In the summer of 2010, Sharron Angle visited with top officials at the National Republican Senatorial Committee in their Washington headquarters. It was the first time the two parties had met, just weeks after Angle had won a surprise upset in Nevada’s Republican Senate primary.
The NRSC leaders wanted to talk about politics and policy with their newly minted nominee, but when the conversation turned to Social Security, they learned they had a big problem. Angle, according to two people in the room, talked about the entitlement program as if its cash reserves were literally stored in a “lockbox,” located in a government facility in West Virginia.
“Her plan to save Social Security was to somehow take all the money that had been quote ‘stolen’ out of the lockbox, and put it back in the lockbox based in West Virginia,” said Brian Walsh, who was then the NRSC’s communications director.
“Obviously, a lot of eyebrows went up.”
Another source who witnessed the exchange but wished to remain anonymous confirmed Walsh’s account. In a statement sent by Angle campaign spokesman Todd Bailey, the candidate didn't deny what happened — but said that she may “have been speaking figuratively as others have.”
“My policy on Social Security has not changed since 2010,” she said. “Senator (Harry) Reid should NOT be able to borrow against it to expand the federal government and promote his Washington DC agenda. We need more Republicans willing to fight for that.”
Asked if she believed that Social Security was stored in a West Virginia lockbox, she said she didn’t and called the suggestion “dorky.”
Angle went on to lose her race against Reid, now the Senate minority leader. It was a stinging defeat against an unpopular incumbent in an otherwise banner year for the Republican party. The recriminations against her candidacy were immediate and fierce — many Republicans panned the former Nevada assemblywoman as a gaffe-prone liability running an amateur campaign.
This year, with Angle yet again seeking the GOP Senate nomination in Nevada, two party officials who worked closest with her campaign in 2010 are coming forward to speak on the record about their experiences. It’s an unusual step: Even though officials running political committees are frequently at odds with candidates, few of them publicly air their grievances — even after races conclude.
But former NRSC officials who worked with Angle say she was such a disastrous candidate that they need to speak up now to save the party from a repeat mistake. In interviews, they describe the former Senate nominee as ignorant of even basic facts about American government and the necessities of a modern campaign.
According to Walsh, Angle's campaign manager didn't check email. Instead, his wife checked it for him and would fax him requests from their home in Missouri to the campaign headquarters in Nevada.
“I don’t want to say she was overwhelmed by the moment, because I don’t think she knew enough to be overwhelmed,” said Rob Jesmer, who served as the NRSC’s executive director in 2010.
Added Walsh: “She’s a perfectly nice person, but when she started talking about policy and politics, it was just evidence she had no idea what she’s talking about.”
Angle was “one of the worst candidates who has ever run for Senate in either party,” the former communications director said.
The 2016 race
Republicans are concerned that Angle — even if she doesn’t win the GOP nomination outright — could hurt the candidacy of Rep. Joe Heck, the establishment favorite ahead of the state’s June 14 primary. Heck is viewed as the party’s top Senate recruit of the 2016 election cycle, the GOP’s best hope to win a Democratic-controlled seat held by the retiring Reid. Democrats are expected to nominate former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, who's vying to become the first Latina in Senate history.
If Angle were to win the nomination, most Republicans would likely write off the race as a Democratic victory almost immediately.
In response to Walsh and Jesmer’s criticism, Angle blasted the NRSC, saying that her campaign did not plan to cooperate with the committee this year.
“As far as NRSC Washington insiders, they did many things in my name in 2010, and we will NOT be using them again,” she said.
She added that it “sounds like they are supporting Thomas Heck,” apparently misidentifying her Republican opponent Joe Heck.
Angle’s penchant for gaffes is well-known. During the campaign, she told a group of Latino school children that they looked Asian. In a radio interview, she said the country might require “Second Amendment” remedies to stop government overreach.
Those gaffes were largely blamed for her defeat to Reid, who won re-election despite his deep unpopularity.
“The way she conducted her campaign ought to be a disqualifier,” Jesmer said.
During that first meeting with NRSC officials back in 2010, Walsh said they didn’t stop Angle when she explained her position on Social Security. It was evident, he said, that it would be just one of many problems they would face.
“People looked around at each other, but there were so many things going on at that moment, it was like, ‘Ok, we’ll get back to this,’” he recalled.