US & Canada

Nevada Tea Partiers roll the dice in bid to oust Reid

Welcome to Las Vegas sign
Image caption Nevada Senator Harry Reid is the consumate Washington insider, in a bad year to run as Mr Washington

In the US state of Nevada, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid is up for re-election, facing an energised anti-government Tea Party movement, a faltering economy and an electorate turned against Washington DC. The BBC's Kevin Connolly says the race illustrates much about the US campaign for the November poll.

For 100 years, the whole point of Nevada was that it was unlike anywhere else in America.

When the gold rush died down and the silver mines petered out, the state made a living allowing - and sometimes encouraging - everything people were forbidden to do elsewhere.

In Nevada one can gamble, buy alcohol wherever one wants, marry on a whim and divorce with a minimum of paperwork. Prostitution remains legal in many counties and when the US government sought a place to conduct underground nuclear tests on its own soil, its scientists headed for Nevada.

Consummate Washington insider

But as the mid-term election campaign comes to the boil, suddenly all the year's key national issues have crystallised around the race to represent the Silver State in the US Senate. When it comes to politics, Nevada is not as distinct as it likes to think.

In the blue corner is Democratic veteran Harry Reid, running for a fifth term. He is the leader of the Democrats in the Senate, and as one of the legislators doing the heavy lifting to get President Barack Obama's agenda passed into law, he is a key Republican target. Only the scalp of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would be a more highly prized trophy on 2 November.

Image caption Nevada Senator Harry Reid faces Tea Party favourite Sharron Angle in the November poll

Mr Reid is the consummate Washington insider, a veteran who knows how to get the job done when complex legislation stalls, in part because he has walked the corridors of power for so long.

But this is not the year to be running as Mr Washington, not with the economy faltering despite billions in stimulus spending, and not with doubts beginning to intensify about the Obama administration's competence and sense of direction.

But it is in the red corner that things get really interesting.

God, guns and family

Nevada Republicans have nominated a card-carrying member of the anti-government Tea Party movement to face Mr Reid, spurning a mainstream moderate who could have picked up votes from independent centrists disappointed with the Democrats.

Sharron Angle, a former state legislator, is the epitome of a committed Tea Partier, someone who has tea coursing through her veins.

If you like her, she is a friendly former teacher who believes in God, guns and family and who likes her taxes small and her federal government smaller still.

And if you do not, she is a flaky fundamentalist with extreme, dangerous or impractical proposals like scrapping the state pension system, the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Education and withdrawing the US from the United Nations.

Republicans in key states like New York and Florida as well as smaller ones like Delaware and Alaska have chosen similar candidates. In every case, party activists have faced the same charge: they are throwing away golden opportunities to defeat Democrats - and maybe win control on Capitol Hill - by picking ideological true believers over consensus-building centrists.

Some conservatives think the Tea Partiers would rather lose by staying pure rather than win by compromising.

In Nevada's Clark County, home to Las Vegas, Republicans were buzzing on a recent night. They believe that the energy and momentum in American politics is on their side, just as it was with Barack Obama in 2008.

Image caption Senator Reid's campaign team says he has done well for the state in tough times

I met Frank Ricotta, a Tea Party activist who has moved into the mainstream of the local Republican Party.

Mr Ricotta says the liberal media's analysis of the election is wrong, and that it is possible for true-believing conservatives to win elections because the movement symbolises a profound shift within American politics.

'Extreme, dangerous positions'

He dismisses the idea that a more mainstream candidate would already have been out of sight in the polls by now, whereas Ms Angle is merely running neck-and-neck with Mr Reid.

"Sharron Angle is a good candidate and she will win on 2 November," he told me. "This movement is about something real - about love of country and taking the Constitution back - and people like Harry Reid don't realise what's going on."

Across town on the same evening I found a group of local Democrats running a campaign phone bank for Mr Reid.

They insisted that they were getting plenty of traction with voters by pushing their core message that the state's senior senator was doing a good job for Nevada in tough times.

"Sharron Angle takes extreme and dangerous positions and would be bad for the state in a difficult moment," Democratic activist Phoebe Sweet told me. "Harry Reid has always made sure that Nevada is first in the queue in Washington, and it's important for the state to be represented by the most powerful senator in its history."

When I suggested that local Democrats must have fallen to their knees and thanked God when their rivals picked a candidate who could be portrayed as a fringe fundamentalist, Ms Sweet was diplomatic, merely repeating that Ms Angle was dangerous.

But you sense local Democrats believe they have been given an opportunity to escape an otherwise inevitable defeat.

The problem for Mr Reid is he is not just running against Ms Angle, but he is running on a record of Nevada's catastrophic figures for unemployment, housing values and house foreclosures. And in the background, he faces a general sense that the Obama administration has failed to lift the clouds of recession.

It is ill-tempered, deeply partisan stuff, infused on either side with a sense that the rival party is not just misguided but wilfully and dangerously wrong and un-American.

The race in Nevada sums up a good deal about this fractious mid-term campaign, and if the Democrats lose their leader in the Senate, they will have lost big on 2 November.