Reporting from Washington and Las Vegas — As the anti-establishment activists of the "tea party" movement rally in Nevada this week, a troublesome question will hang over the red-meat speeches and cheers:
Are the people most determined to oust Democrat Harry Reid the ones boosting his chances of reelection?
The movement that boasts of its decentralized structure is facing its most high-profile test in Nevada, where Republicans of all stripes have their sights on unseating the Senate majority leader. Like many voters nationwide, Nevada's conservatives have been energized by tea party rhetoric.
But they've not been unified.
The number of Republicans vying to challenge Reid could field a baseball team, and no one has emerged as the runaway favorite of the tea party crowd. One candidate has filed for the general election as a member of the "Tea Party of Nevada," fueling talk that he could split conservative votes and hand Reid a win. His candidacy was challenged in court this week.
After months of fretting over Reid's miserable poll numbers -- 33% of voters had a positive opinion of him last month -- Democrats are seeing his best chance of reelection in the conservative disarray.
"It's not Sen. Reid's fault that the Republicans have a problem with their own base," Reid campaign manager Brandon Hall crowed in a statement, as he batted down often-repeated suspicions that Reid engineered the Tea Party of Nevada's creation.
On Saturday, conservatives are staging the "Showdown in Searchlight," which is shaping up as a sort of tea party fest in Reid's dusty hometown.
RV parks and campgrounds around the town of Searchlight are selling out as thousands are expected to hear former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -- and a who's who of conservative activists -- speak at a kickoff rally for a national bus tour called the Tea Party Express.
The tour will stage rallies targeting lawmakers "who have voted for higher spending, higher taxes, and government intervention in the lives of American families and businesses."
Even without Reid's reelection campaign, Nevada would be fertile ground for tea party sentiments, which arose about a year ago after the Wall Street bailouts. The state has a long history of anti-Washington, Libertarian-leaning viewpoints and a strong affection for third-party candidates.
Moreover, after a two-decade run of growth and prosperity, Nevada is beset by unemployment, foreclosures and budget deficits. Voters in both parties are dissatisfied, but none more so than the conservatives, who saw the state swing to a Democratic presidential candidate in 2008. The name of one tea-party-affiliated group: "Anger is Brewing."
A February poll for the Las Vegas Review-Journal showed an unspecified Tea Party candidate netting 18% of the vote -- leaving the GOP nominee with 32% and Reid with 36%. (The margin of error was 4 percentage points.)
In Nevada and elsewhere, many tea party leaders have rejected the idea of running third-party candidates, arguing that it would only help Democrats who are even further removed from the movement's small government principles.
Instead, many have urged activists to get involved in the major parties' county branches and support tea party-friendly candidates -- largely Republicans.
But it's been difficult to enforce discipline without creating the formal structure or establishment the movement famously rejects.
In Florida, tea party groups have filed a lawsuit in their fight over whether a minor party can call itself a Tea Party.
In Nevada, a number of tea party groups joined together to denounce the candidacy of Jon Scott Ashjian, the one labeling himself the Tea Party of Nevada candidate. In a letter, the groups wrote: "The TPN is not now, has never been, and will never be affiliated with grass-roots efforts in Nevada."
Still, tea party activists are far from certain that letter will be enough to keep tea partiers from sending votes to Ashjian.
"If our plan was to defeat Harry Reid, this is the worst thing we could do," bemoaned Roger Stockton, treasurer of the Western Representation Political Action Committee in Sparks, Nev.
For his part, Ashjian, a businessman with no history in state politics, has pounced on the letter and the appearance of a new tea party "establishment," calling the groups that signed the letter "Republican plants."
"The tea party movement in general has been co-opted by the Republican Party," he said in an interview at a Las Vegas coffee shop.
Ashjian says he is motivated by the same principles that have led thousands to protest against Washington bailouts and more recently the Democrats' healthcare reform bill, although he acknowledges he's not been a regular at tea party rallies.
"I was watching that movement very intently. I've been a longtime Republican," he said, adding that he "felt like this was the first year that I really didn't feel like it made a difference in voting" for either Republicans or Democrats.