Politics & Policy

The Strategic Angle

The team behind the GOP challenger to Harry Reid has a plan, and they're sticking to it.

This week, the campaign for Nevada GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle will run 1,000 to 1,600 points’ — about $575,000 — worth of television advertising. Normally, an advertising onslaught such as this one would be well-suited to the final weeks of a campaign — and a bit much for the dog days of August.

But within Angle’s team, there is a sense that this late-summer period will be crucial, even decisive. Their rival, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, finds himself with only one remaining advantage: money. 

#ad#He’s a fossil in an anti-incumbent year, his job-approval and personal-favorability ratings are terrible, the state’s unemployment and housing troubles are probably the nation’s worst, and the next Nevadan to rave about Reid’s smooth charisma will be the first. For a long while, everyone in Nevada politics has known Reid had one shot at reelection: Define Angle early, destroy her reputation in an onslaught of negative ads, and eke out a victory in a low-turnout matchup.

“Reid gets it, but he thinks we’re going to play by the normal challenger playbook and sit on our cash,” says Jordan Gehrke, deputy campaign manager for Angle. “Republicans across America will be there to support us if we’re still in a competitive race after Labor Day. But that means they have to see us fighting back now, and so that’s what we’re doing.”

Before the GOP primary June 9, Angle generally held a modest lead when pitted against Reid in polls. But after Angle pulled off a surprise win in the primary, Reid put his campaign fortune to work with a series of negative ads. His barrage charged that Angle “wants to wipe out Social Security,” noted that she had appeared to compare Social Security to welfare, hit her for her past interest in a controversial prison drug-treatment program, and slammed her for a campaign-trail declaration that “I’m not in the business of creating jobs.”

Sensing that Reid’s ads were starting to establish Angle’s reputation in Nevada voters’ minds, the Angle camp responded with advertising of its own, roughly a half-million dollars’ worth — like the current buy, this was a lot of expensive air time for such a slow period. These ads featured Angle speaking before an audience of senior citizens, articulating widespread voter worries about debt and deficits, and promising the “opportunity to change the direction of our country: Government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem.” A follow-up showed her taking on Reid’s slogan that “no one had done more”; she said that considering the results, fed-up voters wish he would “please stop.” The goal was simple: to show Nevadans that she was a normal woman who shared their concerns, nothing like the monster depicted in her rival’s commercials.

Shortly after Angle’s campaign began its counteroffensive, the Mason-Dixon poll showed her rebounding, from trailing Reid by six to trailing him by a single point. Then Reid, and supposedly independent groups that were in reality aligned with the Democratic candidate, spent another couple million, upping the ante. The plan is for the Angle campaign to maintain this current 1,600 points–per–week pace for the remainder of the election, with an increase after Labor Day.

Angle is among the cycle’s least expected nominees; her sudden slip from leader to underdog represents the difficult transition from a shoestring, tea-party-fueled insurgent GOP primary campaign to a general-election effort capable of taking on one of the best-known, best-funded, and most powerful incumbents in this cycle.

Gehrke is one of several new faces stepping in to help Angle campaign in this new, tougher stage. There’s Jarrod Agen, who was a regional communications director for Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign and is also a former deputy press secretary at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Brian Jones, a former communications director at the RNC and a veteran of the 2008 McCain and 2004 Bush campaigns, is advising the campaign on media strategy. Ciara Matthews, formerly the communications director for the Nevada Republican party, is also involved. Their impact is already clear in the dramatic increase in the number of Angle campaign ads and web videos.

Campaigns are, in part, a team sport, but only one name appears on the ballot. Can Angle overcome her early gaffes that provided Reid’s ad-makers with so much fodder?

#page#“Reid wants to make this campaign into a referendum on Sharron Angle by twisting things she has said and hoping to change the subject,” Gehrke shrugs. “But that’s okay, because we’re running against a guy who says things that don’t come out right and creates controversy.” For example: Reid’s declarations that the Iraq War is lost, that no construction site in Nevada employs illegal immigrants, that Barack Obama speaks with “no Negro dialect,” that unemployment creates spousal abuse, that only 36,000 people losing their jobs is “really good,” and that the tourists who visit the U.S. Capitol in Washington smell funny. His most recent hit is a statement that he doesn’t “know how anyone of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican” — a declaration that comes as the GOP’s Brian Sandoval is trouncing the senator’s son, Rory Reid, in the state’s governor’s race.

Gehrke argues that the campaign has come a long way since the rough days right after the primary. He describes Angle as more focused than ever, better at working her message of the day in off-the-cuff remarks, and notes she is now doing longer interviews with reporters.

#ad#Among Team Angle, there is a sense Reid may be overdoing it with his ads painting Angle as an extremist. Reid’s constant dismissal of Angle as an unserious, wacky personality sets the bar awfully low. As Gehrke puts it, “The more people see Sharron, the better she is going to do. You can’t say that about Reid. People here know him — they just can’t stand him.”

One key thing the Angle campaign will have to worry about is the “none of the above” option on Nevada’s ballots. It is highly plausible that at some point, Reid or an aligned group will attempt to diffuse the anti-incumbent message by promoting the idea, probably through voter-contact mail, of “sending a message to Washington” by voting this way. The Angle campaign expects it can find the financing to counter such a message, by emphasizing that every vote for “none of the above” will make it easier for Harry Reid to squeak by.

A few longtime watchers of western campaigns compare Reid’s maneuvers to those of Gray Davis, the former governor of California. As he approached his 2002 bid for reelection, Davis’s approval steadily slid until he was underwater. He deployed one innovation for a troubled incumbent — meddling in the other party’s primary — and also used a more traditional strategy: relentless fundraising and a non-stop barrage of negative ads (Davis spent $16 million on negative ads by September). Republican nominee Bill Simon never had a chance to get any footing. In the end, Davis won, 47 percent to 42 percent, in an election marked by the lowest voter turnout and the largest number of third-party-gubernatorial-candidate votes in the state’s history.

For what it’s worth, Angle refuses to play the role of Bill Simon, who had already been irrevocably defined by the time his commercials appeared. If her campaign falls short in November, it will not be because her team hesitated.

– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for NRO.

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