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Outside funding crucial to race

That "Chickens for Checkups" ad, which pokes fun at Sue Lowden for saying people can barter with doctors, should wear a union label or maybe a Democratic Party bumper sticker. Most of the $300,000 spent so far on the sharp TV attack comes from U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s biggest backers, who are seeing some success in tearing down his toughest Republican foe and influencing the GOP primary.

And those $300,000 in campaign ads calling Sharron Angle the best conservative choice in the U.S. Senate race — according to the Tea Party movement fighting the political establishment — should come with an asterisk: * paid for by a Republican political action committee.

The Democratic Party front group Patriot Majority and the GOP-linked Our Country Deserves Better PAC are together moving rapidly toward the $1 million spending mark to sway Nevada voters, suddenly pouring far more money into the U.S. Senate race than any of the dozen GOP contenders.

"The candidates are no longer in charge of the election message," said Craig Holman, a campaign finance expert at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group in Washington. "Now it’s outside groups, corporations and unions that will be electing our representatives. This is devastating for democracy."

The flood of outside spending in the final weeks of the campaign wouldn’t have been possible in the past. But in January, a U.S. Supreme Court decision threw out donor limits on such third party groups and said they had a free speech right to spend in federal races right up to Election Day. The main caveat: The groups can’t coordinate their campaigns and messages with the candidates.

In Nevada, the moneyed outsiders are shaking up the race, playing a game-changing role that could help determine the state’s next U.S. senator, or keep Reid in his powerful job.

Since the third party ads began a couple weeks ago, Lowden has been in a downward spiral in the polls and Angle has skyrocketed, while the other top contender, Danny Tarkanian, remains a threat.

The Democrats and Reid appear most afraid of Lowden, viewed as more moderate than Angle and able to raise more money, as a Nov. 2 general election opponent and are trying to make sure she doesn’t emerge as the nominee. The Republicans, meanwhile, view Angle as the purest conservative in the race in a year in which the party is moving to the right.

Lowden campaign manager Robert Uithoven said Nevadans won’t be swayed by the outsiders.

"Republican voters are not going to allow Harry Reid and the SEIU to determine the outcome of our Republican primary," Uithoven said, referring to the Service Employees International Union that’s helping fund the Patriot Majority ads. "I think voters will see through that and not buy it."

But three weeks before the June 8 primary, the ads are having an effect.

A new Review-Journal poll shows Lowden getting 30 percent of the likely Republican primary vote if the election were held today, Angle 25 percent and Tarkanian 22 percent, with 18 percent undecided. That’s a double-digit drop for Lowden and a double-digit lift for Angle from a month ago. The Mason-Dixon survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

David Bossie, president of Citizens United, the conservative, limited government group that won the Supreme Court case, said outside groups and big money kingmakers have always influenced elections, but now corporations, unions and other advocacy groups can spend as much as they want as long as they disclose where it’s coming from.

"The answer to speech you don’t like is more speech, not less," said Bossie. His Political Victory Fund endorsed Angle and donated the maximum $5,000 to her primary campaign, a limit that still applies for direct PAC donations to candidates and political parties. "More people have an opportunity to voice their opinions."

As an example, Bossie points to the Tea Party Express, which has spent $300,000 so far to promote Angle in TV and radio ads in Nevada. It also plans to increase its $500,000 fundraising goal for her now that polls show the former Reno assemblywoman’s campaign taking off and challenging Lowden’s.

The Tea Party Express plans to target voter-rich Las Vegas in upcoming ads to increase Angle’s name recognition in Clark County, the group’s political director Bryan Shroyer said.

"Our goal is to be on the air continuously through the primary and go heavy in Southern Nevada where we can make a difference," Shroyer said. "One of the reasons we decided to endorse her is so people will understand that she’s the right conservative candidate to take on Harry Reid."

The Angle campaign itself is running ads only on conservative radio, about $15,000 worth right now, a blip in the blizzard of campaign commercials hitting the airwaves.

Most of the Tea Party Express money for Angle has come from individuals giving $50 to $100 after getting near-daily e-mail pleas from the group, although contributions are mostly from out of state. The group’s PAC, Our Country Deserves Better, was launched in 2008 by long-time Republican operative Sal Russo to help John McCain’s failed GOP presidential campaign. (Many Tea Party types don’t consider McCain a staunch enough conservative these days.)

Russo said he began working with Tea Party Express to return conservatives to the Republican Party, saying they had to take back the GOP before taking back the country from the Democratic Party that now controls the White House and both the Senate and the House.

On the opposite side, the Patriot Majority is a Democratic Party shop led by Craig Varoga, a former spokesman for Reid and a key strategist in the party’s national efforts to retain power.

A report filed with the Federal Election Commission this past week shows Varoga’s group has raised $993,750 since January 2009, most of it from powerful workers groups such as the Service Employees International Union, the Ironworkers Political Education Fund and the Sheet Metal Workers Political Education Fund, as well as gaming operators behind Harrah’s and Station casinos. The Patriot Majority list mirrors Reid campaign supporters in a race where he plans to spend $25 million.

"A little more than $300,000 has been spent on two weeks of ads highlighting Lowden’s ludicrous and out-of-touch policy position of bartering chickens for health care," Varoga said in an e-mail reply to questions about his group’s involvement in the race. "Patriot Majority intends to continue with our independent issue ads throughout the month of May, then through June and beyond."

The "Chickens for Checkup" ad makes fun of Lowden’s defense of her bartering comments, which she explained by noting people used to trade chickens for health care in the old days. The commercial shows on-the-street interviews with several people, shaking their heads in disbelief.

"Sounds like a joke," said one man.

"She is divorced from reality," another adds.

Because of the ad, Lowden was forced to answer with a TV ad last week, knocking the casino executive off the main message of her campaign: that she’s a businesswoman who created thousands of jobs and made payroll as she and her husband ran four properties.

In her ad, Lowden accused her opponents of lies and taking her comments "out of context." She then playfully unplugs two TVs, one running the health care attack ad and the other running a TV spot from Tarkanian, who criticized her for contributing to Reid’s 1980s campaigns as Reid rose to power.

Lowden campaign manager Uithoven said the Republican hopes to regain a stronger lead as early voting begins May 22, partly by launching a new round of TV ads with a six-figure media buy.

Lowden is getting some help from a third-party player as well. The Susan B. Anthony List has run $50,000 in ads with the anti-abortion group touting its endorsement of Lowden. The organization said it is prepared to spend up to $1 million to help the former state senator win the U.S. Senate race.

Tarkanian, a Las Vegas businessman, also is on the air with TV ads, including one aimed at the anti-illegal immigration vote in which he says he wants to crack down on border security and cut off benefits such as free education and health care in some cases.

John Chachas, a Wall Street investor and Ely native, is running TV ads as well, most focused on how he could fix the economy, cut federal spending and reduce the nation’s growing deficit.

But none of the candidates media buys is as large as the third-party groups.

Holman of Public Citizen in Washington said the increased third-party involvement in federal races has lowered the level of political discourse with most outsiders running attack ads.

"What you’re going to see is a lot of negative ads and no sense of restraint," Holman said. "These outside groups are going to become very decisive in elections around the country, especially the important ones. And the Harry Reid race is one of the most important."

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.

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