Gizzi on Politics, December 7, 2009

Senate Race of the Year

Eleven months from now, Nevadans will decide whether to give a fourth term to the Democrat who styles himself “the most powerful senator Nevada has ever had” or to become only the second state in more than a half-century to oust the sitting majority leader of the U.S. Senate.  

Either way, Harry Reid’s bid for a fifth term in 2010 is fast becoming the country’s most-watched Senate race. At first glance, the 69-year-old Reid (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 21%) should be a cinch for re-election. A fixture in Silver State politics since he was elected lieutenant governor back in 1970, Reid has close to 100% name recognition statewide and, as his commercials claim, has achieved a position in the Senate unmatched by powerful past Nevada Democratic senators such as Key Pittman (1912-39), who was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, or Pat McCarran (1932-54), who chaired the Judiciary Committee.  

But in assuming the top spot among Senate Democrats, mean-spirited partisan Reid has had to lead the charge on issues that are out of the mainstream in a state that is trending conservative. The obvious case-in point is the healthcare package including public option, which the Nevadan is trying to jam through the Senate.  

So there is growing press attention on the GOP primary next June. Former State GOP Chairman Sue Lowden, attorney Danny Tarkanian, and former State Assemblywoman Sharron Angle are all considered strong conservatives and the major dispute in their primary, aside from who should be senator, seems to be who would have the best shot at beating Reid. The latest Mason-Dixon poll shows that, among likely voters, Lowden defeats Reid by 49% to 39% while Tarkanian defeats the four-term senator by 48% to 43%. Mason-Dixon did not include Angle in the poll.  

Las Vegas Sun “Out to Destroy”  

“I’ve been involved in communicating a message since I graduated college in the 1970s,” Lowden told me, recalling her days as the first woman to anchor TV news in Nevada in the 1970s. Like Sarah Palin, she turned her recognition from the airwaves into elective office and was elected to the state senate. As majority whip and chairman of the Senate Taxation Committee, Lowden was a driving force in holding the line on taxes in the 1990s.

On the abortion issue, Lowden took sharp issue with a story in the Las Vegas Sun during the 1996 Republican National Convention in which she is quoted as saying, along with fellow delegate and State Assembly Co-Speaker Lynn Hettrick, that “the national party ought to follow Nevada’s lead and take abortion out of the platform.” (Las Vegas Sun, May 18, 1996.) The quote has been widely distributed lately and has been used by her political foes to suggest that Lowden’s pro-life credentials are something less than solid.  

“And it’s completely untrue!” Lowden told me without hesitation, noting that the Sun “is a very liberal publication that is out to destroy conservative Republicans who can win.” She added that while Hettrick may have taken that position on the platform and expressed those views to the Sun, “that certainly isn’t my view.” (At the ’96 convention, there was a move on the Platform Committee to change the strong pro-life language in the party platform but it was quashed by abortion foes on the committee who became known as the “Faithful Thirteen;” Lowden served on the Rules Committee and not the Platform Committee that year.)

The Senate hopeful went on to note her record in the state legislature, which shows her co-sponsoring parental notification and opposing any and all tax dollars for abortions. Lowden also believes that Roe v. Wade was a “bad decision,” and that the issue of abortion should be returned to the states.  

Tarkanian, son of the famed University of Nevada (Las Vegas) basketball coach, laid the groundwork for next year’s Senate race by running strong bids for state senate in ’04 and secretary of state in ’06. In both races, Tarkanian was pitted against well-known Democrats.  
The third contender is Sharron Angle, who lost close primary races for Congress in the Reno-based 2nd District in ’06 and against veteran State Sen. William Raggio in ’08. Although Angle came up on the short end in both contests, she maintains a strong following among grass-roots conservatives — important in a primary that will most likely attract fewer than 250,000 voters.  

The latest Mason-Dixon poll of likely GOP primary voters, finds that Lowden edges Tarkanian by 23% to 21% statewide, with Angle pulling 9%.  

Can anyone guess the eventual Republican nominee against Harry Reid next year? At this point, probably not.  

Exit Strategy

Now that Connecticut Republican Gov. Jodi Rell has announced she is stepping down and five-term Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd still appears on the political ropes in 2010, GOP politics in the state took some major turns last week.  

One of the five major candidates vying for nomination to oppose Dodd opted out of the Senate race and another appeared headed in the same direction. Last week, State Sen. Sam Caliguiri announced he was ending his bid for the Republican Senate nod and switching to a race for the nomination to oppose freshman Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy in the 5th District. A former Waterbury mayor who is considered moderate-to-conservative, Caliguiri will now face five other Republicans for the House nod.  

Another Senate hopeful, millionaire businessman and former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley, told supporters last week that with Rell’s exit, the political landscape had changed dramatically and that he was now considering a bid for governor. Foley, son-in-law of former (1985-89) Republican National Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf, had been spending heavily on television spots more than six months before the next state party convention. At least three other Republicans, all of them middle-road state legislators, have been eyeing a bid for governor since Rell announced her exodus.  

Caliguiri’s “switcheroo” and a similar move by Foley clearly benefits the widely perceived front-runner for the Senate nomination, former Rep. (2000-06) Rob Simmons. By most accounts, the Air Force veteran and former CIA operative is likely to win more than 50% of the convention votes and thus have its official endorsement for the Senate. However, should either of his two remaining opponents — World Wrestling Federation head Linda McMahon or venture capitalist Peter Schiff — win support from more than 15% of the convention delegates, she or he could force a primary against Simmons (lifetime ACU rating: 55%) later in the summer. Both McMahon and Schiff have vast personal wealth and would be formidable candidates in a primary race.