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The Great Basin

Inside the mind of Sharron Angle.

In her campaign to displace Harry Reid from the U.S. Senate, Nevada Republican Sharron Angle has hit a few snags. Among the lessons learned: When holding a press conference, take at least one question. When discussing how to deal with electoral defeat, avoid suggesting “Second Amendment remedies.” When you’ve once complained that black football jerseys are satanic, prepare to have someone reveal it. And, when discussing pregnancy brought on by rape, eschew the phrase “lemon situation into lemonade.”

In early August, I visited Las Vegas to see Angle address a monthly lunch of the Republican Men’s Club, held at a restaurant on the Bali Hai golf course just south of the Strip. As I walked in, an elderly veteran passed me a slip of paper that read, “opi ma ka ui.” This turned out to be an acronym for, “obama prays in mosques advocating killing all us infidels.”

When Angle stood up, she was almost dwarfed by the podium. “I need your help to take back Nevada’s U.S. Senate seat from let’s-make-a-deal, tax-and-spend Harry Reid,” she said. “We know what’s at stake here and in our state and we’re ready for it. We know—that—it’s one of those, um, situations that Dick Morris spoke about. I was pleased to have Dick Morris sign the flyleaf of a book for my husband and it said in that flyleaf, ‘Dear Sharron and Ted, the fate of the nation rides on you.’”

This seemed to lose the audience for a moment. “Dick Morris was mistaken,” Angle continued. “The fate of the nation rides on us—on all of us here in Nevada, and we know what he means. We’ve watched over the last eighteen months as our economy has [pause] truly been waterboarded. We here in Nevada probably feel that torture more than anywhere else because of the, uh, economy that we live under that relies on discretionary spending of other states, and then the president, Obama, comes to our state and says if you’re coming to Las Vegas you’re coming on a junket, and Harry Reid agrees with him.”

This had gotten weird quite fast—not least because instead of quoting, say, George Washington, Angle had chosen to cite the less universally respected Dick Morris. At one point, she went hoarse and paused to take a sip of water. “Sorry about that,” she said. “I’ve been running from the press so much!” The audience cheered. “I’ve been doing so many interviews,” Angle added hastily. “One day I did fifteen interviews, and it does kind of get your vocal cords because you don’t use—well, I won’t go into that—but you use more of your head than your diaphragm. Anyway, um, I was speaking about paying back our one point one trillion dollars on the deficit.”

Since winning the Republican primary in June, Angle’s campaign has pretty much shut her off from the mainstream press, perhaps for understandable reasons. The strategy seems to be to remind Nevadans of how much they hate Harry Reid and hope they forget that the alternative is Sharron Angle. It’s not the worst approach. Nevadans may well decide that we live in strange times, so we may as well have strange senators. But, at some point, even the Reid-haters may find themselves thinkinghard about how much they really want what’s behind door number two. And, they might reasonably ask, what is behind it, anyway?

Angle has spent 56 of her 61 years in Nevada, which has a distinctly Western conservative tradition born of discontent with federal interference in use of the land. In the 1990s, the Angles were living in Tonopah, a scruffy settlement of fewer than 3,500 people, surrounded by miles of sagebrush and empty desert. At the time, Nevada was experiencing a resurgence of the Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement of ranchers and miners aggravated by environmental regulations. A local county commissioner named Dick Carver was engaging in acts of civil disobedience, such as taking a bulldozer to a road that had been closed by the federal government.

Carver was a hero in Tonopah, but he had an arch-enemy—a Bureau of Land Management supervisor in charge of preventing overgrazing. That was Ted Angle—husband of Sharron. Ted, who subscribed to the creationist belief that man should not destroy God’s work, became known in Tonopah as a “critter lover” and an “agent for the Sierra Club,” according to one report. In 1995, the Angles left town for Reno, partly because pressure on the family had become overwhelming. “I couldn’t believe it when she said she was running against the government,” one Nye County rancher said. “They were the government.”

While living in Tonopah, Angle had served on the local school board and joined the far-right Independent American Party of Nevada, which stands for the right of states to enact conservative policies, such as outlawing abortion. “The monopolistic political parties have decreed God irrelevant and out of fashion in our schools and in our laws,” declares a 1994 party newsletter. “Taxes, homosexuality, and the worship of government are brazenly promoted.”

By the late ’90s, Angle was mulling higher office. She consulted her pastor at the Sonrise Church in Reno, which the Angles attended until a couple of years ago. One recent Sunday, I went to a service and introduced myself to Pastor John Reed. “Oh, cool! I know Sharron real well,” he said. “I strongly encouraged her, and I believed God’s call was on her,” he told me afterward. “There’s a scripture, too, that I’m going to show you that I showed her and quoted to her.” He read from the Book of Esther, in which Esther, a Jew and a Persian queen, risks her life to persuade her husband to prevent a massacre of her fellow Jews. The passage had suggested to Reed that, during troubled times, special leaders were called to save their people—leaders like Sharron Angle. (Reed said he was even more convinced of the nation’s need for Angle following Barack Obama’s election: “From his book that he put out, he said, if push comes to shove—and I can’t remember how he says it—but if there’s a problem between Islam and America, or Christianity and Islam, I’m going to take the side of Islam.”)

Angle became a Republican and won a seat in the state assembly, serving from 1999 through 2005. She kept a wary distance from her fellow legislators—even in the lunchroom, where lawmakers traditionally lay aside partisanship. “We always found her a little bit creepy,” says Sheila Leslie, a Democrat whose term started in the same year. Angle became famous for her numerous lone “no” votes among the 42 assembly members, causing bills that passed “41-to-Angle.”

When Angle pushed for legislation, the measures often involved a greater degree of government meddling than one might expect. She advocated for a smoking ban in gaming areas of grocery stores and a bill to fund the teaching of phonics in public schools (a pet cause of conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly). She pressed for a measure that would have provided Nevada women with shower hangers explaining how to do breast self-examinations, which died because Angle insisted the instructions refer to a discredited link between abortion and breast cancer.

Sometimes her crusades were more idiosyncratic. One year, said Leslie, Angle pressured her to investigate claims of a repeatedly debunked link between vaccinations and autism. (Leslie, who chaired the health committee, declined to hold a hearing.) Another time, Angle became intrigued by reports of a groundbreaking approach to drug treatment being employed in a Mexican prison, involving “sauna based detoxification.” This regimen turned out to be based on the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, and although Angle, by all accounts, knew nothing about the Scientology link, she suffered serious political embarrassment.

Still, Angle’s constituents liked her and felt she listened to them. And she attracted powerful allies. For several years, Angle headed an effort to enact a cap on property taxes. When she ran for a congressional seat in 2006, the Club for Growth helped her to raise hundreds of thousands of out-of-state dollars for her unsuccessful primary campaign.

Angle likes to portray her race against Reid as a contest of big money versus grassroots. But her success in the Nevada primary was thanks largely to the Tea Party Express, the fundraising arm of a political action committee formed by veteran GOP operatives in Sacramento. (The group has been slow to adopt fiscal austerity in-house: The PAC’s recent FEC filings list a $1,597.29 dinner for six at Chops Steakhouse.) The Tea Party Express poured over $500,000 in proAngle advertising into the primary, causing her to surge from 5 percent in the polls in April to victory in June.

Since winning the primary, Angle has often been described, along with the Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, as a “Tea Party favorite.” But Paul, in keeping with the Tea Party image of rebellion, is often willing to buck his fellow Republicans on matters such as federal drug policy, agricultural subsidies, and the Patriot Act. By contrast, I searched in vain to find Angle disagreeing with any key elements of the GOP agenda. For all of her quirks, Angle’s politics seem closer to the familiar George W. Bush coalition of the rich, the religious, and the warlike than to the Rand Paul coalition of the parsimonious and libertarian.

On my way out of Reno, I drove by Angle’s house, a modest one-story structure on a quiet street in the western end of town. The Angles weren’t home, but getting into a pickup truck outside was Sharron’s daughter, Joye, visiting from Fallon, about 70 miles away. She asked, with disarming modesty, for a “fair representation” of her mother. I also spoke with a number of Angle’s friends, who described her as kind, unassuming, and idealistic, just an ordinary wife and mother who has followed her ideals. They think that Reid, who has a nearly four-to-one cash advantage, is out to destroy their friend by painting her as a nut.

Of course Reid is out to destroy Angle by painting her as a nut. His approval ratings are hovering around 40 percent, and Nevada has been blanketed with signs reading, “Will Rogers never met Harry Reid”—a reference to the Rogers line that he’d never met a man he didn’t like. Reid’s only hope for reelection is to convince enough angry Nevadans to utilize a ballot option unique to their state and vote for “None of the Above” instead of for Sharron Angle.

So far, his approach has been working. Angle’s onetime eleven-point lead has evaporated, and the two candidates are essentially tied. But to credit Reid for this is to do an injustice to Angle, who has done most of the heavy lifting in reviving Reid’s fortunes. The latest flare-up has been the resurfacing of a 2009 radio interview in which the host suggests to Angle that some U.S. senators are “domestic enemies,” and Angle responds, “Yes, I think you’re right.” When asked about it recently, Angle dodged the question. Does she really believe in such enemies? Or does she wish to avoid repudiating her earlier statements? Or is she simply confused? One never knows with Angle, but it’s all the more reason to “question with boldness,” as Thomas Jefferson, or maybe Dick Morris, once said.    

T.A. Frank is a writer in Los Angeles and an editor at the Washington Monthly. This article ran in the September 23, 2010 issue of the magazine.

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