Where is it most painful to be a highly visible incumbent politician at this particular moment in U.S. history? Perhaps it's California, where current economic and budgetary discontents are compounding a growing public fury over chronically dysfunctional state government and an imprisoning constitution. Maybe it's Florida, that fading Sunbelt powerhouse full of simmering regional and ethnic rivalries, whose perma-tanned governor has struggled to make up his mind which political party he belongs to.
But you couldn't go far wrong by selecting Nevada, a state that shares Florida's disastrous economic dependence on real-estate speculation and tourism-Nevada currently sports the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation, 13.4 percent, trailing only Michigan-and the special disappointment of being, for many residents, a Paradise Lost. The state's own demographic and ideological diversity also rivals Florida's, home as it is to a rapidly growing Latino population (which made up 15 percent of the electorate in 2008), plenty of extremely conservative Mormons, powerful and politically active labor unions, a libertarian heritage of legalized vice, and a Republican Party moving so quickly to the right that you can barely keep up with it.
Moreover, Nevada's three top elected officials are currently Harry Reid, John Ensign, and Jim Gibbons. Reid, the majority leader of the U.S. Senate and never terribly popular back home, has looked like a sitting duck for over a year. Ensign, once considered a rising conservative star, has been exposed as a sanctimonious hypocrite over the course of a particularly sordid adultery-and-cronyism scandal, in which a group of mysterious evangelical allies operating out of a compound on C Street in Washington, known variously as The Family or The Fellowship, were caught unsuccessfully trying to clean up his act or cover it up. Gibbons has had his own, somewhat more cartoonish series of sex scandals-although maybe they were just "relationship scandals," if you buy his claim that he hasn't had sex since the mid-'90s.
Luckily for him, Ensign is not up for reelection until 2012. Unluckily enough, Harry Reid is up for reelection in 2010, and, seeing as his son, Clark County (Las Vegas) Commission Chairman Rory Reid, is the frontrunner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, you'd think that Nevada Republicans would have a straight, clean shot at a sweep that dethrones the Reid dynasty. But it's hardly that simple, thanks to Byzantine and fractious Republican primaries for both the Senate and the governorship (where Jim Gibbons is still a formidable candidate), the existence of an independent Tea Party ballot line, and the always-important factors of money and organization, where Democrats have a distinct advantage. Just six weeks before Primary Day, you'd have to say that handicapping Nevada's political races is something of a crapshoot.
Dating all the way back to November 2008, Harry Reid's "favorable" rating in Nevada polls has been wallowing monotonously in the high 30s and low 40s, deadly territory for an extremely well-known incumbent, and particularly for a national party leader who claims to be able to represent his state's values and bring home the bacon as well. The difficulty that Republicans have experienced in recruiting a top-tier Senate candidate has newspapers hesitating to dust off obituaries to Reid's Senate career. But in head-to-head polls with his most likely GOP opponents, Reid has persistently trailed all of them, sometimes by double digits, and almost never gaining much more than 40 percent of the vote.
After striking out in its attempts to recruit a strong candidate such as former Congressman Jon Porter, Republicans have on hand a field of three major candidates: casino owner, former state senator, party chairwoman, and ex-beauty queen Sue Lowden; realtor and famous-basketball-playing-son-of-famous-basketball-coach Danny Tarkanian; and right-wing grassroots favorite Sharron Angle. Until very lately, Lowden looked to be consolidating a strong lead for the nomination. Despite a somewhat moderate image (particularly on social issues), she won endorsements from national conservative figures like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, and benefited from the general impression that she was far and away the most electable of available Republicans.
But then, at a local candidate forum in early April, Lowden touted the idea that individuals should barter for health services as an alternative to Obamacare, making the particular mistake of mentioning the "olden days" practice of trading chickens for doctor visits. After Jay Leno and others started bagging on her for promoting "chickens for checkups," Lowden made the puzzling decision to defend her statement-repeatedly-instead of brushing it off and moving on. Now the whole meme has gone very viral. There hasn't been a Senate primary poll since this all happened, but Tarkanian and Angle-and for that matter, Harry Reid-have to be encouraged by all the laughter at Lowden.
Meanwhile, in the governor's race, the Republicans' frontrunner is former Attorney General Brian Sandoval, is struggling nearly as much as Lowden. The perpetually unpopular incumbent, Jim Gibbons, is playing every ideological angle to win re-nomination. Falling back on his traditional popularity among hard-core conservatives, Gibbons has boosted his anemic approval ratings by championing legal challenges to the new federal health reform legislation, and is accusing Sandoval-who has taken the supreme risk of refusing demands to take Grover Norquist's no-tax-increase pledge-of being a moderate squish. Democrats, figuring that Gibbons is a much easier mark, have been running attack ads on Sandoval that echo conservative criticisms.