It was a week of emotional highs and lows for Nevada Democrats. They were briefly jubilant last week when Jon Scott Ashjian filed for the U.S. Senate on the Tea Party of Nevada ticket. It seemed as if Sen. Harry Reid, whose razor-thin victories and wily ways drive Republican partisans bonkers, might again escape defeat in 2010.
Perhaps Ashjian would peel enough votes from Republicans—who might vote for the Tea Party candidate because they love the movement—to deliver Reid to safety. Democrats’ disappointment was surely crushing then, when the Las Vegas Sun revealed Ashjian owes $200,000 to the Internal Revenue Service and could lose his license as a contractor after he allegedly bounced a check and never made good on it.
For Reid partisans, it must have been like a car slowing down to help a passing motorist in need, only to speed away. Still, perhaps there are innocent explanations for Ashjian’s foibles, and he’ll be able to mount a serious campaign. Or, maybe he’ll launch an attack on the IRS—in these times, it might be an effective defense and political device.
Even if his campaign falls flat, he could still help Reid, which is probably why Republicans are filled with paranoid fantasies that Ashjian is a marionette, with the Senate majority leader pulling the strings.
Michael McDonald, an expert on voter behavior at George Mason University and the Brookings Institution, said it’s impossible to know what effect Ashjian will have until we know more about him, but said he could definitely affect the race. “There could be a substantial number of people who are disgusted with the two candidates, Washington in general, anything that sniffs of being establishment,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see him take 10 percent” of the vote.
The nightmare for Republicans is what has become known among political junkies simply as “NY-23.” This refers to a special election in a conservative upstate New York congressional district last year in which Republican Dierdre Scozzafava dropped out of the race when it was apparent she would lose, in large part because Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman was drawing votes from her. Democrat Bill Owens wound up winning.
Democrats suffered a similar fate in 2000 when Ralph Nader ran to then-Vice President Al Gore’s left and may have tipped the 2000 election in George W. Bush’s favor.
McDonald and Cook Political Report analyst Jennifer Duffy said conjuring such a scenario in Nevada could be wishful thinking by Democrats, however.
In the end, “voters don’t want to waste their vote,” Duffy said, noting that vote totals for minor-party candidates are nearly always smaller than public opinion polls would indicate before Election Day. There’s a perception among conservatives, Duffy added, that Ashjian is obstructing the Great Reid Hunt of 2010 and should be shoved aside.
But McDonald said if Ashjian can make a good showing, it could hurt the Republican nominee in subtler ways. The Republican nominee would have to run to the right to protect his base, which could scare off centrist voters. Indeed, this is the real danger of the Tea Party movement for Republicans, said David Frum, a conservative intellectual and former speechwriter for Bush.
“These activist groups, though genuinely important, are small relative to the electorate—and can push a party in directions that make success more difficult,” he wrote in an e-mail. “And inside the GOP, they can impede intelligent policy formation by crystallizing around conservative slogans that don’t meet the reality test.”
In any case, Ashjian just showed once again that Nevada politics are never boring.
A version of this story appeared in the Las Vegas Sun, a sister publication of Las Vegas Weekly.