Sharron Angle's surge in the U.S. Senate primary contest has created a rift within the Republican Party, with key establishment players unhappy that the Tea Party-backed conservative might upset their handpicked favorite, Sue Lowden, GOP insiders say.
Some Republicans even have threatened privately to support Democratic incumbent Harry Reid in the fall if Angle on June 8 wins the nomination, so great is the consternation in traditional GOP circles, where Lowden, the former party chairwoman, enjoys considerable support.
Reno state Sen. Bill Raggio, the longest serving lawmaker in Nevada and a moderate Republican who has worked across the aisle with Democrats, strongly backs Lowden, a former state senator, and harbors deep distrust of Angle, a former Reno assemblywoman who nearly beat him two years ago.
Running on her no-tax hike record, Angle challenged the Senate minority leader in the primary and after her loss didn't endorse Raggio in the general election, to the dismay of the GOP establishment.
"Anything's possible with so many people in the race, but if Angle's the GOP candidate there would be a lot of supporters who would turn to Reid," Raggio said Thursday in an interview. "All I can tell you is when she lost the race to me, I never heard from her. She was not a gracious loser."
Raggio demurred when asked whether he would back the Democratic incumbent, who has a list of Republicans for Reid filled with long-time lobbyists and backers from gaming and other industries.
"I'm not going to bite on that," Raggio said. Regarding the divisive primary where a dozen Republicans are vying for the nomination, Raggio said, "I think it's not good for any of them."
A state GOP insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss candid talk among party figures, said the Angle surge has taken many Republicans by surprise, and they worry the conservative isn't the best choice to carry the party mantle and reach out to independent and Democratic voters.
"There are a lot of Republican insiders who believe Sharron's going to win this thing. And there aren't very many people in the elected Republican establishment who like her," the insider said.
That's not news to Angle, who has sometimes been the lone "no" vote on taxes and spending. And that could help her in the nationwide anti-incumbent and anti-establishment atmosphere of 2010.
"I've always been up against establishment politics as usual in both parties," Angle said Thursday. "But the focus of this race is not to attack one another. It's to go after Harry Reid."
At the national level, Republican leaders officially are staying out of the primary wrestling match but privately pushing for Lowden. They also see her as the best potential general election foe to face Reid because she is a proven money raiser, has GOP ties in the state and nationally, and is more moderate than Angle, whose Reno district is one of the most conservative in Nevada.
But the Washington GOP establishment also sees the closely contested primary as an important testing ground for Lowden, who like Angle enjoys support from members of the Tea Party movement.
"If Sue Lowden can't beat Sharron Angle in the primary, then clearly she's not the sharpest candidate for the general," a GOP strategist said. "Tough primaries can be a good thing."
Former governor Robert List, the national Republican committeeman, is a big Lowden supporter, although like many other GOP establishment figures, he hasn't officially endorsed her, mostly because of protocol.
List said he hasn't heard talk of Republicans saying they would jump to Reid if Angle won the primary, and he believes that most will in the end support the GOP nominee.
"While most of us will be glad to have the primary behind us, I think you'll see real coming together no matter who wins," List said. "It's possible there will be an upset. Sharron is a tireless campaigner. But Sue has a good organization and a good ground game. It's going to be a very close race."
Mark Amodei, the new Nevada Republican Party chairman, also expressed confidence he can bring the fighting factions together after the primary in order to defeat Reid, who polls show could be beaten by Lowden, Angle or Danny Tarkanian, who remains a primary contender.
"Regardless of who wins the primary, the question becomes, does your dislike of the primary outcome exceed the need to make a change in Washington and vote Reid out?" Amodei asked. "While a lot of people thrive on drama, and this is political drama, we'll know who won in a couple of weeks.
"And then the challenge is to elect whoever the Republican is."
The situation in Nevada mirrors the Republican divide across the country, from Utah to Kentucky to Florida, where GOP establishment candidates are being pushed aside by voters in favor of outsiders such as Angle. She skyrocketed in the polls after winning the Tea Party Express endorsement April 15, and after the group's political action committee began running radio and TV ads to promote her, spending $300,000 so far with a goal of raising more than $500,000 by June 8.
This week, the fiscally conservative Club for Growth also endorsed Angle and promised to raise money to help her as they did in 2006 when she lost the GOP primary to Rep. Dean Heller by 428 votes. The group raised $900,000 for Angle last time and pledged to go all in again this time, too.
As Angle has risen with money-bomb boosts from outside, Lowden's star has fallen, shot down by the Democratic Party, the Reid campaign and groups aligned with them. Critics have attacked her for suggesting people can barter for health care and accused her of violating campaign finance laws by using a donor's luxury RV to travel the state. Lowden in response has said that the bus is legally leased.
Lowden's campaign clearly sees Angle as the major threat. On Thursday, it went up with an attack ad that criticizes her for voting twice to raise lawmakers' salaries in the Nevada Legislature. One bill failed, however, and the other was a ballot measure that voters rejected, so Angle didn't benefit.
The TV spot also tries to associate Angle, a Southern Baptist, with Scientology, the self-help style religion that critics call a cult. In 2003, Angle suggested Nevada explore an anti-drug program for prisoners that uses massages and saunas to help with detox, a method that's similar to Scientology therapy. Her Democratic opponents pointed that out at the time, killing the idea and smearing Angle.
Meanwhile, the Tea Party Express, which has made ousting Reid its No. 1 goal in the 2010 mid-term elections, is stepping up its support of Angle. It issued a formal request Thursday for Tarkanian to get out of the race and leave the outsider field to Angle to ensure her GOP primary victory. The group cited polls showing Tarkanian, a businessman and former University of Nevada, Las Vegas basketball player, slipping "into third place and dropping."
"Danny Tarkanian has been a strong supporter of the Tea Party movement, and he can best help this movement by ending his campaign for U.S. Senate," said Bryan Shroyer, political director for the Tea Party Express, who noted Angle had racked up all the major conservative endorsements.
The Tarkanian campaign responded with some heat, saying the Tea Party Express is tied to long-time GOP consultants who just want to make money off the anti-big government movement.
"The Tea Party Express is leading the corporatization of the Tea Party movement, and it's distasteful," said Jamie Fisfis, a California-based consultant of the Tarkanian campaign.
In an odd political twist, Angle's surprising rise has been embraced by those who support Reid, with the state Democratic Party on Thursday referring to Angle as the GOP frontrunner, suggesting Democrats see Angle as easier to defeat than Lowden.
The Patriot Majority, a Democratic Party front group led by former Reid staffer Craig Varoga, issued a poll it commissioned that shows Angle in the lead of a race that has tightened since the group began running a $300,000 TV ad campaign against Lowden several weeks ago.
The findings of the push-button telephone survey show Angle with 29 percent support, followed by Lowden at 26 percent and Tarkanian at 24 percent. The results could be suspect, however, because of the source and the methodology. The findings track with other surveys showing Angle rising and Lowden falling. The May 12-16 survey of 651 Republican primary voters had a 3.8 percentage point margin of error.
A poll commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal a week ago was the first to reveal the game-changing Angle surge. The Mason-Dixon survey of 500 likely Republican voters showed Lowden had 30 percent of the primary vote, Angle 25 percent and Tarkanian 22 percent. That marked a 20-point leap for Angle from a month earlier and a double-digit drop for Lowden.
Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919.