It’s 2 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon and the tour bus of country musician Bobby Freeman is parked in front of Sharron Angle’s campaign headquarters in Reno, Nev. Freeman, the aging songwriter once friendly with Jerry Lee Lewis, has written a campaign jingle for Angle to play on local radio stations. About half a dozen campaign staffers sit tapping their toes in Freeman’s bus as they listen to his new tune. “This, my friends, is going to turn the race around,” Freeman shouts over the piano. “Harry Reid is toast!” Everyone laughs.
It’s funny for two reasons. One, because the caricature of a country musician in big boots and a 10-gallon hat isn’t the most convincing portrait of a political kingmaker. But it’s funny also because, well, he could be right. If state polling is to be believed, Angle, the little-known Reno Republican with a reputation for being a crusading mother and bombastic politician, might actually beat Majority Leader Harry Reid, the most powerful politician in Nevada’s history.
On the day that Freeman unveils his jingle, however, Angle is nowhere to be found. Like some other conservative women this election cycle, Angle has lowered her profile, appearing only at unannounced campaign events and granting very few interviews, speaking over the past month only to conservative radio hosts. (Her campaign declined to talk with NEWSWEEK for this story). The Reid campaign, predictably, says Angle’s unwillingness to grant interviews and appear in public is a preview of what kind of leader she would be—“one who can’t answer tough questions,” says a Reid staffer. Although Reid himself has also sat for very few interviews. “It’s the new thing in Nevada,” says Heidi Smith, chair of the Washoe County GOP, where Angle lives. “No one will talk to the press anymore. They’re afraid of their words being used against them.”
Beltway pundits have obsessed over Angle as another come-from-behind conservative woman this year—a “mama grizzly,” a term NEWSWEEK explored on its cover this week. But to Nevada politicos, Angle is regarded as a sometimes-curious state politician. Some describe her as a loyal family woman who lives modestly and throws great Christmas parties. Former legislative colleagues recall a reclusive loner and legislator loath to compromise.
Nevada may be the perfect case study of the country’s woes. At 14.2 percent, the state’s unemployment rate is among the nation’s highest. And Reno, Angle’s hometown and one of the state’s two major cities, has the highest foreclosure rate—a debilitating statistic brought on mainly by the quick boom and crippling bust of Californians who drove east to buy cheap houses and then, just as suddenly, walked away. There’s also a classic north-south divide. The casino-dense metropolis of Las Vegas is markedly more liberal than the sparser strip of Reno. Between the two is a whole lot of nothing, except, as one woman at the airport warned, “a bunch of brothels.”
Angle moved to Nevada in the 1970s, which, technically, was when her political career began. As the mother of two young kids in Winnemucca—a dot on the map a few hours northeast of Reno—Angle was alarmed at the accessibility of X-rated magazines in the town’s two convenience stores. The law said they had to be covered and shelved behind the counter, and Angle demanded that the law be enforced. Her crusade lit up the whole town. “You don’t find many controversies in small towns that get someone that riled up, but it did,” says William MacDonald, the district attorney at the time.
Not bad for a concerned mom. A decade later Angle would be a school-board member in central Nevada. By the mid-’90s, enjoying the fun and prestige of public advocacy, she began a radio show on a local Christian station. “Everyone kept telling her she should run for office,” recalls a Reno city official, who, like others in this story, asked not be named speaking about Angle because of their ties to her. Angle has run in every state election for the past 15 years (one friend says campaigning is Angle’s favorite hobby). She’s won about half.
Angle’s past might offer a portrait of her style of legislating. In the state Assembly, where she sat from 1999 to 2005, Angle, several Democratic and Republican colleagues recall, was reflexively disapproving. When the body met every odd year (Nevada has a part-time citizens’ legislature), Angle would always keep to herself. Frequently, she would vote that way too. It became a running joke in the legislature that fairly germane bills, such as increasing teacher incentives or requiring candidates to report campaign contributions, passed “41 to Angle” (out of 42 members). Angle was the sole 'no' vote 39 times. Twice as often, it was Angle and fellow conservative Don Gustavson, now a candidate for a seat in the state Senate, who bucked the rest of the bipartisan legislature.
On other votes, Angle mostly fell in line with many in her caucus. But some of the bills Angle pushed herself proved unpopular; some even confused her fellow GOP colleagues. Twice she tried to push an education bill requiring that elementary schools only use phonics to teach reading, essentially ignoring the conventional wisdom of the day that students learn in different ways. Only when she watered it down two years later did it pass out of committee. Repeatedly, Angle sponsored a measure to require doctors who perform abortions to advise their patients about a link between abortions and breast cancer. There isn’t any, but citing several studies (which had been debunked), Angle—now known for her uncompromising stance on abortion—smelled a conspiracy against her. One GOP member of Angle’s committee, who asked not to be named, remembers discussions in the party’s cloak room. “We were confused why she was doing it.” After six years in the Assembly, Angle had sponsored 57 bills; two became law.
Washington could be a different story. If she wins, Angle is expected to pursue several lofty goals, including repealing the Democrats’ package of health-care reforms. She’s also expressed interest in “transitioning” Social Security into a new system that would give everyone a “personal account.” Opponents fear that could be code for privatizing the system, and thus removing the security of a government-backed safety net. When approached recently by a reporter from the CBS station in Las Vegas, Angle declined to elaborate on her plans on either front. She accused the reporter of “believing Harry Reid’s lie.” When he followed up, she ran to her car.
Gustavson regards Angle as “a stateswoman” who fought for her constituents on values such as “freedom” and “liberty.” “You won’t find anyone with a stronger character,” he says. That character has helped her on the campaign trail. One of Angle’s greatest political skills, recall two former Nevada political reporters, is her ability to connect with people—specifically via the five-minute sell, as campaign consultants call it, when a candidate has only a small window of time at someone’s door to secure a vote. “It didn’t matter what she said, you’d walk back inside going ‘wow, that woman is so nice,’ ” says Sheila Leslie, a liberal colleague of Angle’s in the legislature.
Most of Angle’s success has been a result of that every woman kind of appeal. Channeling Sarah Palin’s brand of “common sense” conservatism, Angle has claimed that she’s one of the people—a mother, neighbor, and fighter willing to go to Washington so the rest of her friends don’t have to. In her campaign brochures, she’s pictured with a pickup truck. She also reminds voters that she attends church regularly.
In Angle’s idyllic middle-class neighborhood, her neighbors’ view of her splits as dramatically as the electorate. Some recall jovial holiday parties filled with group prayer (and lacking alcohol). One neighbor who lived several doors down, when asked if I could speak to him about Angle, told me, literally, not to mention her name on his property. He refused to elaborate. A veteran state political reporter remembers Angle’s poor manners. After her past two election losses, she never even called her opponent, state Sen. Bill Raggio, to concede.
This time, though, she's hoping she won't have to.
It’s easy to see how Angle, the rampaging mom turned legislator, could catch people’s attention, especially during times of such immense economic uncertainty. But even her own allies admit she may also be the beneficiary of a historic moment. Outside of her Reno headquarters, a campaign volunteer, wearing a SHARRON ANGLE FOR SENATE T shirt, explained a possible reason for Angle’s appeal. “You don’t have to be happy about the candidate. Just be happy about getting Harry [Reid] out of there.”