The outcome of the nation’s marquee Senate race may hinge on the number of votes that go to a man who cleverly co-opted the Tea Party name and has been called everything from “opportunist” to “egomaniac” to “whack job.”
In mid-February, Jon Scott Ashjian — a man with no known ties to the tea-party movement, other than a claim to have attended a Las Vegas rally in April 2008 — registered the name Tea Party of Nevada with the Nevada Secretary of State as a political party.
A few weeks later, Ashjian made his first television appearance on the statewide political talk show Face to Face. Interested observers tried to determine if Ashjian was the real deal or, as some had speculated, an agent of espionage who had been recruited by Reid to siphon votes from the Republican nominee in November.
Ashjian denied the allegation and confidently talked the talk, labeling himself a patriot who was not a politician and referring to Reid as “an enemy of the state.” Claiming that a conversation with family and friends sparked the notion to start up a third party, he said he did it in part because the tea-party movement had been “co-opted by Republicans.”
In answer to questions about business and personal financial difficulties, including IRS liens, contractor’s-board complaints and a later suspension of his contractor’s license, and a bounced check, Ashjian said the reports either were untrue or would be resolved.
Some were; some were not. Ashjian vowed to pour millions into the race; he never did. Yet he has marched on, undeterred and flinging around flamboyant rhetoric at every turn.
Tea-party types around the state disavowed him, and independent groups vowed to stop him with legal challenges. In early March, more than 20 conservative grassroots and tea-party groups issued a formal, unified statement against him, and the Independent American party tried but failed to have him removed from the ballot.
With Ashjian’s most recent victory in court, last week’s Wall Street Journal profile calling him a “maverick” and a “wild card,” and Sharron Angle’s attempt to talk him out of the race — in a private meeting that was secretly recorded and released to the press — the potential Senate-race spoiler is still alive and well.
Engaged voters of any political persuasion can probably be relied upon not to punch the ballot for Ashjian, but veteran political journalist Jon Ralston agrees he could still be a big factor in the electoral equation.
“My instincts tell me Ashjian will only get one or two percent of the vote,” said Ralston in an interview with Battle ’10. “But being right under Angle on the ballot, with his identification as the Tea Party candidate, and his name ID now up because of press coverage of the secret meeting with Angle, it might be higher.”
Republican political consultant Ryan Erwin agrees Ashjian is part of the dynamic and says he thinks voters need to realize that a button-push for Ashjian is a wasted vote.
“There is an important role for legitimate third parties to play, but this one is a sham that just capitalized on a popular name,” said Erwin. “A vote for Ashjian is neither a vote for the Tea Party agenda nor its movement, because he is simply not credible or affiliated with any of the official Nevada Tea Party groups,” he said.
#PAGE#To add injury to insult, it is not just Ashjian who threatens to hurt Angle’s chances and hand the race to the Reid. A recent CNN poll showed one in ten voters going with the “none of these candidates” category over Angle or Reid.
Ralston said he thinks it’s possible the “none” category could earn significant support but also added that it may be far less — if people overcome their disgust with both major candidates and decide not to waste their votes.
“People are disgusted with both campaigns, which is just how Reid wants it,” said Ralston. “I think ‘none’ might pull around five percent or so. Any higher than that is a real big problem for Angle.”
Ralston thinks the potentially lethal combination of votes to Ashjian and the “none” category are the whole ballgame for Reid. “It’s the only way he can win,” he said.
History supports the view. Consider the case of John Ensign’s narrow loss when he challenged Reid back in 1998. Voter turnout was over 400,000; roughly 19,000 votes went to “none” or to third-party candidates; and Reid won the election by just 428 votes.
Reid is hoping to tread a similarly narrow path to victory this year, and has to hope that as many voters as possible are fooled by Ashjian.
— Elizabeth Crum covers this year’s Nevada races at NRO’s Battle ’10 blog.