- The Washington Times - Monday, February 22, 2010

Is the Nevada Tea Party and its newly minted third-party status for real?

Critics say the party, which already has a candidate for Senate, doesn’t have any connection to the state’s “tea party” movement and looks like an attempt to draw votes from Republicans, thereby aiding embattled Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in his re-election bid.

The party filed a constitution, bylaws and list of officers Jan. 28 with the Nevada secretary of state’s office. The party also has collected the 250 signatures necessary to place Jon Ashjian on the November ballot as a candidate for the seat now held by Mr. Reid, said Nevada secretary of state spokeswoman Pam duPre.

All this came as a shock to Frank Ricotta, a Las Vegas pharmacist and one of the founding members of the state’s tea party movement. Not only was he unaware of any plans to form a third party, he also didn’t know any of the 10 people on the party’s executive committee.

“I talked to some of our people in the north, and none of us recognized any of the names on the filing,” said Mr. Ricotta, whose group Nevada Patriots is part of the Nevada Leaders Coalition, a tea party movement umbrella group.

“We never heard anything about it and the names are totally foreign to everyone I’ve spoken to, and I probably know everyone involved in the tea party in Nevada, and certainly in Clark County,” said Mr. Ricotta. “So we are very concerned about what this Tea Party is, who’s behind it, and what is their purpose.”

Republicans have their own theory about the party’s purpose: to boost Mr. Reid’s chances in November by drawing votes from the Republican candidate who emerges from its June primary.

Polls show Mr. Reid, a Democrat, trailing the leading Republican candidates, former state Sen. Sue Lowden and small-business owner Danny Tarkanian, by about 10 percentage points in head-to-head matchups. Only about a third of Nevada voters view the four-term incumbent favorably, while more than half view him unfavorably, according to a recent Research 2000 survey.

Even so, Mr. Reid is known as a scrappy campaigner who’s all but certain to have the financial edge. In a tight contest, a Tea Party candidate who wins even 3 percent to 4 percent of the vote could tip the race to the Democrat.

“I think this is just an attempt, a blatant attempt, to split up the tea party [movement] vote, and if they really believe these people are that stupid, good luck,” said Bob Ruckman, Clark County Republican Party chairman.

Lowden campaign manager Robert Uithoven said that, based on his candidate’s experience at tea party functions, he found it impossible to imagine a genuine activist doing anything that could benefit Mr. Reid.

“I can say, having attended many tea party [movement] events, that this completely contradicts everything we’ve heard at every tea party function, which is to get rid of Harry Reid,” said Mr. Uithoven. “This makes a huge difference, having a group on the ballot that can take votes from the eventual Republican nominee.”

The Tea Party of Nevada isn’t easy to reach. The party didn’t issue a press release at its launch and appears to have no Web site. The sole phone number listed in its filing is for Las Vegas lawyer Barry Levinson, named as the party’s secretary, but a receptionist at his office said, “He’s not making any comments at this time.”

The only reporter with access to the party appears to be Las Vegas Sun columnist Jon Ralston, who broke the story of the party’s filing. Asked whether the TPN was a legitimate party, Mr. Levinson told the Sun, “It’s real,” and “Harry Reid had nothing to do with it.”

The Reid campaign did not return a phone call from a reporter.

In an e-mail to the Sun, Mr. Ashjian said, “I am not for Harry Reid. I have never been supportive of Harry Reid. My candidacy is real, the Tea Party is real, and we are not going away.”

Critics note that Mr. Levinson, known for defending oft-arrested porn star John Wayne Bobbitt, doesn’t fit the profile of a typical tea partier. He was an Obama supporter during the 2008 election and affiliated with the “Bush lied, people died” protest, although his blog indicates he has become disenchanted with the president.

The secretary of state’s election rolls list Barry Levinson of Las Vegas as a Democrat, although it may not be the same Barry Levinson.

The party’s constitution calls for “freedom, liberty and a small representative government,” principles that any tea partier would be proud to support. But those involved with the tea parties say that forming a third party isn’t part of the movement’s playbook.

“The tea party isn’t about becoming a third party. We’re vehemently against establishing a third party. They have a history of defeat,” said Shelby Blakely, a leader of the Tea Party Patriots, which bills itself as the nation’s largest tea party movement umbrella group.

In Nevada, the strategy for the past year has been to inundate the county GOP chapters with tea party activists, who in turn will support candidates who back the movement’s small-government agenda. Mr. Ricotta, for example, was a registered independent until a year ago, when he changed his affiliation to Republican. In July, he was elected a Clark County Republican Party officer, and now he is the interim vice chairman.

“Most tea partiers are focused on precinct elections and changing their registration so they can vote for the conservative candidate,” Mr. Ricotta said.

“We see this as a two-party system and we’re trying to work through the Republican Party.”

The Tea Party of Nevada may reveal more of its hand March 1, the first day that candidates can file to run for Senate. At the very least, the party’s officers have some explaining to do.

“We’ve got questions and we want to talk to them,” said Mr. Ricotta. “‘I don’t understand. You’ve formed a new party. What’s your platform?’ Who knows, perhaps these people don’t have these nefarious intentions.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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