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November 28, 2014

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How experts see route to victory for Harry Reid: Complicated

Sen. Harry Reid

Sen. Harry Reid

Sharron Angle

Sharron Angle

Patriot Majority ad

In the U.S. Senate campaign, which pits a deeply unpopular incumbent against a challenger who has made a political career out of appealing to a slim margin of the electorate, the winning strategy for both may be all about shifting the focus to their opponent.

Campaigns essentially come down to which candidate can more quickly define the race on terms that favor him or her. In this contest, that means an all-out sprint to prove to voters the “other guy” (or gal) is unacceptable.

Political consultants from both parties who have run difficult campaigns in Nevada and elsewhere have advice on how Republican Sharron Angle and her Democratic opponent, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, should attack this election.

And they have largely the same advice.

For Angle, a staunchly conservative former state legislator with a less-than-mainstream record, the race must be a referendum on her rival.

It’s a bit more complicated for Reid, who’s seen his approval rating plummet with the state’s economy. His campaign must succeed in a two-pronged approach: Marginalize Angle as an extremist and convince voters the state is better off with a majority leader they can call their own.

“He needs to make this a choice,” said Robby Mook, who managed Hillary Clinton’s presidential primary campaign in Nevada in 2008 and U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s race in New Hampshire. “It can’t just be a referendum on Reid. It’s a choice between someone out there fighting for jobs and someone who poses an enormous risk to the state.”

Reid can’t rely only on marginalizing Angle. He must also expertly portray what life would be like for Nevada without him at the helm of the Senate, Mook said.

A further challenge is his dispirited base. In 2008, Democrats swept to victory in Nevada thanks in part to an excited and motivated base fueled by Barack Obama’s candidacy.

“The challenge is to recreate as much of that intensity as he can,” Mook said of Reid. “He’s literally got to make his base understand what is at stake and light them up.”

That could prove difficult, said political consultant Dan Hart, who has managed campaigns in Nevada and Massachusetts.

Asked what Reid needs to do, Hart had a simple answer: “Improve the economy.”

If he can’t do that, he needs to convince people he’s trying.

“The malaise you see out there among voters is a result of where we are with our economic conditions,” Hart said. “The more Reid does that relates to alleviating some of the anxiety people feel, the better off he is going to be.”

James Carville, who helped run Democrat Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, said Reid’s battle shouldn’t be as difficult as it seems. He sees an easy path in ridiculing Angle, who has championed phasing out Social Security and major federal departments.

“The contrasts to be drawn here are pretty good,” Carville said. “Any successful Democratic strategy will have to do with Republicans reminding people why they are out of office.”

So while Reid works on both fronts, Republican consultants said, Angle must exploit the electorate’s intense dissatisfaction with his performance.

“The Angle campaign has to stay on message and make the election a referendum on Reid,” said Ed Allison, a longtime aide to former U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt, R-Nev., and who was active in Ronald Reagan’s and George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaigns.

“In Nevada, that alone might spell a defeat for the incumbent.”

Dick Wadhams, who ran U.S. Sen. John Thune’s successful 2004 campaign to oust then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota, agreed. Keeping the focus on Reid is so important it almost doesn’t matter who the Republican nominee is, he added.

“The focus still has to be on the record of Harry Reid and the fact that as Senate majority leader he does not represent the majority of Nevadans,” Wadhams said.

Neither Republican consultant agreed Angle will be shackled by her past as a rigid conservative.

“As one of my friends, who’s a businessman, said: ‘If Sharron Angle went back and did nothing, I’m ahead,’ ” Allison said.

Both Allison and Wadhams said Reid probably has a bigger problem with independent voters than Angle.

“Those independent voters feel very threatened right now by the massive federal deficits, by the prospect of a national energy tax increase,” Wadhams said. “They feel very threatened by what’s going on in Washington.”

While keeping the focus on Reid’s record, Angle must constantly remind voters that she would have voted the opposite of Reid on those issues they’re most worried about.

“Do voters want someone like Harry Reid who drives up federal spending, drives our nation deeper into debt, expands the role and power of the federal government? Or someone like Sharron Angle who will definitely vote to restrain federal spending and keep in check the power of government?” Wadhams said.

Allison also stressed Angle must be prepared to withstand what are expected to be well-funded and expertly messaged attacks from Reid.

“You have to hit back hard,” he said.

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