LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Like many Nevadans, hairdresser Helen Elgas is trying to decide between the devil she knows and the devil she doesn‘t, and the future of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, hangs in the balance.
Sitting in the shade of a strip mall on West Sahara Avenue, miles from the casino towers that symbolize Las Vegas, Elgas is not happy with Reid. But she isn’t sure she can bring herself to vote for his challenger, former state assemblywoman Sharron Angle, either.
“I think Harry Reid should be taken out. I‘m not sure Sharron Angle could do any better,” said Elgas, 47, a registered Republican.
“He’s not helping any more - he’s one of the good old boys,” said Elgas, who like many Americans is fed up with the political establishment as the economy falters.
“She’s a dingbat,” Elgas added.
A few years ago, Las Vegas laughed at the idea of a downturn in Sin City, and the Strip boomed as economic cracks appeared nationwide. But when Las Vegas fell, it fell hard.
High rollers disappeared, construction cranes ground to a halt, and the state of 2.64 million set new records -- for the highest unemployment and foreclosure rates in the nation.
Enter Sharron Angle, founder and former teacher of a one-room K-12 Christian school turned politician, who has dumbfounded much of the state with her hard-line positions on small government.
A favorite with conservative “Tea Party” activists, Angle was only 2 percentage points behind Reid in a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday.
Forty-six percent of likely voters in Nevada said they would vote for Reid if the election were today, while 44 percent chose Angle. The margin of error for likely voters in the poll was 4.6 percentage points, making Reid’s lead even more tenuous.
Reid, running for a fifth term, is a staple of politics in Nevada. But people have been moving into the state so quickly that many voters have no idea what he has done for Nevada.
The state’s population has nearly tripled since he was first elected to the Senate in 1986. Meanwhile, the median home price in Las Vegas is less than half its 2006 peak, leaving builders unable to compete with the glut of foreclosures.
Fighting for his political life, Reid is using negative ads starring Angle herself. In one, Angle says she would not have voted to extend unemployment insurance and adds “we really have spoiled our citizenry.”
In another, reporters say she proposed phasing out the Social Security retirement system, although she has also said she wants to pay the amounts already promised in benefits.
Still, these and other gaffes have drawn ridicule and given pause to would-be supporters.
In her own ads Angle has sometimes featured Reid. “You know that I had nothing to do with these unemployment figures,” he says in one, prompting Angle’s campaign to ask why he takes credit for creating jobs but not for Nevada’s record unemployment rate -- 14.3 percent in July.
Each side seems to be doing its best to make the election about the other candidate.
“It’s a very strange race because neither of one them is particularly likable,” said University of Nevada Las Vegas Associate Professor David Damore.
Democrats have a better organization here than Republicans and turnout will be key, Damore said. But powerful unions offered what he called ‘tepid’ support for Reid because he did not back a measure to make unionizing easier.
The bespectacled and sober Reid couldn’t be further from the flash of Las Vegas, and his politics have been more centrist than left-wing radical.
But he is a dealmaker -- for better or worse. His skill has kept the Senate moving through President Barack Obama’s ambitious agenda and he is undeniably linked to the White House’s successes and failures.
“My opponent has nothing else to focus on me other than the fact that the economy is bad,” Reid said at a recent alternative energy conference.
U.S. voters will elect 435 members of the House of Representatives and fill 37 of the 100 seats in the Senate on November 2.
The Democrats’ majority in both houses is seen at risk, compounded by the rise of Tea Party conservatives like Angle who preach the value of small government.
“Is she an acceptable alternative to the United States Senate majority leader for a group of angry citizens?” asked Las Vegas advertising guru Billy Vassiliadis, head of R&R Partners and a Reid adviser. “I think that’s what a lot of it is going to come down to.”
Reid has won accolades for his efforts to diversify Nevada’s gambling and construction-based economy to alternative energy and other sectors.
“I‘m a die-hard Republican. But I‘m a Nevadan first. And what is good for Nevada is to get Harry Reid re-elected,” vowed Jim Murren, the head of casino company MGM Mirage, which has benefited from lobbying by Reid.
Editing by Mary Milliken and Christopher Wilson