LAS VEGAS--The expensive, bitter, and high-stakes Senate showdown between Democrat Harry Reid and conservative crusader Sharron Angle amounts to a confrontation between organization and outrage, clout and ardor.
As he seeks his fifth term, Reid, the Senate majority leader, is selling above all his ability to direct government help to his struggling state (such as a pristine new recreational shooting range on the desert's edge he proudly toured last weekend). Republican Angle is promising to tear up government by the roots. He talks about what he has delivered for Nevada. She has talked about phasing out Social Security and Medicare, and insists that the Education and Energy departments, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, are not only intrusive but unconstitutional. His supporters talk with cold calculation about the tangible benefits of reelecting him; her fans bubble with primal passion about the symbolic statement of removing him.
If Angle has ignited grassroots conservatives, she has terrified much of the state's business and political leadership.
Angle's uncompromising opinions have positioned her directly in the jet stream of the conservative backlash raging this year against a Democratic-led Washington that Reid embodies. Her campaign announced this week that she had raised a jaw-dropping $14 million over the past three months. And no one doubts which candidate enjoys greater grassroots enthusiasm.
The intensity, and occasionally dark overtones, of that fervor were on display last Saturday when Angle made a rare campaign appearance with Heidi Harris, a local conservative talk radio host. The rally's location was improbable: a martini bar south of the downtown Strip, where waitresses shrink-wrapped into lavender bustiers knifed through the crowd with cocktails while Angle talked about how often she read the Bible. (In Las Vegas, it's possible that barely dressed waitresses qualify as a traditional value.) Angle herself is an unlikely rabble-rouser, with an intermittently trembling voice and all the kinetic force of a community-college instructor.
But if Angle's presence is muted, her words are militant, and at the rally a virtually all-white standing-room crowd roared at every missile she fired at federal taxes, spending, and regulation. The room literally shook when she pledged that "the repeal of Obamacare" would be her top priority. When Angle, who is running racially incendiary ads condemning Reid on illegal immigration, somewhat oddly mused that a large lake along the Texas-Mexico boundary could frustrate attempts to seal the border, one man yelled, "Fill it with piranhas!" Shortly after Angle finished, John Fornof, a supervisor at a concrete company who has lived in the state for nearly three decades, marveled at the excitement around him. "I have never seen as much [Republican] energy as there's been this year," he said. "It's probably the best thing [President] Obama has done."
But if Angle has ignited grassroots conservatives, she has terrified much of the state's business and political leadership, which has flocked to Reid. That list includes prominent Republicans such as Sig Rogich, the veteran GOP ad-maker; Jim Murren, the CEO of giant MGM Mirage; Bill Raggio, the GOP state Senate leader; and even singer Wayne Newton. Brian Greenspun, publisher of the Reid-leaning Las Vegas Sun, says that the state's business leadership has lined up with "far more intense" support for Reid than ever before, partly because of distaste for Angle but largely because Nevada so badly needs his influence as it weathers a housing collapse and casino slowdown that has sent unemployment soaring past 14 percent. "It's nearly unanimous," Greenspun says.
Beyond that institutional support, Democrats have also built what Reid, perhaps over-exuberantly, describes as "the best [state-level] ground operation in the history of the country" to turn out their vote. He is also being backed as well by the usual exhaustive effort of the powerful Culinary Workers Union, which represents casino workers and has dispatched more than 100 of them to contact union households for Reid. "People are mad ... but they know with her it is going to be worse," said Alfonso Gonzalez, a Paris Hotel cook, after completing a door-knocking shift.
In all these ways, Reid is stockpiling sandbags with methodical effectiveness. And he may benefit from a ballot crowded with independents (plus a none-of-the-above option) that Rogich says could allow Reid, who has made a career of precarious victories, to win with just 47 percent or even 46 percent of the vote. Reid's fortifications appear sturdy, but in such a volatile year they are inevitably built on sand. No one can guarantee that the wave propelling Angle won't rise above them.
This article appears in the October 16, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.