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Unraveling a dirty trick

Sharron Angle appears only once on the ballot, as she should.

Sen. Harry Reid appears three times. You can vote for Harry Reid as “Harry Reid.” You can vote for Harry Reid as “Scott Ashjian.” And, you can vote for Harry Reid as “None of These Candidates.”

In an election cycle that finds incumbents scampering for their political lives, a 3-on-1 advantage still might not be enough for Harry Reid. He’s a big daddy Congresscritter with a Tea Party target on his back and a 52 percent negative rating around his neck.

Pulling out every trick in the book is Harry’s only chance. With those negatives, he’ll never get enough votes on his own to win. So he must beat up Angle enough to divert some of her voters toward phony Tea Party candidate Scott Ashjian or “None of These Candidates.”

When Ashjian got into the race under the “Tea Party of Nevada” banner, everybody said, “Who’s that?” The Tea Party folks had never heard of him. Republicans had never heard of him. Democrats had never heard of him.

It was speculated, however, that his presence in the race was engineered by the Reid campaign. There were no fingerprints to prove it, but subsequent events provide a big tell. Just follow the money.

The penniless Ashjian campaign has only one asset — a position on the ballot. The Ashjian backers had hoped that by expropriating the name “Tea Party of Nevada,” they could fool some voters into thinking he was the ordained Tea Party choice. In reality, the Tea Party Express endorsed Angle. Unfortunately for Team Ashjian, party affiliation is abbreviated on the ballot. He wanted the abbreviation to be “TEA.” Instead, he got “TPN.”

That doesn’t do much good for the Reid strategy. So then comes Plan B in this political mystery. Ashjian meets with Angle privately. Ashjian secretly tapes the meeting and then leaks it to a Reid-obedient journalist. The Reid campaign virtually simultaneously jumps on the “news” and waves it around like the Nevada equivalent of Watergate. But the story gets no traction because the tape merely shows that Angle says in private what she says in public.

Compared with the kind of back-room deals Reid has brokered in just the past year (the “Cornhusker Kickback,” for example), the tape made Angle look like a refreshing alternative to politics as usual.

When the tape ploy backfired, it was off to Plan C. Enter from stage left the Patriot Majority, a Democratic group founded to fight the Tea Party around the nation.

But oddly enough, the Patriot Majority had spent money to help the Ashjian “Tea Party” in Nevada. It cut TV commercials boosting Ashjian’s candidacy against Angle. That’s how you fund a campaign without donating to the candidate.

It’s also how you find the big tell to the mystery. Who is the head of the Patriot Majority? Craig Varoga. And who is Craig Varoga? The former communications director for … wait for it … Harry Reid.

I don’t think I need to do the Paul Harvey sign-off. You get the picture.

Sherman Frederick (sfrederick@ reviewjournal.com) is publisher of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and president of Stephens Media.

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