The increasingly contentious Nevada Senate race between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his ultra-conservative Republican opponent, Sharron Angle, took an ugly turn last week when the candidates accused each other of going easy on child molesters — and campaigning isn't expected to get any more pleasant between now and election day.
"It's not much fun to live through," said political scientist David Damore of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "It's about 95%, if not 100%, negative."
In a surprise move on Saturday, Angle softened some of her harsh stances on government benefits such as Social Security and unemployment insurance that have led opponents to characterize her as extreme, according to the Associated Press. Her remarks came during an interview before an audience with a conservative radio host in Las Vegas.
While Nevada has the highest unemployment rate in the nation at 14.4%, and the highest foreclosure rate, Reid and Angle concentrated on ratcheting up the fear factor with their new spots, a sign that the race remains uncomfortably tight. Three polls released in the last week showed Angle with a slight lead over Reid, but within the margin of error.
"I would say that the ramping up of the rhetoric indicates that the internal polling of the candidates shows they have no clue who is winning this race," said Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. As a result, the candidates are scrambling to demonize each other.
"Reid's goal isn't to get people to like him," Herzik said, "it's to scare people about Sharron Angle. He's got very high unfavorables and he knows he can't change that, so what can he do? Make people like Sharron Angle even less, or be afraid of her."
In a 30-second spot, Angle accused the incumbent of voting to allow taxpayer dollars to pay for Viagra for convicted child molesters and sex offenders. "What else," it asks, "could you ever need to know about Harry Reid?"
Her charge is rooted in political maneuvering around the healthcare reform bill that became law this year. Reid voted against an amendment that would have barred the use of federal funds to buy Viagra for sex offenders. Democrats opposed the amendment for procedural reasons. Politifact, a website that evaluates claims in political ads, rated Angle's charge as "barely true."
Reid blasted Angle for a vote she cast in 1999 while a member of the Nevada Assembly opposing background checks for people who volunteer with youth and church groups. "Sharron Angle voted to protect the privacy of sex offenders," says the star of the spot, a Las Vegas family therapist who works with abused kids. A rating for Reid's ad could not be found on Politifact.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that the bill, which passed the Assembly, would create a fund to pay for the screening of volunteers. The newspaper quoted minutes from the discussion in committee, which reflected that Angle was concerned with "the possible invasion of privacy and liability issues included in the bill."
Angle has been dogged by other issues, as well.
Last month, she seemed to suggest in a town hall meeting that Dearborn, Mich., which has a large Arab population, is operating under Islamic law, which drew a denunciation from the mayor of that city.
An account by the online news site, Mesquite Local News, said that in response to a question about whether "Muslims are taking over the U.S.," Angle replied: "Dearborn, Michigan, and Frankford, Texas, are on American soil, and under constitutional law. Not Sharia law. And I don't know how that happened in the United States. It seems to me there is something fundamentally wrong with allowing a foreign system of law to even take hold in any municipality or government situation in our United States."
On Thursday, the Reno News and Review published an interview with Angle's one-time pastor, an evangelical Christian, in which he slurred Reid's Mormon faith, calling it a "cult" and "kooky." The Rev. John Reed of Sonrise Church in Reno said he was alarmed by Reid's "allegiance to Salt Lake City," where the Mormon religion is based.
Angle disavowed Reed's remarks, but it is unclear what effect they will have on the 11% of Nevada's voters who are Mormon. Some political observers believe the pastor's remarks could prompt Mormons, who generally vote Republican, to choose "none of the above," which is an option on the Nevada ballot.
In the last week, Reid has garnered the endorsements of two prominent Nevada Republicans — the state Senate's Republican leader Bill Raggio and former First Lady Dema Guinn, whose late husband, Kenny Guinn, was governor from 1999 to 2007.
Reid and Angle will meet for their first and only in-person, televised debate Thursday. Nevada's early voting begins Saturday.