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Prison Massages Beat Chicken Barter at Polls: Margaret Carlson

Harry Reid is as happy as a man in his position could be, given that the Republican Party views him as its most delectable prey.

Nevadans just chose the most extreme candidate on the GOP ballot to run against Reid, the Democratic leader in the U.S. Senate. And no, it’s not the chicken-barter lady, Sue Lowden.

Lowden in fact was Reid’s nightmare, the Republican with the best chance of defeating him, at least until her tirade against Obamacare. She tried to argue that mandatory, universal health insurance was unnecessary because anyone in need of a flu shot or prostate test could, as in the old days, offer the doctor a piece of fowl -- she didn’t specify broiled, roasted or fried -- instead of an insurance card. As if Nevadans kept henhouses in their backyards.

Lowden’s goose was cooked. Sharron Angle, a former state legislator and favorite of the Tea Party movement, surged at her expense and now is the Republican nominee for Senate.

She will be an easier candidate for Reid to beat, a far more troublesome candidate for Republicans to drag across the finish line. Her views on downsizing government, including calls to “transition out” Social Security and abolish the U.S. Education Department, make a chicken-based economy look reasonable by comparison.

Fault Line

Angle’s victory exposed the fault line among Republicans as they try to make big gains in the midterm elections. Yes, the Tea Party provides energy and focus for the disaffected who are determined to throw secular, “socialist” Democratic incumbents out of office. But if Tea Party candidates have their way in the primaries against more mainstream Republicans, as Rand Paul did in Kentucky before Angle’s victory in Nevada, they’re going to have a tough go of it in November.

As with Paul, most voters didn’t know about Angle’s marginal views before electing her.

It’s unlikely Paul would have pulled off his upset victory over Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson had he emphasized his support for re-segregating lunch counters or defended BP Plc on the grounds that “accidents happen.” Similarly, Angle would have had a much harder time had voters focused on her desire to downsize government in ways even the angriest Nevadan might question.

For instance, no matter how sick and tired they might be of Reid, Nevadans might pause before abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, especially in the midst of the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And the current economy is a hard one in which to push phasing out Social Security. Even in a state where the casino is king, people worried about their shrinking 401(k)s may not be anxious, with the market taking a dramatic drop this month, to gamble away Social Security’s sure thing.

Room for Massage

Angle’s advocacy of barebones government programs comes with at least one curious exception.

After touring a prison in Mexico that provides massages for prisoners as part of a detox program seemingly modeled on one created by the Church of Scientology, Angle tried to organize a second trip of legislators. When that became public, she quickly scrubbed the trip, as well as references on her website to Scientologists -- so it was bye-bye to actresses Kelly Preston (John Travolta’s wife) and Jenna Elfman.

She didn’t back down on other matters.

If you live outside Nevada, there’s a case to be made for stashing nuclear trash there rather than in your own backyard. Inside Nevada, letting Yucca Mountain become the country’s nuclear dump is decidedly less popular. Angle couched her support for the idea in economic-development terms. But promoting your own state as “the nuclear energy capital of reprocessing spent fuels” is akin to volunteering to stand in for New York City as host of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s trial.

Party Warfare

The Tea Party movement also had a good showing in South Carolina, in a race that saw the craziest behavior of this primary season. Republican gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley, backed by Sarah Palin, had all kinds of fights on her hand.

“We’ve got a raghead in Washington; we don’t need a raghead in the Statehouse,” spewed Jake Knotts, a Republican state senator -- presumably, and bewilderingly, referring to Haley’s Indian heritage and the false notion that Barack Obama is a Muslim. Even before that slur, two men had claimed they had adulterous affairs with Haley, a married mother of two.

Untrue, said Haley, and Palin recorded telephone messages urging voters to disregard “made-up nonsense.” In a fit of maturity, Palmetto State Republicans disregarded the sideshow and gave Haley a big win, though not quite big enough to avert a June 22 runoff.

CEOs Advance

In California’s Republican primary, meanwhile, former EBay Inc. Chief Executive Officer Meg Whitman won the gubernatorial nomination and former Hewlett-Packard Co. CEO Carly Fiorina won the party’s backing for Senate.

Yesterday’s election results may show something of a pattern to Tea Party wins -- the movement works better in small states than in large ones -- as well as a pattern to Palin’s endorsements: she’s good at sniffing out a winner.

And perhaps, under the radar in this tumultuous year of the Tea Party, we are finally in the midst of a real Year of the Woman.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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