of poverty or spend yourself out of poverty. We’re fighting a mentality of people who expect the government to fix our country.”

Regina Brush, a retired kindergarten teacher, is outraged by deficit spending. “We’re having a hard time convincing people that government has to run like you run your home. Live within your means,” she said. “The American public has been living on credit cards for too long. The government can only do so much. You have to take care of you and yours.”

The danger for Republicans is that so much passion could lead to divided loyalties and bad blood in the general election.

So party leaders like Mark Feest, chairman of the Churchill County Republican Party, urged the candidates and their supporters to keep the primary as clean as possible.

“It’s important that we are united and remember Reagan’s 11th Commandment” not to speak ill of fellow Republicans, Feest said. “If we get down to arguing about the 20 percent of things we don’t agree on or get apathetic, we’ll lose. That’s the opportunity Harry Reid is looking for.”

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