By now it’s become a disturbingly familiar pattern for conservatives: A candidate who seems promising at first glance wins a Republican primary, and then suddenly the press — often fed by a Democratic rival’s opposition-research team — begins looking in-depth at every controversial and regrettable statement and act that candidate ever made. Just days after it’s too late to change the nominee, the choice of GOP primary voters appears to be an egregious mistake.
The most recent, and perhaps most extreme, example of this phenomenon is Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul. Overnight, Paul changed from a soft-spoken, genially libertarian version of his father, Ron, to a man with a complicated position on the Civil Rights Act who fears the NAFTA superhighway, calls presidential criticism of British Petroleum “un-American,” and dares not appear on Meet the Press lest he blurt out some position even less mainstream than these.
And then there was this year’s near-miss: Tea-party candidate Debra Medina was coming on strong in the Texas GOP gubernatorial primary until Glenn Beck asked if she believes that the American government was in any way involved in bringing down the World Trade Center towers on 9/11, and she gave a long, winding answer that didn’t come anywhere near the factually and politically correct answer of “No.”
The next state likely to experience this phenomenon is Nevada, where Republicans will soon choose a candidate to take on the supremely vulnerable Senate majority leader, Harry Reid. For a long while, the GOP primary looked like a two-candidate race between former state-party chair Sue Lowden and businessman Danny Tarkanian. But then one of the groups claiming to represent the national tea-party movement, Tea Party Express, endorsed former state assemblywoman Sharron Angle, and she has rocketed from 5 percent to 25 percent in the Mason-Dixon poll, just 5 percent behind frontrunner Lowden.
So what will we learn — and see spotlighted — about Sharron Angle if she wins the primary?
When You Outlaw Beer: In a 2005 interview, while discussing the issue of legalizing marijuana, she appeared to suggest that she grudgingly tolerates the legality of alcohol: “I would tell you that I have the same feelings about legalizing marijuana, not medical marijuana, but just legalizing marijuana. I feel the same about legalizing alcohol. . . . The effect on society is so great that I’m just not a real proponent of legalizing any drug or encouraging any drug abuse. . . . I’m elected by the people to protect, and I think that law should protect.” Her spokesman vehemently denies that Angle is a prohibitionist, but one can imagine how that comment could get construed by Nevada restaurant, casino, and bar workers in a heated Senate campaign. (Those restaurant, casino, and bar workers will presumably be reminded by their unions that Angle voted against raising Nevada’s minimum wage in 2005.)
Making the Grade: In 1999, when Angle was a freshman assemblywoman, the Las Vegas Review-Journal surveyed 25 public employees, lobbyists, journalists, and other legislature-watchers about the eleven new lawmakers. Angle ranked near the bottom of the class with a D+.
Massages and Scientology in Prison: Angle’s past enthusiasm for a prison drug-treatment program could be interpreted as a genuine willingness to look outside the box for ways to help some of society’s most desperate members overcome addiction. Yet it’s not too hard for the program to be explained in a manner that would make most tea-party activists recoil. It was described in media accounts as “sauna and massage” treatments; the candidate characterizes it as more comparable to a sweat lodge and pain relief. It was developed in part based on concepts from Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and was estimated to cost roughly $15,000 per inmate. Angle tried to organize a trip to Ensenada prison in Mexico to see the program in action; the cost of the trip was to have been covered by a Scientologist. The trip was ultimately canceled. (Angle is a Southern Baptist, not a Scientologist.)
That Darn Software: Financial paperwork is a pain, but it’s an unavoidable duty for candidates for federal office. Angle’s recent filings with the FEC mistakenly showed debts disappearing from one report to the next, with no record of how or when they were paid. This triggered an inquiry by the federal agency. The Angle campaign blamed faulty software. It’s an entirely plausible excuse, but it does make it tough for Angle to, say, criticize Tim Geithner for blaming his failure to pay all of his taxes on TurboTax.
Tax Contradictions: In her state legislative career, Angle passionately opposed most tax increases, and property-tax increases in particular. But her adherence to principles led her to oppose proposals that almost all of the state’s Republicans — a generally conservative bunch — deemed acceptable:
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.
Rival Sue Lowden argues that Angle violated a no-new-taxes pledge by voting to authorize “the imposition of a fee on certain rental cars and the issuance of revenue bonds in certain counties to finance a minor league baseball stadium.”
Election Do-Over: After Angle narrowly lost a 2006 Republican primary for Congress, she filed suit contending election irregularities, noting that more than 100 election workers had failed to show up for work on time. Ultimately, her attorneys could not show that any of the people they named as plaintiffs had been denied the right to vote. While her frustration is palpable and understandable, voters may look warily upon a candidate who asked for a revote after she lost. In Angle’s defense, she has been on the ballot the past seven election cycles in the state, and only asked for a revote once.
Robert Uithoven, campaign manager for Sue Lowden, contends that Angle’s rise is driven in part by a lack of scrutiny of her more idiosyncratic positions. “You don’t vet the person third or fourth in the polls the way you vet the frontrunner,” he says. “With the recent rise in the polls, people are starting to ask whether Angle’s record matches her rhetoric.”
Uithoven contends that Angle is unelectable against Harry Reid, even in a good year for Republicans: “We are a Democratic state, and we have 50,000 to 60,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans and, like a lot of states, an enormous amount of independents. Never once has Angle demonstrated an ability to win over independents or conservative Democrats, and you have to be able to do that to beat Harry Reid. She represented one of the most conservative and one of the most Republican assembly districts in the state, and then she went on to lose in the Republican primary in a Republican congressional district, and then in 2008 she lost a Republican primary in a Republican state-senate district.”
Sharron Angle has her fans; she’s been endorsed by Mark Levin, Erick Erickson of RedState, and the Club for Growth. Ultimately, this is a choice for Nevada Republicans; if they conclude that Angle’s no-holds-barred conservatism is what they want to represent them, they’re free to make that choice. But they shouldn’t be surprised to see 70-year-old Harry Reid doing cartwheels shortly thereafter. The Senate majority leader has spent more than $8 million so far in this campaign, with little effect on his lousy poll numbers, but he could spend large chunks of his remaining $9 million or so on television advertising painting Angle as a beer-banning, felon-massaging, tax-hiking FEC scofflaw.
Will that be enough to save Harry Reid in a state with high unemployment, the state hardest hit by the housing crash? Perhaps not, but he clearly prefers his odds against Angle to those against the other options.
Nevada Republicans make their choice on June 8.
– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for NRO.