How did Sharron Angle blow an 11-point lead on Harry Reid in seven weeks?

Polls suggest Sen. Harry Reid is now ahead of GOP challenger and 'tea party' favorite Sharron Angle. The GOP is sending reinforcements to beef up Angle's campaign staff.

By , Staff writer

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    Senate majority leader Harry Reid talks to construction workers during a tour of the Smith Center in Las Vegas on Saturday. Reid faces Republican and 'tea party' favorite Sharron Angle this November in his bid to keep representing Nevada.
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Just a few weeks ago, Senate majority leader Harry Reid seemed headed for political flameout.

Nevadans were down on their senior senator, according to the polls. The “tea party” movement was zeroing in on him as representative of all that’s wrong with big-government politics back in Washington. And it looked like any of his likely GOP opponents could beat the four-term incumbent in November.

Shortly after Nevada Republicans chose former state assemblywoman Sharron Angle to run against Reid, the beleaguered Democrat was trailing his opponent by 11 percentage points in a Rasmussen Reports poll of likely Nevada voters.

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But things can change in a hurry.

Reid has moved ahead of Ms. Angle in the polls – by as much as seven points in the latest Mason-Dixon Polling & Research survey for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The Angle campaign – with help from an increasingly worried national party – is having to beef up its campaign staff with outside professionals. And Angle is scrambling to change the subject regarding her earlier controversial positions and assertions.

“Reid has gone from being a very heavy underdog to being a slight favorite,” says Ted Jelen, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “The fact that Sharron Angle won the primary was a major break for him.”

Meanwhile, Republicans “are growing increasingly frustrated with Sharron Angle and her lackluster campaign … fearing she is jeopardizing what they had long viewed as a sure pickup and costing them a chance to reclaim the majority,” reports CQ Politics.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), acknowledges the challenge his party faces in Nevada.

“While running for election is not rocket science, it does require knowledgeable people, it does require some discipline, and that’s always a struggle for every first-time candidate,” Senator Cornyn told CQ Politics.

“Knowledgeable people” in this case includes Brian Jones, former communications director of the Republican National Committee, dispatched to advise the Angle campaign. Previously, Mr. Jones worked for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004.

“The NRSC's move to bring in Jones comes as Republicans are starting to go public with worries that Angle and her campaign team are out of their depth running against Harry Reid,” reports Ben Smith at Politico.com. “While the Senate majority leader is deeply unpopular in Nevada, his campaign has effectively seized on his GOP rival's many gaffes to establish a lead in the polls.”

The main reason for the turnaround?

The Reid campaign keeps hammering on Angle’s past statements, apparently making effective use of his $9 million campaign warchest (several times larger than Angle’s).

It’s archived information from Angle’s earlier website touting controversial positions on Social Security, doing away with the US Education Department and other federal agencies, and approval of nuclear waste reprocessing at Yucca Mountain (highly unpopular among Nevadans). And it’s making effective use of Nevada’s fairly small and self-contained television markets in Reno and Las Vegas, says Professor Jelen. “TV time is pretty cheap in Nevada, and Reid can saturate it easily.”

There are more than 13 weeks until the general election – several lifetimes in politics – and things could change again for Reid and Angle, particularly given the sour mood among the electorate and the unknown influence of the tea party movement. Angel is now raising money at a comparable rate with Reid.

Citing the recent shift in Nevada polls, Politics Daily’s “poll watch” feature notes this:

“Not only do majorities of voters see each candidate unfavorably, the number of those who regard them ‘very’ unfavorably is high – 48 percent for Reid and 41 percent for Angle. Fifty percent of voters say Reid's views are extreme compared to 41 percent who say they are mainstream, with 8 percent undecided. Fifty-eight percent consider Angle's views extreme while 37 percent put her in the mainstream, with 6 percent unsure.”

Some things are beyond Reid’s control – like Nevada’s 14.2 percent unemployment rate, the highest in the country. And as his party’s leader in the Senate, he is closely tied to President Obama’s agenda – including controversial issues like health care reform.

In the end, Nevada’s US Senate race may come down to which candidate has the lower “unfavorable” numbers. That, and voter turnout, says Jelen. Angle has tea parties on her side, but Reid has enjoyed the support of culinary workers and other unions in Nevada.

Related:

'Tea party' favorite Sharron Angle takes aim at Harry Reid

Tea-partiers bring their protest to Harry Reid's hometown

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