WASHINGTON -- The Republican Party's chief Senate election strategist offered Monday to meet with Tea Party leaders in Nevada in an attempt to blunt a third-party challenge that could hurt the GOP's chances to beat Sen. Harry Reid this fall.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas praised the grass-roots conservative movement at the same time he sought to minimize polls that show Jon Scott Ashjian, or any Nevadan running under a Tea Party banner, drawing double-digit support in a three-way race for U.S. Senate.
The polls show a Tea Party candidate siphoning votes mostly from a Republican candidate and to the benefit of incumbent Democrat Reid, who filed for re-election Monday in Las Vegas. A poll conducted last month for the Review-Journal showed Reid winning a three-party matchup.
Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said he'd like to meet with leaders in Nevada who carry the Tea Party flag, as he did recently in Arkansas.
Cornyn said Republicans on the national level won't get involved until after the June 8 primary in Nevada, but he did not doubt that leading GOP Senate candidates Sue Lowden and Danny Tarkanian are already courting those voters.
The emergence of the Tea Party movement "is a very important and significant development because it shows people who previously had not been very much engaged in politics are taking to the streets and being heard from and want to make sure they are not being overlooked," Cornyn said in a meeting with reporters.
"It is important for Republicans to the extent possible to channel that energy into our primaries because I think third-party races are not good, and I think that generally will happen," he said.
Political professionals are taking measure of the Tea Party movement and its potential to stir the pot in elections this year.
In a column published last week, analyst Stuart Rothenberg said it is too early to speculate about a largely unknown Tea Party candidate in Nevada and that the Senate race rather was shaping up as a referendum on Reid.
Cornyn echoed that Monday. He said that no matter who emerges from the Republican primary, the fall race in Nevada will continue to be all about Reid, the nationally known Senate majority leader who has trailed consistently in polls and who is swimming against an anti-Washington tide.
"Since 2008, he has been trailing every Republican who has been mentioned as a possible opponent," Cornyn said of Reid.
The Nevada Senate race "will be more about Harry Reid than the candidate who ultimately wins the nomination," he said.
"It is hard for me to understand how even with (Reid) spending 10 (million) to 20 million dollars, that people are going to change their minds about Senator Reid," Cornyn said.
Reid campaign manager Brandon Hall responded that the Republican field is weak, and "it's no wonder Cornyn doesn't want the race to focus on whoever his party nominates."
"We suggest Senator Cornyn pay close attention over the next eight months to learn what a winning campaign looks like," Hall said.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760.