The Nevada Republican primary battle to challenge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has morphed from a two-candidate race to a three-candidate race with the stunning recent surge of “tea party” favorite Sharron Angle.
Early voting began Saturday in the race to take on Mr. Reid, and Mrs. Angle, a former four-term Assembly member, has momentum on her side after winning the Tea Party Express endorsement in April. Since then, her poll numbers have jumped by double digits, placing her in a virtual dead heat with front-runner Sue Lowden.
“I think a lot of people thought that by the end of May there would be a much clearer front-runner, but that hasn’t been the case,” said Kenneth Fernandez, a political scientist at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
The race has attracted outsized attention as early polls showed Mr. Reid, one of the most powerful Democrats in the country, facing double-digit deficits against his leading Republican opponents in his bid for a fifth term in the Senate. The polls have been so negative that speculation is already rampant on Capitol Hill over who might succeed Mr. Reid if he is ousted.
A Mason-Dixon Research poll commissioned by the Las Vegas Review Journal showed Mrs. Lowden with 30 percent of the vote to Mrs. Angle’s 25 percent. The margin of error on the survey, released May 13, was 4.5 percentage points.
Former UNLV basketball player and businessman Danny Tarkanian dropped to third place with 22 percent of the vote. The nine other candidates are polling in single digits as the June 8 primary approaches.
Until recently, Mrs. Lowden has been the undisputed front-runner. A Mason-Dixon survey released April 9 found her with 45 percent, followed by Mr. Tarkanian with 27 percent. Mrs. Angle barely registered as an also-ran with 5 percent.
But it has been a rough month for Mrs. Lowden, a former state senator and state party chairman, whose campaign has been wrestling with a series of gaffes. First Mrs. Lowden suggested that patients may want to barter for less expensive health care, pointing out that old-timers would pay their doctors with chickens.
Democrats wasted no time in mocking Mrs. Lowden, dubbing her idea “Chickens for Check-Ups,” while late-night comedy shows turned her into something of a national laughingstock.
“Lowden’s plan is simple: Just go to where they sell live chickens. … Then, when the doctor wants to charge you $40,000 to put a stent in your heart, offer him a chicken,” comedian Stephen Colbert said on “The Colbert Report.”
Mrs. Lowden later came under fire for accepting a donated luxury recreational vehicle for her campaign. Laws limit in-kind campaign gifts to no more than $2,400. The Lowden campaign has said that Mrs. Lowden is paying to lease the vehicle.
The campaign pointed out that Mrs. Lowden, as the longtime front-runner, has been under fire for months by her Republican rivals, the Reid camp and independent liberal groups.
“It is obvious that Harry Reid does not want Sue Lowden to emerge from this primary,” said Lowden spokeswoman Crystal Feldman. “Harry Reid and his liberal allies nationwide have been attacking Sue daily, putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into a smear campaign against her. If you haven’t noticed, Harry Reid hasn’t mentioned Sharron Angle once. He is confident he can defeat Sharron in November.”
Meanwhile, Mrs. Angle received a boost Wednesday when the Club for Growth endorsed her candidacy, calling her “the true economic conservative in the Nevada Senate race.”
The group, which contributed to the primary defeat of Sen. Robert F. Bennett in Utah with a $100,000 ad buy, is planning to “make a pretty big footprint” in the Nevada race during the final two weeks, said Club for Growth spokesman Mike Connolly.
“The Mason-Dixon poll showed her in striking distance,” said Mr. Connolly. “There’s ample evidence that Sharron Angle is a superstar in the making and will be a game changer in the Senate the moment she arrives.”
Critics have questioned whether Mrs. Angle has the experience to run a successful statewide campaign against a wily veteran like Mr. Reid. She is not well-positioned geographically: Her Assembly seat included parts of Reno and Washoe County, while Mrs. Lowden and Mr. Tarkanian live in Clark County, home of Las Vegas and the state’s population center.
Politico reported over the weekend that Mr. Reid has been so eager to avoid a showdown with Mrs. Lowden that he has run negative ads against her and conducted “opposition research” to throw her candidacy off stride. Despite his low poll numbers, Mr. Reid is expected to have far more money than any Republican challenger for the November race.
Angle spokesman Jerry Stacy pointed out that this isn’t Mrs. Angle’s first political rodeo: In addition to her Assembly races, she ran in the 2006 Republican House primary and came within 400 votes of beating the better-known Dean Heller after a late surge. Mr. Heller went on to win the seat.
Mr. Stacy also noted that Mrs. Angle has won two Las Vegas-based straw polls. An April 30 straw poll after a KDWN-AM debate showed her with 27.1 percent of the vote, followed by Mr. Tarkanian with 24.9 percent.
“We’re beating them in their own front yard,” said Mr. Stacy. “If you put Sharron Angle on a stage with the rest of the candidates, she’ll beat them every time.”