Last week, Internet ads started appearing on conservative Web sites attacking Nevada GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle. A group calling itself the "Patriot Majority"--replete with a logo of a Minuteman holding a musket--declared Angle "Nevada's WORST legislator!" and a "professional politician" who is in the pocket of Wall Street. An attack from Tea Party detractors on the right? Quite the opposite. The Patriot Majority was formed by a former spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid and is funded by organized labor. Why would Reid supporters use a faux Tea Party group to attack his opponent? It gets to the heart of Reid's reelection strategy. To win, he must divide the Republican nominee from her electoral base.
A new Rasmussen poll shows Angle leading Reid by 50 to 39 percent. How does Reid reverse that 11-point margin? Answer: He does not have to. The highest Reid has been in any poll this election cycle is 43 percent. But as one Nevada GOP operative not involved in the Senate race told me, "Reid can win with 43percent." He simply has to drive Angle's support down enough so he can squeak by with a plurality of the vote.
Reid has done it before. In 1998, he narrowly won reelection with a plurality of 47.9 percent, defeating then-Rep. John Ensign by just 421 votes. In that race, a libertarian candidate pulled 1.8 percent (about 8,000 votes), a Natural Law Party candidate pulled .65 percent (about 2,900 votes) and 1.8 percent of voters cast their ballots for "none of the above" (another roughly 8,000 votes). It was enough to give Reid a razor-thin victory.
This year, Reid has a much steeper hill to climb. In October 1998, after months of negative ads from Ensign, Reid's unfavorable rating reached 36 percent. Today, his unfavorable rating is at 52 percent--and that is before the barrage of negative ads has begun. But Reid has other factors working in his favor. As he pointed out last week, there could be as many as eight candidates on the general election ballot this time around (nine if you count the "none of the above" option, which currently gets as much as 6 percent support). This includes four independent candidates, a candidate from the right-wing Independent American Party and a self-proclaimed Tea Party candidate.
Reid needs to drive as many voters as he can away from Angle and toward these alternatives. He plans to do this in two ways. The fake Tea Party attacks are designed to siphon off as many conservative and libertarian votes as possible--and in an election that could be decided by a few hundred votes, even a small number of defections on the right could be devastating. Meanwhile, Reid intends to push moderates into the "none of the above" category by portraying Angle as "a full-time resident of the paranoid alternate universe." Reid already has a new TV ad up attacking Angle for supporting a plan to "wipe out Social Security." In fact, Angle has said she wants to create private accounts for younger workers while ensuring the government continues "to keep its contract with seniors, who entered into the system on good faith and now are depending on that contract"--virtually indistinguishable from the position championed by many congressional Republicans. Angle needs to point out that Social Security is headed toward bankruptcy, and Reid has opposed reform.
Reid has also attacked Angle for supporting the abolition of the departments of Energy and Education. Other "fringe" politicians who have supported shuttering the Education Department include Ronald Reagan as well as two members of the Senate Republican leadership--John Kyl and Lamar Alexander (the latter a former secretary of Education). Those who have supported shutting down the Energy Department include House Republican leader John Boehner and Sen. Lindsey Graham. And John McCain, the GOP's 2008 presidential nominee, co-sponsored legislation to eliminate both departments. It's a bit of a throwback issue, to be sure, but not out of the Republican mainstream. Angle may find that with Reid and Obama adding $10 trillion to the national debt, Americans may finally be in the mood to shut down a government agency or two.
With his early attack ads, Reid is baiting Angle, hoping to force an early blunder--like Rand Paul's decision to come out against the 1964 Civil Rights Act--that confirms his "alternate universe" narrative. Unlike Paul, or Sarah Palin after the 2008 GOP convention, Angle has wisely turned down the barrage of interview requests from the mainstream media. Campaigning in Nevada last week, former president Bill Clinton taunted Angle for "hiding out" asking "Where's Sharron?"
Instead of taking the bait, Angle is keeping her head low and building a professional political operation capable of winning a general election. She has hired the Web team that helped elect Scott Brown in Massachusetts, and brought in other experienced political consultants. The next six weeks will be critical. While Reid tries to focus on the campaign on her, Angle needs to keep the focus on Reid and the reasons Nevadans have turned against him. Reid's electoral ceiling appears to be 43 percent. If Angle can deflect his attacks, avoid gaffes and remind voters why they dislike Reid, she can win.
Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow at AEI.