DENVER | Between Democratic incumbent Harry Reid’s gaffes and Republican challenger Sharron Angle’s misfires, the winner of the Nevada Senate race may be the first candidate who can stop talking.
Last week saw Mr. Reid weigh in with one of his trademark rhetorical misfires, this one aimed at Hispanic Republicans. The Senate majority leader told a gathering of Hispanic supporters that “I don’t know how anyone of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican. OK? Do I need to say more?”
It took about 10 seconds before the blogosphere was alight with reminders that state Attorney General Brian Sandoval, who’s running for Nevada governor, is a Republican of Hispanic descent. It’s likely that Mr. Reid has heard of him because the Democratic nominee in that race is Rory Reid, Mr. Reid’s eldest son.
The remark “was his typical glib, poorly-phrased broadside,” as Las Vegas Sun columnist Jon Ralston put it. It was also ill-timed: A day earlier, Mrs. Angle was the one under fire by the Reid campaign for failing to invite the Latino media to a press conference.
Mr. Reid’s crack about Hispanic Republicans overshadowed any negative press that the Angle campaign might have received about the alleged snub.
“She kind of caught a break on that because then Harry Reid came out and saved her,” said Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada at Reno.
At the same time, however, the Reid campaign launched a new television ad featuring a tape of Mrs. Angle from a radio interview in which she defended the right of gun ownership this way: “If Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies.”
The ad’s narrator, a Nevada police officer, says, “It’s crazy. What she’s actually talking about is armed resistance.”
Mr. Reid’s political obituary had been written many times before Mrs. Angle, a conservative “tea party” favorite, unexpectedly won the Republican primary in May. The Reid campaign quickly mobilized to define her as a wacky, out-of-the-mainstream right-winger.
The strategy has paid off in that Mr. Reid, who was trailing Republicans in hypothetical matchups before the primary, is now running even with Mrs. Angle. Both candidates also have negative ratings topping 40 percent, meaning that the race is likely to be decided by which candidate the voters dislike the least.
“He’s smart enough to know that if this campaign is about him, he’s going to lose,” said Las Vegas Republican consultant Ryan Erwin. “She walked into this race with very low name ID. She’s now been defined by Harry Reid and now she has to redefine herself.”
Mrs. Angle has struggled to find her footing on sensitive issues like Social Security, after years of backing calls to privatize the system. The former state lawmaker now says she supports private investment options for the national retirement plan, but has decided that the government could still administer it.
Last week, she praised Chile’s system as an example of a successful government-sponsored, personalized pension plan, drawing hoots from critics who argued that the Chilean model is flawed and, what’s more, tainted because it was established under former military dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The question is whether Mr. Reid - far more respected as a master of the Senate cloakroom than as a spellbinding public speaker - can control his tongue long enough to take advantage of Mrs. Angle’s missteps. His recent history suggests otherwise:
c July 2010: Mr. Reid responds to a question about the large illegal immigrant work force in Nevada by saying, “That may be someplace, but it’s not here in Nevada.” According to the Pew Hispanic Center study, Nevada’s construction industry, at 17 percent, has more illegal workers than that of any other state.
c January 2010: The political best-seller “Game Change” quotes Mr. Reid praising then-candidate Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign as “light-skinned” with “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” President Obama accepts Mr. Reid’s apology.
c August 2009: Mr. Reid refers to town-hall protesters angry over the health care proposal as “evilmongers.” He later says he could have been “less descriptive.”
c April 2007: Referring to the Iraq war, Mr. Reid tells a Capitol Hill press conference, “The war is lost.” In those same remarks, he said the George W. Bush administration’s military surge “is not accomplishing anything.” Mr. Reid was widely criticized for undermining the war effort, but refused to back down.
The “Negro dialect” remark alone would have been enough to kill the political careers of any number of lawmakers. Mr. Reid hasn’t exactly emerged unscathed - witness his low approval rating in Nevada - but his gaffes have also never stoked the kind of uproar that ended, for example, the career of Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi.
One reason may be that Mr. Reid has had so many such verbal blunders that they’ve become routine to Nevada voters.
“Reid’s made these comments before, and it’s been damaging, but not as much as comments other politicians have made,” said Mr. Herzik.
He pointed to the recent case of fellow Nevadan state Sen. Sue Lowden, whose bid for the 2010 Republican Senate nomination was torpedoed by her comment about how old-timers used to barter chickens for their health care bills. Mrs. Angle went on to upset her in the primary.
“It destroyed [Mrs. Lowden’s] campaign. She got hung up on defending it, and it went viral,” said Mr. Herzik. “Harry Reid makes comments like the war is lost, George Bush is a loser, and they just seem to die.”
Mr. Reid also benefits from a crack campaign team experienced in dealing with his unscripted asides. Immediately after the remark about Hispanic Republicans, the campaign issued a statement trying to put their candidate back on message.
“Sen. Reid’s contention was simply that he doesn’t understand how anyone, Hispanic or otherwise, would vote for Republican candidates,” said the statement, which went on to compile a laundry list of supposed Republican misdeeds, such as opposing help for “struggling, unemployed Nevadans.”
Mr. Erwin described the Reid campaign as “brutal, mean, tough and incredibly smart.”
“If Reid says something, his folks will badger the media until it goes away,” said Mr. Erwin. “They’re incredibly deft at it.”