In a dark condominium where the Home Depot tags are still on the lawn chairs that double as indoor seating for guests.
The blinds drawn against the desert sun, this is the new burrow of Eric Odom, a chief organizer of the first nationwide Tea Parties last year. Mr. Odom moved here a few weeks ago with his fiancée and a blogger sidekick to mobilize the state’s Tea Party groups for the midterms. By training activists in get-out-the-vote tactics like the “voter bombs” that helped Scott Brown become the new Republican senator from Massachusetts, they are hoping to unseat Nevada’s senior senator and the Democratic leader, Harry Reid.
In a matter of weeks, this state has become ground zero for Tea Party members, who understand that as a symbol of the movement’s power, you cannot get much bigger than beating the Senate’s top Democrat.
The Tea Party Express kicked off its third cross-country bus tour last month in tiny Searchlight, Mr. Reid’s hometown. The group behind it, Our Country Deserves Better, which spent $350,000 in the last weeks of Mr. Brown’s campaign to elect him, has been steadily spending against Mr. Reid for a year. And Tea Party Nation, which sponsored the first Tea Party national convention in Nashville in February, plans to hold its second convention here in July.
Still, while polls suggest that Mr. Reid may lose his bid for re-election, it could be in spite of the Tea Party, not because of it.
There is no doubting the anti-Reid sentiment here. Above Searchlight looms a billboard almost as big as some nearby homes reading “Will Rogers never met Harry Reid,” a play on a famous saying by Rogers that he never met a man he did not like.
But before the Tea Party can claim a victory here, people have to figure out who the Tea Party candidate is. And “Anyone Butt Reid,” as other signs declare, is turning out to be not such an effective strategy.
Tea Party leaders had been planning on uniting behind the Republican candidate to defeat Mr. Reid. But there are 12 candidates in the primary in June, and not one seems to be attracting a majority of Tea Party support. One of the three front-runners, a former state Republican chairwoman, has clashed with a core Tea Party constituency in the past over her refusal to certify delegates for Ron Paul in the 2008 presidential race.
Then there is the problem of Scott Ashjian, an asphalt contractor who filed last month to run as the candidate of the Tea Party of Nevada. The Tea Party, at least elsewhere, is not a traditional political party, but a loose affiliation of groups. Conspiracy theory holds that Mr. Ashjian is a “progressive plant” thrown in by liberals to take votes away from the eventual Republican candidate and to help re-elect Mr. Reid.
“He took advantage of a situation and efforts made by other people,” said Debbie Landis, the leader of Anger Is Brewing, a Nevada Tea Party group. “He underestimated the Tea Party. We’re not going to pull a lever that says ‘Tea Party’ just because it’s the buzzword of the day.”
Maybe not. But with four independent candidates and two minor-party candidates also in the running, Tea Party leaders fear splitting the anti-Reid vote.
A poll by The Las Vegas Review Journal in February, before Mr. Ashjian filed as a candidate, showed a generic Tea Party candidate winning 18 percent of the vote, leaving the unspecified Republican nominee with 32 percent and Mr. Reid with 36 percent.
About 20 Tea Party leaders in the state have signed a letter saying that they do not endorse Mr. Ashjian and that they would not call anyone the “Tea Party candidate” anymore — the preferred term is now “grass roots.”
Mr. Odom, a former Republican consultant, also set about trying to get rid of Mr. Ashjian within a week of moving here from Chicago. He bought the rights to http://www.ashjian4senate.com, which now redirects visitors to a Web site accusing the candidate of abusing “the Tea Party brand.”
“He forgot to buy the domain name,” Mr. Odom said, wearing a Chicago Cubs cap as he sat in front of the computer terminals he uses to update a growing library of anti-Reid blogs and Web sites. “It’s campaign 101.”
Anger is Brewing joined the Independent American Party in filing suit to remove Mr. Ashjian from the ballot. Last week, the district attorney’s office filed felony charges against him for bouncing a $5,000 check. The head of the office’s bad check division happens to be a former state Republican chairman, though he insists that there was no political motive.
Our Country Deserves Better, run by Republican consultants in California, invested extensively in its Tea Party Express kickoff last month — hiring skywriters to etch phrases like “Vote Reid Out” and “No New Taxes” in the bright blue sky. It has now begun spending against Mr. Ashjian, with a television advertisement that tells him to “get lost.” “None of us has ever heard of you,” Mark Williams, the leader of Our Country Deserves Better, scolds.
The Tea Party movement rejects centralization — activists like to say, “we are all Tea Party leaders” — and some members recognize that Mr. Ashjian’s candidacy may be a hazard of that. “Everybody wants to be the Tea Party,” sighed Tony Warren of the National Precinct Alliance, an effort started by groups here to take over the Republican Party by installing Tea Party members in local committee positions.
People who turned out for the Tea Party Express rally in Searchlight were angry at Mr. Reid, but they did not have any preferred candidate to take him on. And they were just as angry at many Republicans, including the state’s other senator, John Ensign.
“They’re spending money like drug addicts,” said Jeff Church, 55, who had driven from his home in Reno with a “Reject Reid” bumper sticker on his Honda hybrid. “I don’t mean to insult drunken sailors. But drunken sailors, when they run out of money, they stop spending.”
Polls suggest the three front-runners are Sue Lowden, the former state Republican chairwoman; Danny Tarkanian, the son of the legendary former men’s basketball coach for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the owner of a small real-estate business; and Sharron Angle, a former state assemblywoman.
“If we had all informed voters, it would be Bill Parson that would be our candidate,” Mr. Warren said, referring to another Republican hopeful. “Unfortunately, not everybody pays attention.”
So he is hoping only the most active Tea Party — oops, grass-roots — voters come out.
“We’re telling people, if they don’t have an opinion, don’t guess,” he said. “Stay home.”
Click to view image: '404d17bc704a-harryreid1.jpg'
|Liveleak on Facebook|