On the morning of November 2, 2010, Sharron Angle appeared well-positioned to become the next US Senator from the state of Nevada. Numerous polls showed her holding a modest, but steady, lead over one of the most powerful men in the country. Grassroots conservatives across the country gleefully regarded her campaign as reflective of the national mood and expected it to represent a signature win of the burgeoning Tea Party movement. Politicos and journalists marveled at her staggering third quarter fundraising haul of $14 million – a figure that ballooned to a grand total of $28 million by the campaign’s conclusion. As Nevadans cast their ballots that Tuesday morning, Team Angle projected a quiet confidence.
Some volunteers and local staffers were so confident, in fact, that they broke from traditional campaign protocol and abandoned their get-out-the-vote efforts several hours before polls closed. Some were so assured of Angle’s victory that preparing for the lavish victory party at the Venetian Hotel took precedence. But as the results trickled in, the gathering’s festive atmosphere turned increasingly grim. A stunned hush fell over the throng when the verdict came in: Sharron Angle had lost, and it wasn't even close.
How did this happen? In the immediate aftermath of Reid’s victory, Angle’s campaign staff grappled with the loss, cycling through the various stages of grief. Having reached the final point of acceptance, several conceded that Reid’s ground organization and overall strategy had been brilliant. The Reid operation’s execution -- aside from the candidate’s dreadful performance in the lone debate -- was virtually flawless. In the end, it may be that none of the potential GOP contenders in Nevada could have beaten Reid. His get-out-the-vote machine was top-notch, and his strategy was executed to perfection. According exit polls, 55 percent of Nevada voters disapproved of their senior senator’s job performance, yet he received over 50 percent of the roughly 700,000 votes cast.
Reid ran a great race, but another major problem plagued Team Angle: Competing factions and internal power struggles. For months, an open rift festered between two opposing camps, transforming the campaign into a model of dysfunction. On one side of the philosophical canyon were the candidate’s grassroots loyalists, who had catapulted Angle to her improbable primary victory. On the other was a small handful of professional Republican operatives who were hired to help run the general election effort. Former Angle staffers – nearly without exception – gave vent to myriad frustrations and grievances that accumulated over a period of four months. Although the campaign managed to maintain the public appearance of functionality and common purpose, behind the scenes, the campaign was at war with itself.
The tensions were reportedly caused by clashes between the professional operatives and campaign manager Terry Campbell, who did not return phone calls or answer email inquiries regarding this story. Each side harbored, and often demonstrated, outright contempt for the other. To the grassroots activists who “brought Sharron to the dance,” as an ex-campaign volunteer put it, the new consultants and directors were “arrogant” and “condescending.” To their detractors, the professional staffers were a clique of establishment types and hopelessly out of touch party elites. The professionals, in turn, developed a strong distaste for many of their counterparts. Angle’s political and ideological impulses frequently led her to side with the grassroots over the “elites.” In some of the ugliest disputes, each faction turned to two of the only campaign figures universally considered to be impartial voices of reason: Jerry Stacy, Angle’s Press Secretary, and Ted Angle, Sharron’s husband.
One episode that encapsulated this counterproductive tug-of-war was a spat over whether to allow a scheduled event with Sen. John McCain in late October to continue as planned. The grassroots campaign staff warned Angle that McCain's mere presence on the trail would cost her the conservative base. Some suggested that volunteers would quit. After initially supporting McCain’s visit, Angle was briefly persuaded to abandon the event. However, some of the GOP professionals called an emergency meeting to push Angle back into the rally with McCain, arguing that McCain's record as a decorated war hero would play well with the crucial independent voter demographic.
Longtime Angle team members believed this was proof that the hired guns were trying to 'moderate' their candidate's views. They instead floated a compromise: Angle and McCain would appear at the same event together, but not on stage at the same time. The grassroots feared that even a photograph of Angle with McCain would turn off the base. The veteran GOP operatives strongly dissented and ultimately prevailed. The rally happened, and the two appeared together as originally scheduled. But this was not the only time the factions clashed.
The candidate herself occasionally nipped conflict in the bud by making quick and unilateral decisions. She quietly put the kibosh on a low quality television ad produced by her grassroots supporters and regularly dismissed the advice of her professional advisers when they counseled her against attending town hall meetings and small, ad hoc rallies around the state.
Angle’s daily schedule was the subject of the campaign’s most ferocious battles. Her early supporters feared the “elites” were undercutting Angle’s knack for personal retail politics and trying to tamp down her strong conservative values. “They were trying to change who Sharron was in her heart and soul, but we knew that voters were tired of phoniness,” the former volunteer said. The professionals, meanwhile, worried that Angle’s instincts, coupled with the “unprofessional and undisciplined” people surrounding her, could lead to trouble if she deviated from the playbook.
Of particular concern was the habitual occurrence of midday scheduling changes being ordered by Campbell allies, with little or no warning. “They would call audibles at the last minute. This was a daily battle. What would end up happening was Sharron would show up at events, the media would be there, and she’d be ill prepared,” an aide complained. “On August 28, it was decided that she should attend a big Hispanic Expo, without telling us. She arrived with no Spanish language literature, no translator, no booth, and we got embarrassed in front of the Spanish language media. It was a disaster.”
Another avoidable misadventure was Angle’s infamous October appearance at Rancho High School in Las Vegas. Several “elites” adamantly lobbied against participating in the event, but the grassroots insisted upon her appearance. When a student asked a question about the ethnicity of some illegal immigrants portrayed in a campaign ad, Angle gave a rambling answer, at one point telling the predominantly Latino audience that some of them “look a little more Asian” than Hispanic.
The incident generated a torrent of negative media attention, which was especially damaging because of its timing. “At that point, I wanted to roll Sharron up in a carpet, put her in a bunker, and leave her there until the election was over,” the former aide said, half-jokingly. “Rancho happened the day after Sharron won the debate. That entire day, or even the whole week, should have been all about how Sharron did a fantastic job and soundly beat a man who debates on the Senate floor for a living. We felt we had accomplished what we needed to. People got to see that Sharron was not the extreme, crazy person that Harry Reid had been saying [she was]. In reality, she was just an honest, conservative, honest Nevadan who was upset with the direction of the country and the state. Instead of that being the focus, Sharron’s poorly phrased, but totally innocent, comments hijacked our narrative.”
Jerry Stacy, Angle’s well-respected Press Secretary, declined to discuss the campaign’s stumbles, or “take sides” in the messy conflict.. Instead, he sounded some of the few conciliatory notes in the hours of interviews conducted for this story. “I don't want to point fingers at anybody. Everyone worked hard. I don't want to pile on Terry [Campbell], or anyone else. It's counterproductive,” he said. “Ultimately, we all shared the same goal: trying to remove Harry Reid from office. All these guys were sincere in their desire to achieve that.” Both sides have echoed Stacy’s last statement, but pointed fingers at one another for failing to get the job done.
Amidst the blame game, Angle is plotting her next move. A well-informed source says Angle is seriously considering another run for statewide office. “Running for office gets in your blood,” the source said. “Sharron’s developed a huge donor list, she has lots of national connections, so there are several options she’s weighing.” This confidant wouldn’t say whether Angle has her eyes on John Ensign’s seat in 2012, but said she would likely make a decision about her future by “late spring.” Others dispute that any such explicit timetable exists, referencing post-election interviews in which Angle more vaguely mentions contemplating “lots of options.”
Following Reid’s deflating win, conservatives must ponder an unpleasant proposition: Could the debilitating ‘grassroots vs. establishment’ dynamic that poisoned the Angle operation replicate itself and wreak havoc on future Republican campaigns? Political activists and operators from across the Center-Right spectrum agreed that both establishment and Tea Party-aligned conservatives should view Angle’s loss as a cautionary tale.
“The establishment didn’t seem too excited about supporting Sharron Angle because she beat them,” said Brendan Steinhauser, the Director of Campaigns for FreedomWorks – a grassroots organization that organized the enormous 9/12/09 Tea Party rally in Washington, DC. “My colleagues in Nevada were disappointed to see some of the attitudes out there in Nevada. On the flip side, the grassroots were disorganized and unfocused on the ground. They clearly didn’t have what it took to defeat the Reid machine.” The “magic question,” according to Steinhauser, is how to foster cooperation among the varying conservative actors who may have stylistic and substantive differences, but ultimately seek to achieve the same goal.
“It’s a very delicate balance,” he explained, “and it starts with respect. At the end of the day, we’re allies in this fight. Smart political hands will embrace this new movement and thank newcomers for their hard work. People want to know that they’re valued and respected, not disdained. On the other hand, grassroots activists need to recognize that they don’t have all the answers and understand the value of professionalism. Sometimes, we all have to rely on professionals’ specialized knowledge to get a job done. You go to a mechanic to get your car fixed, right? The same applies to politics.”
A GOP strategist close to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and a number of prominent 2010 candidates, concurred with Steinhauser’s analysis, and offered an assessment of how best to construct an effective and balanced campaign team: “The big, national-level operatives don't always know what events are considered must-do, or what local folks are a must-befriend, because they haven't spent their lives focused on those things,” the strategist explained, before leveling an admonition to the other camp: “On the other hand, a lot of state-level operatives just lack the experience of working on the toughest, most scrutinized cut-and-thrust campaigns, like presidential efforts. A campaign that is run by the very best, smartest and most aggressive in-state operatives who have worked at high levels on races big and small, buttressed by grassroots folks and national-level folks, is probably the best formula.”