- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2010

What happens in Searchlight, Nev., generally stays in Searchlight, Nev., often alongside the road in the form of run-down house trailers and wrecked cars. The commercial hub of Searchlight, a semideveloped intersection in the vast Mojave Desert, is the Nugget Casino, where travelers can order breakfast 24 hours a day or try their luck on the poker slots. From the look of things, though, good fortune hasn’t been operational in these parts for quite a while. Except in the case of one inhabitant: native son and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the state’s most powerful politician and one of the area’s biggest landowners.

It’s hard to spend any length of time in this former gold-mining camp without noticing signs of Mr. Reid’s pre-eminent place in local society. “Harry’s got the only house in town,” says a waitress at the Nugget. “Everybody else lives in trailers.”

After a quick look around, it does appear that Mr. Reid’s is the only home not on wheels in Searchlight (population 576), which means the majority leader also may qualify as the sole permanent resident. True, since 1986, he has spent much of each year in Washington, but this is where his roots are.

Searchlight, 50 miles south of Las Vegas, could experience the first traffic jam in its history on Saturday, when the Tea Party Express arrives for a Harry Reid “retirement” rally. Sarah Palin is scheduled to be one of the speakers.

It’s a good bet Mr. Reid won’t be home that day. If he’s doing what he usually does on weekends, he’ll be out campaigning hard for the Senate seat he has held for the past two-and-a-half decades. In the polls, he’s far behind two potential Republican challengers: longtime TV anchorwomen Sue Lowden and real estate executive Danny Tarkanian, son of towel-chewing former University of Nevada at Las Vegas basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian.

That Mr. Reid finds himself in serious political trouble comes as no surprise in an election year when “incumbent” no longer means job security. In Nevada, anger over Mr. Reid’s role in ramming President Obama’s unpopular health care plan through Congress has turned him into an also-ran. According to polls, 58 percent of the state’s voters opposed passing the measure.

But Mr. Reid, once chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, may have just seen his odds improve. Earlier this month, a previously unknown group calling itself the Tea Party of Nevada (TPN) filed the necessary papers to run a Senate candidate in the November election. The expected standard-bearer, businessman Jon Scott Ashjian, has been polling between 10 percent and 18 percent, enough to make it a very close race and maybe even give Mr. Reid the win.

Suddenly, one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the Senate isn’t looking that vulnerable anymore. This has Republican operatives grumbling that someone on the Democratic side is using a classic dirty trick to split the Republican vote, a charge Reid campaign headquarters dismisses with a chuckle. There is plenty of reason to laugh, too. According to the state election Web site, the secretary of the Tea Party of Nevada is lawyer Barry Levinson, who once represented spousal-dismemberment victim John Wayne Bobbitt.

Twenty Nevada Tea Party groups recently issued a joint press release “denouncing the TPN,” which they say “is not a conservative party [that] speaks for grassroots and tea party activists in Nevada.” Elsewhere, Tea Party organizations are outraged. “It looks very suspicious,” says Lorie Medina, an official of the Dallas Tea Party. “Someone is taking political advantage of a popular movement to influence the election.”

But taking advantage of what’s popular is something politicians do all the time. The two major parties have made it virtually impossible for third parties to intrude on their turf, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying to steal third-party momentum. The loosely knit Tea Party offers an example. The Democrats have been particularly shameless, even coming up with a copycat opposition group, the Coffee Party. Then there’s House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who, disparaging Tea Partiers as a swastika-waving mob, now apparently sees a lot to admire in the movement.

Election-year psyops (psychological operations) are just getting started, and Nevada, an atomic testing state back in the day, could provide the first major demonstration. So if this weekend’s Tea Party “retirement” rally in Searchlight turns out to be slightly premature, Mr. Reid will know whom to thank.

Bill Thomas is the author of “Club Fed: Power, Money, Sex and Violence on Capitol Hill” (Scribner, 1994).

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