Skip to main content

Tea Party protest puts spotlight on Reid in Nevada

From Kevin Bohn and Jessica Yellin, CNN
Click to play
Reid's re-election fight
  • Tea Party activists converging on Searchlight, Nevada, Harry Reid's hometown
  • Senate majority leader carries political baggage in year of voters angry with incumbents
  • Reid behind GOP hopefuls in local poll but has no primary challenger
  • Tea Party candidate is on the ballot, which may split conservative vote

Washington (CNN) -- Thousands of Tea Party activists Saturday will mount their latest cross-country protest against big government and health care reform, hoping its kickoff point also will carry a strong symbolic message.

They are converging on Searchlight, Nevada, hometown of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

The four-term Democratic incumbent likes to remind people he was born and raised there in meager surroundings.

Today he is one of Republicans' primary targets as they work to try to take back the Senate in November's midterm elections.

Reid, one of the key Democratic leaders responsible for pushing the president's priorities through Congress, carries a lot of political baggage in a year that finds much anger directed at incumbents.

"He is one of the three faces of the Democratic agenda in Washington, which right now is unpopular," observed Nevada political newsletter editor Jon Ralston.

Video: Reid hails new 'bill of rights'

Recent polls from the Mason-Dixon organization show Reid's approval rating at 33 percent and unfavorable at 52 percent -- some of the worst numbers he has faced in years.

"I don't think many voters in Nevada dislike me. I think we have an economic situation in Nevada that is very difficult," Reid told CNN in a recent interview in Las Vegas.

The state's economy is in dire straits. It leads the nation in foreclosures, and its 13 percent unemployment rate is second only behind Michigan's.

Those vying to challenge Reid on the Republican side are pouncing.

"He has lost touch with what is going on here in Nevada," said businesswoman and former state GOP Chairwoman Sue Lowden, who is leading the pack among the Republican hopefuls.

"It is all about jobs. His solution is to put the country more in debt -- to tax the country more -- to put our children and grandchildren at risk for years and years of being in debt," Lowden said.

Another Republican challenger, businessman Danny Tarkanian, said Reid has "alienated himself from the people of Nevada, and the economy is getting worse and worse and worse."

Also not helping Reid were two recent quips by President Obama about not wasting money in Las Vegas.

Reid, who is not facing a serious primary challenge, last year aired ads aimed at both promoting what he has done to help improve the economy as well as introducing himself to hundreds of thousands of new voters who have moved to Nevada since his last election.

"To say Harry Reid is going to run a scorched-earth campaign against whomever this nominee is ... he has a reputation for doing whatever it takes to win -- no more so than this year. And he is going to have all the money to do it," Ralston said.

There is also a separate twist in the race that could be the key to a Reid victory. This month a Tea Party candidate, Scott Ashjian, got enough petition signatures to put his name on the ballot -- a first in the nation.

"What the Tea Party can do for Nevada is that it can give a voice to Nevadans that are tired of political corruption, tired of big government, tired of telling people what they want to hear. Whether it is Republicans or Democrats, they go to Washington and I frame them all in the same kind of boat. I don't see them being any real different," said Ashjian during an interview at his suburban Las Vegas home.

Ashjian, a businessman who has not been involved in organized political activities, has come under criticism from some Nevada Tea Party activists and state Republicans.

A candidate representing the Independent American Party filed a lawsuit this week challenging Ashjian's candidacy because it alleges he changed his voter registration to the Tea Party only after filing the necessary paperwork to run.

The suit also included an affidavit from a Nevada Tea Party activist, Deborah Landis, saying Ashjian "is not now nor ever has been associated with the National Grass Roots Political Organization known as the Tea Party, nor with its local affiliate, Anger Is Brewing."

Responding to the suit, Ashjian told CNN he changed his registration the same day he filed the papers for his candidacy and said the litigation is an attempt to put pressure on him. "It's ridiculous," he said of the suit. Asked if he thought some are trying to harass him out of the race, he said, "Of course, they are."

A recent poll for the Las Vegas Review-Journal showed Reid losing in a two-way contest to Republicans Lowden or Tarkanian. However, when an unnamed Tea Party candidate was added to the poll, Reid eked out a narrow victory -- with the Tea Party candidate drawing some of the conservatives' support.

Ashjian dismisses the notion raised by some Republicans that he is a Democratic plant, and both he and Reid said they have never met each other.

"I have never met Harry Reid [and] do not agree at all with any of his political values as that goes. I disagree politically almost 100 percent with what he has done. I have no political connections to Harry Reid, never been to an event, never been to a fundraiser," Ashjihan said.

Ashjian has not been invited to a candidates forum held before Saturday's Tea Party event, but he said he will still show up at the rally in Searchlight.

For his part, Reid, whose is known as a tenacious fighter and who has come out ahead in previous close elections, will push the message against his opponents of how much he has done for the state.

But he said he will not campaign differently than he has in the past.

"People in the state of Nevada know me," Reid told CNN. "I'm not going to be changing who I am for an election. I'm just who I was when I started this a long time ago, and I continue to be the same person I used to be, as I am today and will work very hard to meet the additional requirements that come with a changing economy that we have."