Will a tea partier save Harry Reid's job?

Ryan J. Reilly

This past weekend, the Tea Party rallies moved from the steps of the U.S. Capitol to Searchlight, Nev., home of the man activists hold responsible for passage of Obamacare: Senate majority leader Harry Reid. On Saturday, traffic into the tiny mining town where Reid grew up (population 700) was backed up for miles, as 7,000 people gathered for the Tea Party Express "Showdown in Searchlight." Activists carried signs that read, "Harry: Searchlight Needs You, America Doesn't." And Sarah Palin drew raucous cheers when she told Reid, "You're fired."

But will a self-proclaimed Tea Party candidate end up saving Harry Reid's job in November?

Reid is one of the most vulnerable Democrats this fall, thanks in part to his role pushing through President Obama's health-care legislation. A recent Rasmussen poll found that 56 percent of Nevadans oppose Obamacare (51 percent strongly), while just 41 percent support it (and just 24 percent strongly). Just 20 percent of Nevada voters view the Senate majority leader favorably, while 48 percent view him unfavorably. And both of the leading Republican candidates--former Nevada state senator and GOP chairwoman Sue Lowden, and Las Vegas businessman Danny Tarkanian, a former UNLV basketball star--have crossed the 50 percent threshold and have opened up double-digit leads over Reid.

Reid is one of the most vulnerable Democrats this fall, thanks in part to his role pushing through President Obama's health-care legislation.

Reid has responded with an early and heavy TV ad campaign, but so far it has failed to stop the hemorrhaging. He is now the most endangered Senate majority leader since Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) was defeated by John Thune in 2004.

All this is good news for Republicans; defeating the Senate's top Democrat and a key architect of Obamacare would be a huge victory for the GOP. Except for one problem: A Nevada asphalt contractor, Jon Scott Ashjian, has joined the race under the banner of the Tea Party of Nevada--and a recent Las Vegas Review-Journal poll found that in a three-way showdown with a Tea Party candidate in the mix, Reid could pull off a narrow victory.

Ashjian is unknown to Nevada voters, and also to Tea Party activists. They say he has not been involved in the Tea Party movement, and many suspect he is running a "false flag" operation to help Reid win re-election. So far, there is no proof Reid's campaign was involved, but Tarkanian says that "common sense, reasonable deduction...tells you this guy is in the race to help Reid." Leaders of the Tea Party Express have distanced themselves from Ashjian and recently released an online ad declaring him a "fraud" and telling him to "get lost." But the decentralized nature of the Tea Party movement makes it hard to stop someone such as Ashjian from claiming the Tea Party mantle.

Another problem: Lowden, the front-runner in the GOP primary, earned the ire of Nevada libertarians in 2008 for what they see as her hijacking of the state party convention. Supporters of Ron Paul--many of whom now populate the Tea Party movement--showed up in droves at the convention and succeeded in overturning rules designed to elect a slate of McCain delegates. Lowden and other Republican leaders shut the convention down, promising to reconvene it on a later date. But the do-over convention never happened; instead, the McCain delegates were selected in a private conference call among state party leaders. Some libertarian activists have never forgiven her--bad news in a state that is the nation's libertarian heartland.

For her part, Lowden claims to be a "Tea Party voter" and has been well-received at Tea Party rallies--including the Showdown in Searchlight last weekend. In 1992, she defeated the majority leader of the Nevada State Senate in his bid for reelection, and she now wants a chance to do the same to the majority leader of the United States Senate. Lowden says of Ashjian, "I don't know who this person is. I've never seen him at one of our tea parties."

Ashjian was not invited to appear at Saturday's Tea Party rally in Searchlight. But he was invited to appear last Friday in federal district court to defend himself against a lawsuit challenging his candidacy and claiming that he was not a member of the Tea Party of Nevada when he filed for the election on March 1. Ashjian failed to appear in court. Judge Todd Russell said he would give Ashjian "one more chance to show up," but if he refused the judge said he would be inclined to grant the motion to remove him from the ballot. And to add to Ashjian's troubles, the Clark County district attorney's office announced Friday that it would seek an arrest warrant for him Monday on felony theft and bad check charges.

Harry Reid had better hope Ashjian survives his legal troubles. The Tea Party has targeted Reid, and having Ashjian on the ballot may be Reid's only hope of survival this November.

Marc Thiessen is a visiting scholar at AEI.

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