SEARCHLIGHT -- Sanford and Marilyn Shuler are caught in the middle.
On one side of their Coyote Mines property is Sen. Harry Reid's place.
On the other is the site of a Tea Party Express rally coming Saturday, a sort of conservative mini-Woodstock in the desert that organizers expect to draw 5,000 to 10,000 people -- maybe more -- from across the country, most of whom want to end the career of Nevada's most powerful politician.
And Marilyn Shuler, 83, and her 93-year-old husband don't like it one bit.
"I think it's an insult to have something like this right in Senator Reid's hometown," said Marilyn Shuler, who wrote a March 1 letter to Reid complaining the event will have a "negative impact" on him and the town.
"It's a slap in the face and he doesn't deserve that. They could have picked a better piece of land."
In contrast, Diane Kendall, the local real estate agent who helped pin down the private property for the "Showdown in Searchlight," embodies the townsfolk who aren't so fond of Reid and support the Tea Party movement's efforts to elect conservatives who believe less government is better government.
"I agree with what the Tea Party people are doing," Kendall said as she surveyed the desolate 160-acre site off an unmarked gravel road where dozens of lonely Joshua trees, sagebrush and various desert critters will soon be joined by thousands of sun-washed spectators and hundreds of RVs, buses, trucks and cars. "It's time for Americans to stand up. It's time for the people to wake up.''
Tiny Searchlight, like the nation, is deeply riven more than a year after President Barack Obama's election and as top Senate Democrat Reid pushes through bank and industry bailouts and health care reform that have proven unpopular among Americans still struggling in the economic recession.
That Reid, whose grandfather came to Searchlight more than a century ago, lacks unwavering support in his own hometown demonstrates the uphill climb he faces to win a fifth Senate term, weighed down by a Washington agenda.
"The town is divided," said Justice of the Peace Stan Colton, whose great-grandfather founded Searchlight, which has more than 500 registered voters and more than 1,000 citizens in the town itself and its environs. "There are a lot of people who aren't content with government right now. I think this Tea Party has its time for sure. There's a certain amount of dissatisfaction. But I think by and large everyone here thinks of Harry Reid like their family. And you don't say anything against your family."
Although sometimes you do if you're angry enough.
"I think this Tea Party is just great and these people in Washington have no concept of what things cost because they get everything for free," said John Maslanka, a porter at the Searchlight Nugget, where the owner is one of Reid's strongest local supporters and has known his family for years. "Communist China has more capitalism than we have right now. I think it's time for a change."
one for the books
Whatever happens, the "Showdown in Searchlight" is expected to be an event for the Nevada history books, a political happening on par with presidential visits that have attracted thousands, according to Guy Rocha, former state archivist. He said Nevada used to be a political backwater but has become more relevant of late, thanks to the early Nevada caucuses in 2008 that gave Obama a boost to the White House and because of the attention that Reid has drawn, both positive and negative.
"This will certainly be the biggest event that Searchlight's ever known," Rocha said.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a Tea Party darling and failed GOP vice presidential running mate of John McCain in 2008, is the big draw as keynote speaker for the high noon, 90-minute rally that's expected to get national and international attention.
Reid seems to be taking the Tea Party tempest in stride.
"Searchlight doesn't get many tourists so I'm glad they are choosing to bring all their out-of-state money to my hometown," he said last Friday in a statement to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "The influx of money will do the town some good. I encourage everyone to drop by the Nugget to say hello to Verlie and grab a 10-cent cup of coffee."
Verlie Doing, 86, who built the Searchlight Nugget with her husband in the late 1970s, said she thinks the Tea Party Express event will be good for business and she likes the movement's populist message. But she plans to hold a Reid rally that same day in her parking lot to show support for the embattled senator.
Doing, a bit stooped but full of vigor, points to a picture on the casino wall of a sideburned Reid during his campaign for lieutenant governor, when at 29 he was the youngest to win the statewide office.
"I think that coming into his hometown to level on him is not fair," said Doing, shaking her head and then shrugging it off. "But I like the Tea Party because it's for people who want to have a voice. There are a lot of people who feel they are ignored. I hate to say it as a Democrat, but I kind of like Sarah Palin, too. I like her ideas. She seems simple and seems like a clear thinker."
Besides Palin, other advertised speakers include a bevy of conservative TV and radio talk show stars and columnists, including Jerry Doyle, Roger Hedgecock, Andrea Shea King and Andrew Breitbart; "Joe the Plumber," or Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, who confronted Obama during his presidential campaign; 2008 Libertarian vice presidential candidate Wayne Allyn Root; Victoria Jackson, a former "Saturday Night Live" comedian; as well as ACORN video sting journalist Hannah Giles.
Many of the two dozen candidates seeking Reid's Senate seat also plan to join the Tea Party lineup as the Republican contenders, including GOP front-runner Sue Lowden, Danny Tarkanian and Sharron Angle, furiously compete for support from the movement and its potential swing voters, who could be key in both the June 8 GOP primary and the Nov. 2 general election.
Tarkanian, a businessman and former UNLV basketball star, recently won the backing of Palin's father, Chuck Heath, who cut a radio campaign commercial for him. Former Reno Assemblywoman Angle's first radio ad featured an invitation for Tea Party patriots to join her in Searchlight. And former state Sen. Lowden has been courting conservatives in the movement, as well, by attending their events.
Lowden, for example, plans to head a campaign bus convoy Saturday morning from Laughlin to Searchlight nearly 40 miles north, leading one or two buses with dozens of supporters paying $28 a seat.
One Senate contender who plans to crash the party is Jon Scott Ashjian, a Las Vegas businessman running under the "Tea Party of Nevada" banner that he and his supporters registered with the state, though local and national leaders of the movement said they had never heard of him.
Gov. Jim Gibbons, who's also facing a difficult re-election, is another top Republican who has announced he's coming to join the Tea Party event.
Kendall, the real estate agent, said the town is buzzing with anticipation: "It will put Searchlight on the map."
You'll need a map to find it, too. If you blink you might miss the 13-square-mile town on U.S. Highway 95, though the speed limit drops to 25 mph and the rhythm is decidedly slow.
"I moved here from California and it's quite the culture change," said Janice Miller who works at an RV park while her husband has a job at one of the gas stations. "I like it because it's quiet, but sometimes it's a hassle. You can't even buy fresh meat in town for the spaghetti sauce. You have to do most of your food shopping in Henderson or Laughlin or even Las Vegas."
About 55 miles south of Las Vegas, Searchlight has no stoplight and no real grocery store. It has two small casinos --Terrible's and the Nugget -- several gas stations, a McDonald's, an elementary school named for Reid, a senior center, a community center, library and museum, a volunteer fire station, a church, a cemetery where Reid used to dig graves with his father, a bait shop, several RV parks and hundreds of homes that are mostly double-wide trailers or modular houses.
A week before the event, all the nearby RV parks are full, the only motel in town -- the 21-room El Rey -- has been booked for weeks, and the 10,000 rooms in Laughlin's 10 hotels and motels about 40 miles south were filling up, thanks to the Tea Party event and the start of spring break for universities.
"I'm not political, but this is interesting to me because it's exciting for the town," said Marie Stowers, manager of the El Rey, the motel that shares the name of the town's most famous old bordello, which burned down about half a century ago.
Las Vegas police plan to send both plainclothes and uniformed officers to the event, but aren't saying how many for security reasons. The Clark County town has only one holding cell and no policemen, and people who are arrested are usually sent to Las Vegas.
The Department of Transportation is preparing for extra traffic and the Nevada Highway Patrol said it is ready to help if there are accidents or other emergencies.
The Spartan event site is about three miles from Reid's house on a hill and 2.3 miles north of town, or two-tenths of a mile before the Coyote Mine Road leading to the Shulers' place. The Tea Party organizers and Google maps use that road as a landmark, which prompted the Shulers' complaints.
"I've had people driving up in RVs asking if this is where the Tea Party is," Marilyn Shuler said, adding that the many mining sites around the property could be a danger if people take a desert stroll. "You know, I believe that Senator Reid's dad used to work in some of those mines."
The rally area is in front of the Startel Inc. gravel pit and has been graded to level the sand over an area of about 300-by-300 feet. A truck stage will likely be set up between two prickly Joshua trees, according to organizers. About 30 portable toilets have been ordered -- which can accommodate more than 6,300 people -- and there's a place set aside for RV and vehicle parking.
"We'll do our best to handle everybody," said Kendall who, like other organizers, didn't know exactly how many people to expect, though about 10,000 have RSVP'd on the Tea Party Facebook site.
T.D. Barnes, a retired electronics engineer who lives in Henderson, owns the land and said he agreed to allow the Tea Party Express to rally there as a community service and not for political reasons. Still, the registered Republican said he doesn't plan to vote for Reid this year, though he has in the past.
"I'm not too happy with the senator right now, or any of them in Washington," Barnes said, citing the health care issue. He said he would probably back Lowden in the election. He used to know and do business with her husband, Paul, who with his wife operated several casino properties in Southern Nevada for many years.
reid expected to formally launch bid
In early April, the 70-year-old Reid is expected to formally launch his bid for re-election in a tour starting in his hometown, according to local folks in the know, though his campaign won't confirm any plans. Early polls show him in electoral trouble, running behind his top potential GOP competitors and unable to get much more than 40 percent support from potential voters.
Reid, whose wit can be as dry as the surrounding Mojave Desert, has described his birthplace as "in the middle of nowhere," a more bust than boom mining town launched by an 1897 gold strike, sustained for decades by a lively prostitution business that served military and Hoover Dam construction workers in the 1930s and 1940s, and surviving now on tourists and constant drive-through traffic.
More than $6 million worth of gold, silver, copper and lead have been pulled from the ground in Searchlight, mostly in the first decade after the turn of the century, according to Reid's 1998 book, "Searchlight. The camp that didn't fail." The population peaked at 3,000 in its heyday.
In recent years, Reid helped get federal funds to widen the highway that runs from Las Vegas and through Searchlight from two lanes to four to accommodate all the big rig traffic, and separately tens of millions of dollars to dig wells and build a water treatment plant to counter high arsenic levels.
Reid's grandfather, John, came to Searchlight in 1902, stayed until 1910, then returned more than a decade later. The senator was born in December 1939 when the town was not much more than dust and railroad tie shacks. His father, Harry, was a hard-rock miner and a drunk who sometimes hit his mother. Reid, a former boxer who got into street fights, too, calls the experience character building.
"I am here as a witness to say that character, and values, come from places you wouldn't necessarily think to look," Reid wrote in "Searchlight." "Because some of the men and women of greatest character that I will ever meet in my life came from this place of hard rocks and inhospitable soil.''
The national Tea Party organizers said they chose the old mining town to launch a three-week cross-country tour to Washington, D.C., to deliver a message to Reid that's it's time for the Senate majority leader to retire. And they wanted to get national attention for their main message: It's time for people to take back the country from the Democratic Party and politicians in power.
"We decided that if somebody like Harry Reid is going to get into our personal business and tell us what to do, we're going to get personal with him," said Tiffany Rudegner, the Sacramento-based field organizer of the "Showdown in Searchlight" who said the Tea Party movement is tired of government attempts to tell Americans what's best for them when it comes to issues such as health care.
"We want to send a message to every public servant in this country that we're the ones who put them where they are. And if they're going to get personal with us, we're going to get personal with them."
The Tea Party Express is raising money to defeat Reid and other candidates with the "Just Vote Them Out Tour" traveling through two dozen states, ending April 15 in the nation's capital on Tax Day.
Levi Russell, a spokesman for the national organization, said it has spent $300,000 so far in the Senate race in Nevada and the group is hoping to turn rally-cry words into ballot box results in 2010.
"The first six or seven or eight months we were all about the rallies," Russell said of the early days of organizing at the start of 2009. "It was amazing because conservatives were out making signs and rallying, and that's not what they normally do. They usually go home to their families. That energy has started to be directed into action."
As political events go, however, the Searchlight showdown is more symbolism than substance, said Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. He believes most analysts overstate the potential effect the Tea Party movement might have on Election Day because it consists of an eclectic group of people from all parties and all walks of life who don't agree on much, except perhaps a hatred of taxes and a love of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers.
"These are activists, but it's hard to say they have a single agenda or a united campaign and that undercuts their clout," he said. "Ask them who they want instead of Reid and you'll get different answers."
A lot of disenchanted American voters these days are like Debbie Burns and husband Michael, a house divided, a couple who have seen rough economic times after moving back to Searchlight, where they've come and gone over 30 years. She works at the General Merchandise Store that advertises "liquor and slots" and he's an unemployed painter, one man among Nevada's 13 percent jobless. She voted for Obama and he voted for McCain. She has supported Reid before, he admires Palin.
Now an independent, Burns doesn't know whether she'll back Reid again in November.
"I voted for Obama and I thought we'd see some changes, but I've been disappointed," Burns said. "I was unemployed for some time and this little store saved my life. So I don't know who I'll support."
Reid has welcomed the entry of the Tea Party and multiple candidates from multiple parties in his race, but one reason might be that a divided electorate could splinter the vote, ceding the race to the incumbent who has said he's ready to spend a record $25 million to keep his Senate seat.
A recent poll by the Las Vegas Review-Journal bears this out, showing that a Tea Party candidate could get 18 percent of the vote and the GOP nominee 32 percent, leaving Reid a winning 36 percent.
So the "Showdown in Searchlight" could end up helping Reid as much as hurting him.
"The people of Nevada know me. I'm not going to change who I am," Reid said March 8 when he filed for re-election, noting he doesn't follow modern-day blogs and cable TV shows that provide second-by-second coverage of his ups and downs. "I'm the same person today that I used to be."
Contact Laura Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2919.