Finger-Pointing Begins as Reid Challenger Sags

Posted July 23, 2010 at 6:05pm

Republicans are growing increasingly frustrated with Sharron Angle and her lackluster campaign to unseat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), fearing she is jeopardizing what they had long viewed as a sure pickup and costing them a chance to reclaim the majority.

Senate Republicans quietly acknowledge that Angle’s controversial views on some issues remain a political liability. But the former Nevada Assemblywoman’s larger problems are a progression of unforced errors stemming from a lack of campaign experience and an amateurish staff incapable of offering her the necessary guidance. However, Angle quickly has become a strong fundraiser, corralling
$2.6 million in the second quarter.

Republicans are reluctant to openly criticize Angle, not wanting to cause their nominee more problems. The most recent polling shows Reid ahead in his bid for a fifth term for the first time this campaign cycle. But privately, they concede Angle could lose if she doesn’t learn campaign discipline and overhaul her core team to include advisers with experience running a top-tier, statewide race.

Last week, the Republican National Committee dispatched an operative to Nevada to assist Angle, something the National Republican Senatorial Committee has been trying to do for weeks via telephone from Washington, D.C. NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) indicated that it has been a slow, sometimes difficult task, although he insisted he remains confident in Angle’s ability to beat Reid.

“We’ve had conference calls, including me personally, with her and the campaign, and we continue to work with them. But it’s a work in progress,” Cornyn said Thursday. “While running for election is not rocket science, it does require knowledgeable people, it does require some discipline, and that’s always a struggle for every first-time candidate.”

“It’s dysfunctional,” a Nevada Republican added, when asked to give an assessment of the Angle campaign. “She can still win, but the operation seems odd at best.”

Jordan Gehrke, Angle’s deputy campaign manager, said Friday that he understands that some Republicans are concerned about the race. But he said Angle is putting together a professional team of experienced political operatives.

“In just a few weeks, the Angle campaign has raised over two million dollars, assembled a top flight team, and put a significant ad buy on TV that introduces Sharron Angle to the people of Nevada and exposes Harry Reid’s disastrous economic record,” Gehrke said. “Reid’s in for a long couple months.”

A favorite of tea party activists, Angle spent most of the Republican primary campaign deep in third place until surging ahead in the closing weeks. She won the June 8 contest comfortably and immediately bolted to 50 percent voter support and an 11-point lead over Reid, according to a Rasmussen Reports poll.

Since then, thanks partly to several verbal gaffes, including, according to a Washington Post report, telling potential voters that it wasn’t her job as a Senator to create jobs, but rather the responsibility of Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki (R), Reid has taken the lead. Nevada’s unemployment rate is 14.2 percent, the nation’s highest, and job creation is the top issue in the race. The NRSC has hammered Reid on the issue more than any other.

“It gets down to pure message discipline, and she doesn’t have it,” a second Nevada Republican said. “There’s no one in the campaign to enforce it.”

This GOP operative, no stranger to Silver State campaigns, said he’s unfamiliar with senior staffers running Angle’s campaign. A second Republican, this one based in Washington, lamented that Las Vegas-based Mike Slanker, considered by many to be Nevada’s premier Republican consultant, is working for Linda McMahon’s Senate campaign in Connecticut.

Angle has hired a few credible Republican consultants, including the team that ran the Internet strategy for Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) during his successful special election bid to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D). Also on board is media consultant BrabenderCox, a Washington-based firm with several incumbent GOP Senators as clients. But the core of Angle’s team still consists of the same grass-roots activists who propelled her state Assembly campaigns.

Reid, a savvy politician with a talented campaign team and a history of winning tough races, is well-positioned to exploit the inexperience of Angle and her advisers. Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the last GOP challenger to beat a top Senate Democrat, entered the 2004 race against Minority Leader Tom Daschle with a previous Senate race under his belt and a top-notch campaign team, winning narrowly in a dogfight.

Republican sources say Cornyn is working with Angle in an attempt to get her to hire a team of capable operatives. But, said the Republican operative with experience in Nevada campaigns, Angle’s ability to raise money — the one thing she has proved to be adept at since winning the primary —leaves Cornyn without the leverage to force Angle to hire a team of his choosing.

The Nevada race is too prominent, and too affordable, for the NRSC to ignore. But Cornyn cannot even threaten to withhold committee funds to pressure Angle to hire specific personnel because she is raising plenty of money on her own, and outside groups are expected to spend millions in an effort to unseat Reid. “The NRSC is in an awful position,” the GOP operative said.

Some Republicans argue that Angle is improving as a candidate, albeit slower than they would prefer, and that her personal campaign abilities are sufficient to beat Reid, who remains highly vulnerable.

But Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the Republican Conference chairman, sounded less than fully confident when asked about Angle’s prospects.

“I still think it’s a good opportunity, and I’ve made my contribution to the Republican nominee,” Alexander said. “I’m supporting 17 different Republican nominees and hoping for the best in every case.”