Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle celebrated a spectacular victory Tuesday, one fueled by conservative groups hellbent on defeating Democratic incumbent Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader.
"We're taking our country back," an exuberant Angle shouted in a 10-minute victory speech at a unity gathering of several hundred Republicans at The Orleans after trouncing her top two GOP primary opponents, Sue Lowden and Danny Tarkanian, who said they would help her campaign.
"They were ready to be true patriots," Angle said, just hours after both her Republican foes argued in their final pitch for votes that the former Reno assemblywoman couldn't beat Reid because she's too conservative to pull in independents and moderates. "They're joining the team."
Angle said she was certain Republicans would unite around the shared goal of defeating Reid, and her call was answered with chants from the crowd hundreds strong of "Dump Harry Reid! Dump Harry Reid!"
"We need to say to Harry Reid, you have failed and you are fired," Angle said, arguing he and the Democrats need to cut back on out- of-control spending and she's ready to go head-to-head with the incumbent. "We're ready for the debate: Come on, Harry, let's talk about the issues."
Angle, 60, dominated the field of a dozen GOP candidates with 40 percent of the vote, followed by Lowden with 26 percent and Tarkanian with 23 percent. Reid, who faced nominal competition from three Democratic challengers, won his primary with 75 percent of the vote.
Reid, 70, in a statement put out by his campaign, said he looked forward to the general election.
"This election presents voters with a clear choice on who will stand up for Nevada's families," Reid said, adding, "I am working to create good-paying jobs in our state by investing in Nevada's clean energy resources. I have been leading the fight to protect consumers by taking on Big Oil and Wall Street. And I am proud of the reform we passed to help make health care more affordable for all Nevadans."
Reid didn't mention Angle, but the Nevada Democratic Party called her "dangerous" and "wacky," telegraphing the main lines of attack her opponents will use against the Tea Party darling.
"Sharron Angle is a right-wing ideologue whose dangerous ideas include wiping out Social Security and giving prisoners massages," said Phoebe Sweet, communications director for the Nevada State Democratic Party. "With Sharron Angle as the Republican nominee, the choice facing voters in November couldn't be clearer: Nevada has never needed Senator Harry Reid more."
Angle's landslide victory over Lowden came after a stunning, six-week reversal of fortunes as Angle's star rose while Lowden, the former state GOP chairwoman and establishment pick, fell into a downward spiral that started in April when she began committing a series of gaffes.
Angle beat Lowden across Nevada, even in Clark County, the former TV newscaster and casino executive's stronghold where her campaign expected her to do the best.
Tarkanian went down in his third election defeat, failing to gain enough traction with voters despite his famous name -- his father is legendary basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian -- and efforts to capitalize on Lowden's fall and GOP insider concerns that Angle's too far right to win a general election.
A radiant Angle basked in her sudden political celebrity. She was mobbed by a throng of supporters with flashing cameras in Reno before she celebrated in Las Vegas, where she thanked her supporters and her family, and said, "First, I want to say thank you to God. This was an amazing campaign."
Angle said she expected a surge of interest from voters around the country who don't approve of the job Reid is doing leading the Senate, which is pushing President Barack Obama's agenda.
"They may not be able to vote for me but they can send me money," said Angle, who was surrounded by her husband, Ted, her daughter and a granddaughter when she met Reno supporters.
Tarkanian and Lowden each offered some level of support to Angle.
"Tonight I have no regrets," Lowden said, speaking at the View 215 restaurant before a crowd of about 200 supporters and campaign staffers, some of whom were in tears. "I just called Sharron Angle and congratulated her for winning the Republican primary and I wished her well."
Lowden said the voters had spoken "and I accept their decision," adding she would return to private life and her family, who joined her on stage. "We fell short tonight, but it isn't because of a lack of effort."
At The Orleans Republican gathering, Tarkanian said, "I fully support Sharron Angle. I'll do whatever we can to see her win. I'll do my part -- whatever she asks us to do."
Clark County GOP Party Chairman Bob Ruckman urged Republicans to get behind the conservative candidates in a year in which anti-incumbent feelings are sweeping the nation.
"Now is the time to come together. Now is the time to work towards Americanism and conservative principles and values," Ruckman told a cheering crowd gathered to celebrate the GOP winners.
That's what the Republican Party is hoping for as it moves to raise money and rally around the GOP nominee following a brutal primary that leaves Angle vulnerable to Reid and his Democratic allies, who are fighting to ensure the Senate's most powerful lawmaker wins a fifth term.
"Obviously, there's some healing to do," said Nevada Republican Party Chairman Mark Amodei. "But we need to put the focus back on Harry Reid unless we want six more years of the guy who's driving the bus and taking us over the cliff with trillion-dollar deficits and a health care law Nevadans don't like."
Angle and the Tea Party Express, whose April 15 Tax Day endorsement rocketed her from 5 percent support in opinion polls to her shocking primary victory, dismissed arguments she can't beat Reid, saying critics called the GOP icon and late President Ronald Reagan too conservative, as well.
"There's no such thing" as too conservative, Angle said after evoking Reagan. "We want to take our country back to those constitutional principles."
Until her campaign took off, Angle's core support came from Northern and rural Nevada. She wasn't well known in vote-rich Clark County, normally a stronghold for Lowden and Tarkanian, a former University of Nevada, Las Vegas basketball player.
As a result, earlier this year about three in 10 voters didn't know Angle's name, compared with 96 percent who do now, according to a June 1-3 Mason-Dixon poll for the Review-Journal.
In the final days of the primary campaign, both Tarkanian and Lowden contended they were the only Republicans who could beat Reid.
Lowden, a former state senator in the mid-1990s, said she would be the toughest opponent, citing her first election when she beat the state Senate majority leader in a 3-to-1 Democratic district.
"I've proven my ability to defeat entrenched politicians by attracting Republicans, independents and conservative Democrats," Lowden said earlier Tuesday after polls opened. "That's what is required to beat Harry Reid in November, and I'm the only conservative in this race who can do it."
But Reid took Lowden out of contention during the GOP primary as he and the Democratic Party and a front group spent millions of dollars to attack her, including in ads that made fun of her for suggesting people could barter with their doctors for health care.
Lowden never recovered after defending her remarks made during a town hall in rural Mesquite by saying in the old days people even bartered with chickens. Democratic operatives stalked her with live fowl and men dressed in chicken suits at almost every one of her campaign stops.
Now it's Angle's turn to face the Reid and Democratic Party firing squad.
Early Tuesday, Reid tipped his hand on the line of attack he would take against Angle.
Like the Democratic Party, Reid campaign manager Brandon Hall accused Angle of having "dangerous ideas," including eliminating Social Security and the Department of Education and "giving massage and sauna treatments to Nevada's prisoners."
Hall said Angle's former legislative colleagues "call her 'wacky' and have voted her Nevada's worst legislator." In the end, Hall said, the Tea Party favorite's chances of beating Reid are "slim to none."
Angle has suggested getting rid of the Education Department, saying states should have control of schools instead of the federal government. And she has recommended privatizing Social Security, especially for younger workers, a conservative GOP idea that's been around since the Reagan era.
As a state assemblywoman in 2003, Angle suggested Nevada consider an anti-drug program for prisoners that included heat and massage treatment to get rid of toxins and cramps, saying it would save money by helping inmates give up crime. But the Democratic leadership in the Nevada Legislature rejected her idea and tried to portray the Southern Baptist as an oddball by pointing out the program was based on methods developed by the controversial Church of Scientology.
Lowden ran a prison "spa" TV ad against Angle, showing inmates lying on massage tables and being pampered behind bars, but the exaggerated attack didn't seem to hurt Angle much.
Angle's staunch record voting against taxes during her four terms in the Assembly often upset moderate Republican leaders, which is the main reason she said she got low ratings from her legislative colleagues. Angle said she's proud of refusing to go along with the GOP crowd.
"They always try to marginalize me and other conservatives," Angle has said.
Bob Shorey, a moderate on social issues, said he voted for Angle because she's a strong fiscal conservative at a time when the state has 14 percent unemployment and record home foreclosures.
"Things are so messed up you need to get out and vote," Shorey said. "I'd party like crazy if we got rid of Reid."
In Reno, Sandy Masters cast her ballot for Angle but said she was "a little concerned" about whether she would appeal to independent and Democratic voters she would need to defeat Reid. Masters is campaign chairwoman for the Nevada Federation of Republican Women.
"We're talking conservatives on steroids here, some people don't like that," Masters said of Angle, adding that she hoped Angle would "soften up" and become more flexible.
Reid plans to spend up to $25 million to defend his seat, and has already spent $10 million.
Until now, Reid has been using his money to build a huge general election campaign machine and to pay for a series of ads to burnish his rural roots as the son of a hard-rock miner from Searchlight, and to promote the health care law that's not very popular in Nevada or nationwide.
While Reid and the Democrats attack Angle, she'll get plenty of help from national conservative groups and the national Republican Party, which plans to get heavily involved in the race.
"We'll get behind the nominee and do everything we can to defeat Harry Reid," said Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "And I'm sure that every conservative group across the land is going to get involved in this race as well. Reid is our top target."
Angle could not have won without outside help. The Tea Party Express spent nearly $600,000 for her on TV ads and the anti-tax Club for Growth pitched in more then another $600,000 -- spending as much as the candidate herself. The Tea Party Express said it would spend at least $1 million to try to defeat Reid and the Club for Growth is expected to match that and likely spend even more.
Most of Angle's staff are volunteers, and she'll need to ramp up quickly to go against Reid.
The closely watched Cook Political Report has the U.S. Senate race listed as a toss-up, and that rating isn't likely to change anytime soon, according to senior editor Jennifer Duffy, who said Reid's unpopularity is too high at more than 50 percent for him to be safe.
"At the same time, Angle provides him the gift of a lot of opportunity to paint her as way out of the mainstream of Nevada voters," Duffy said. "If (GOP) party members don't come together and try to keep the focus on Reid, he has a better chance to win."
Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919. Reporters Henry Brean, Alan Choate, Richard Lake and Benjamin Spillman contributed to this report.