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July 29, 2014

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‘Tea Party’ set turns out in Las Vegas at its anti-Harry Reid finest

GOP candidates hope to monopolize support of the passionately conservative

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Audience members clap during a press conference held by the Tea Party Express Tuesday, January 12, 2009 at the Westin Casuarina.

Tea Party Express (1-12-10)

U.S. Senate candidate Danny Tarkanian speaks at a press conference held by the Tea Party Express Tuesday, January 12, 2009 at the Westin Casuarina. Launch slideshow »

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Mark Williams got on his knees Tuesday, clasped his hands as if in prayer and pleaded with a Las Vegas audience to oust Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

“Please get rid of Harry Reid,” said Williams, the national vice chairman of the Tea Party Express.

Five of Reid’s would-be Republican challengers eagerly waited nearby for their turn to court the conservative group’s vote and answer the plea.

More than 100 people had gathered in a small conference room at the Westin Casuarina to hear red-meat pitches from candidates seeking to challenge Reid. They weren’t disappointed, with one candidate saying that even roadkill would beat Reid in a poll.

Standing behind a lectern that read, “Save Our Republic From Government Tyranny,” the Senate hopefuls touted their conservative bona fides to a virtually all-white, gray-haired crowd that could make the difference in the Republican primary.

Dispirited by President Barack Obama’s decisive victory in Nevada two years ago, conservatives are rallying behind the anti-government Tea Party brand, turning out to events and becoming politically active in campaigns. The movement fills a vacuum left by the Nevada Republican Party, which has struggled to raise money and build a grass-roots organization in the wake of the presidential election.

In the Tea Party movement, Reid’s challengers see the potential for a ready-made network of battle-ready precinct captains and volunteers — a counterweight to the considerable election operation Reid inherits from Obama.

Underscoring the movement’s importance in Nevada was the presence of a half dozen candidates for other offices, including Mike Montandon, the former North Las Vegas mayor who is running for governor. (Leaving nothing in doubt, Michele Fiore, a state Senate candidate, handed out cards identifying her as a “Tea Party Republican Conservative.”)

Danny Tarkanian

Danny Tarkanian

Competition for these conservative voters will be fierce, as evidenced by two of the Senate race’s leading candidates attacking each other Tuesday. Danny Tarkanian’s campaign issued a memo comparing Sue Lowden’s “evolving” positions on a number of issues to a Cirque du Soleil contortionist.

Lowden’s camp fired back, calling Tarkanian, who has unsuccessfully run for secretary of state and state Senate, a “perennial office-shopper who ... has yet to win support from general election voters in Nevada.”

Sue Lowden

Sue Lowden

Tuesday’s event was staged by the Tea Party Express, a traveling road show of conservative entertainers, activists and politicians. The group is spending more than $250,000 on anti-Reid ads in Nevada this week, part of a $1 million campaign, and in March will launch a national tour from Reid’s hometown of Searchlight.

The event comes after days of bad news for Reid: a record-low approval rating (33 percent) and then revelations in a new book that the senator said Obama was a good presidential candidate because he was “light-skinned” with “no Negro dialect.” Although Reid has apologized for the remarks and continues to enjoy the support of local and national black leaders, the Tea Party set smells blood in the water.

“We’ve made some great strides with some help from Harry Reid,” said Williams, eliciting chuckles. “He’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

Brandon Hall, Reid’s campaign manager, dismissed the event as pure politics.

“From Day One, their top priority has been to distort Sen. Reid’s record and obstruct his efforts to turn the economy around and ensure quality, affordable health care for all Nevadans,” he said in a statement. “Sen. Reid will not back down from this or any other fight when it comes to delivering for the hardworking families of Nevada.”

As their names were pulled from a hat, the candidates did their best to connect with the, at times, rowdy audience.

Lowden, a former state senator and one-time chairwoman of the Nevada Republican Party, said she was an early supporter of the Tea Party movement, noting that she had attended rallies — and written a check “to encourage you to keep going.” She highlighted the public service part of her resume, starting with her USO tour in Vietnam. Lowden said as a state senator, she had “shut down” the chamber’s taxation committee.

And, to cap her appeal, she offered dozens of phones in her campaign headquarters to help make calls for Scott Brown, the Tea Party-endorsed Republican seeking the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts.

Bill Parson, a 23-year Marine Corps veteran, pledged congressional term limits, massive cuts in government spending and a “return to state sovereignty.” He described himself as a “strict constitutionalist.”

Following Parson’s lead, Mike Wiley, a former talk radio host, said health care reform legislation violates the Constitution.

Sharron Angle, a former four-term assemblywoman, fidgeted in the back of the room as she waited for her name to be called, and when it was she ran down the center aisle as if summoned to the stage of the “The Price Is Right.” Angle, who has a Northern Nevada base of support, summed up her campaign: “lower taxes, less regulation and stop the spending.” She said Reid had neglected Nevada as he ascended the national stage.

Sharron Angle

Sharron Angle

“The true issues are the economy, the economy, the economy,” Angle said. “And Harry Reid has been waterboarding the economy for the last year.”

Tarkanian, a lawyer and former UNLV basketball star, invoked President Ronald Reagan: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ ” He pledged “market-driven” health care reform, including tort reform. Tarkanian also said he would tackle illegal immigration and protect gun rights.

The crowd ate it up — so much so that those interviewed by the Sun said they faced a tough choice in the primary. In the end, with antipathy toward Reid so strong, it may not matter.

Kay Lawrence, a retired art gallery manager, said she last got involved in politics when she cut a check to oust Reid’s predecessor as Senate majority leader, former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle.

“I gave money to defeat Daschle, and I didn’t even know who he was running against,” she said. “I didn’t care.”

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