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August 27, 2014

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Many fronts in Sue Lowden’s fight

Before she faces formidable Reid, she must prevail in big primary field. So she’s reaching out to disparate voter blocs

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Sam Morris

Campaign manager Robert Uithoven whispers to Senate candidate Sue Lowden during a Lincoln Day lunch in Battle Mountain Saturday, February 20, 2010.

Sue Lowden

Senate candidate Sue Lowden looks out the window while she and her husband Paul Lowden travel on her campaign bus to a Lincoln Day dinner in Minden Sunday, February 21, 2010. Launch slideshow »
Harry Reid

Harry Reid

Sun Coverage

Of all the scheduled stops on Sue Lowden’s bus tour of rural Nevada, a Reno shopping mall is not on the list.

Having just charmed voters at the “Crossroads of the West” gun show, the Republican Party’s next great hope to unseat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is ensconced in a leather captain’s chair, feet up, Starbucks in hand, waiting on an aide to run an errand at a clothing boutique.

The tensions of her candidacy are clear: Lowden, a one-time Jersey Shore waitress, is trying to channel her working-class roots to connect with a conservative populism that rails against privileged elites, while she herself lives a life of wealth and luxury associated with the country club establishment. She and her husband are casino executives worth an estimated $50 million.

Lowden’s tour bus is hardly Scott Brown’s pickup truck.

The “Monaco Executive” comes complete with kitchen, shower and bed. An armed driver doubles as a bodyguard. Lowden’s face is meticulously rendered on the side of the bus, next to iconic Nevada imagery, including the Strip and Hoover Dam. She oversaw the detailing personally.

“I have a lazy left eye,” she said. “We had to touch it up a lot before we got it right.”

Other candidates have leaflets at events; Lowden has banners. Big banners.

In Winnemucca, while her rivals troll for votes at a nearly empty barbecue joint, Lowden sips a Manhattan and talks to business leaders — and prospective donors — at a Basque restaurant.

Nevada’s political elite get the message. Over the course of a two-day tour, Rep. Dean Heller and Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki visit the bus to wish her well.

In any other year, a candidate would highlight a lavishly funded campaign with establishment support — a way to put some distance between herself and 11 other Republicans vying to take on Reid in November. In 2010, it can be a liability. The Tea Party movement that’s animating the GOP primary here, although fractious, is defined in large part by its deep hatred of the political establishment. Lowden’s chief rival, Danny Tarkanian, is seeking traction by labeling her an entrenched insider.

Meanwhile, Reid’s campaign is making her balancing act more difficult. Recognizing she presents perhaps the most potent threat to Reid’s re-election, it isn’t waiting for GOP voters to weigh in. It’s launched an offensive, issuing near-daily attacks portraying Lowden as a greedy corporate chief who treated her employees poorly to boost the bottom line.

Similar to, different from Sarah Palin

On paper, Lowden is Senate Majority Leader Reid’s perfect foil. She’s an attractive woman adept at retail politics.

On a snowy Sunday in February, she was going all Sarah Palin at the gun show with the voters who will decide the GOP nomination.

Lowden had them at hello, but her concealed-carry permit didn’t hurt either.

She makes the rounds and poses for pictures. At one booth, Lowden, 58, picks up a tube top and flirts with the salesman.

“I bet they love this in Virginia City,” she said.

He laughs: “Yes, they do.”

She moves on to the holsters.

“A lot of these holsters make you look fat,” she said. “You don’t want to look fat while you’re carrying.”

In many ways, Lowden is Nevada’s answer to Palin.

Their profiles are strikingly similar: one-time beauty queens who got their starts in television news before embracing conservative politics and seeking office. Both connect through body language (smiles and winks), stick doggedly to message and revert to their reporter roots when under media fire by answering questions with questions. Lowden and Palin are self-described “hockey moms” and profess a love of shooting.

The Palin parallels, however, cut both ways.

The two share a propensity for gaffes when they go off script. For example, while talking to reporters about her casino company’s battles with the Culinary Union, Lowden falsely claimed that as a state senator she was the swing vote against a bill that would have overturned Nevada’s right-to-work law. No such bill ever existed.

Like Palin, Lowden shrugs off the errors with a smile, as if to say, “Everyone makes mistakes. Moving on.”

Still, their stories diverge in one crucial area. Palin rose from small-town mayor to Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate in part because of her image as a politician with the common touch — someone willing to get her hands dirty plucking salmon from the family fishing nets and shooting wolves, albeit from a helicopter.

Lowden, who loves to watch the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, could have a harder time convincing working-class Nevadans that she’s one of them.

To be sure, Lowden has decidedly humble roots. Her grandparents were Lithuanian immigrants who worked in Pennsylvania coal mines. She grew up in the small town of National Park, N.J., and was raised by a single mother. As a teenager and through college, she spent summers serving food at a fish fry on the New Jersey shore.

In 1973, Lowden won the Miss New Jersey crown and was second runner-up in the Miss America Pageant, using the scholarship money toward a master’s degree in human development. Despite marrying a wealthy casino owner, friends say Lowden still hunts for sales and splits sticks of gum.

But Lowden’s blue-collar background doesn’t square easily with her conservative politics. As a state senator, she fought for corporate tax breaks and sought to curb the power of labor unions. It was a Republican fervor few saw coming.

Political instinctsrevealed in ’92 race

Lowden likes to tell Republican crowds that this Senate race is a rerun of her first, and only successful, political campaign, albeit on a larger scale.

In 1992, she beat state Senate Majority Leader John “Jack” Vergiels in a heavily Democratic district.

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Senate candidate Sue Lowden speaks to a Lincoln Day breakfast crowd in Lovelock while on a campaign swing through northern Nevada Sunday, February 21, 2010.

Lowden had made a name for herself as a TV reporter and anchorwoman in Las Vegas before trading her decadelong career in journalism for an executive suite at her husband’s casino company, Sahara Resorts Inc.

She attacked Vergiels out of the gate, targeting his votes on a $300 million tax package and a 300 percent pension increase for legislators. She also highlighted his connection to a penny-stock scheme that had been investigated by state regulators.

The killer instincts surprised friends and political pundits. They seemed to surprise Vergiels even more.

As the campaign heated up, he told a newspaper columnist, “She hasn’t learned yet to keep her mouth quiet ... She ought to get her research together and stop talking like everything’s a sound bite.”

But that was the strategy, even though the pension increase was reversed before it took effect and Vergiels wasn’t indicted in the securities investigation.

“We forgot people don’t care about the details,” a Democratic operative familiar with the campaign said. “With a smile and really taking some time to hit the high points, she could satisfy the questions of people at the door. She took up the task as if her life depended on it. She won, and she did it handily.”

Friends and associates knew little about her political leanings until that campaign. Lowden said she changed her registration from independent to Republican in the late 1980s because “I couldn’t take it anymore. I have a passion for right and wrong.”

What brought her off the fence is unclear, but her most recent political act before running for state Senate was touring Vietnam with Bob Hope and the USO in 1971.

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Campaign worker Nick Vander Poel (L) talks with Sue Lowden and husband Paul Lowden on Sue's campaign bus during a stop in Reno while making a campaign swing through northern Nevada Sunday, February 21, 2010.

In the state Senate, she showed her conservative colors.

Lowden’s signature achievement in the 1993 session was an effort to privatize the state’s workers’ compensation system.

Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, Lowden and her husband were engaged in a labor war with the Culinary Union over its efforts to organize the Santa Fe, one of the couple’s four casinos.

Labor and management at the Santa Fe fought bitterly throughout 1993. The union won an election, 300-241, but the Lowdens challenged the results, claiming employees had been intimidated.

In Carson City, Lowden supported a proposal to remove union representatives from the workers’ compensation board. And the union attempted to frustrate her reform efforts and embarrass her during legislative hearings.

In one instance, a Santa Fe cook said he had been fired for testifying about working conditions at the casino. The company denied the charge, saying he had violated the casino’s tip rule.

In 1995, as the Lowdens continued to challenge the Santa Fe election results, she continued the battle against organized labor at the Legislature. She proposed an amendment requiring gaming-employee unions to undergo the same regulatory scrutiny as casino operators. The measure was a shot at the Culinary, which, under new leadership, was seeking to turn the page on its past affiliations with organized crime.

The following year, as Lowden ran for re-election, the Culinary launched a “So Long, Sue” campaign. The union backed Valerie Wiener, a former press secretary for Reid, and lobbed a vicious attack, saying Lowden opposed immunizations for children.

Labor leaders cited her support of a bill that would have eliminated a mandate for parents to vaccinate their children. At the time, Lowden said children were “dying from the shots themselves” amid a national scare, and that requiring immunizations is “the ultimate government intervention.”

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Senate candidate Sue Lowden laughs with Vicki Kawelmacher from the Women's Shooting Academy at a gun show in Reno while on a campaign swing through northern Nevada Sunday, February 21, 2010.

She lost re-election by 9 percentage points.

Feeling the heat from multiple directions

In mid-March, Lowden and her husband, Paul, are holed up in the second-floor conference room of the Jones Vargas law firm with the Lowden legal archive — affidavits, correspondence, rulings and newspaper clippings spanning two decades.

The meeting is to counter the almost-daily attacks she’s taking from Reid and his team of researchers.

For a little more than a month, Reid’s campaign had been working to define Lowden, seeking to inflict a fatal wound — and failing that, soften her up for a general-election trouncing. Aides have scoured every personal and professional record. “Lowden’s casinos, a dangerous place to work,” read one withering news release.

All of this serves a simple campaign narrative: Lowden will do anything to make a buck. Within the past week, Reid’s campaign had painted her as a legislator who crafted tax policy to enrich her business and a homeowner who cheated workers out of payment for the construction of the $4 million estate.

Although weak, the attacks are nevertheless dangerous in a state struggling with some of the highest unemployment and foreclosure rates in the country.

So, Team Lowden was a bit testy. Campaign manager Robert Uithoven said Lowden would no longer publicly respond to the Reid camp’s charges.

“When Harry Reid is ready to come out and launch these attacks himself, we’ll have at it,” Uithoven said.

Lowden smiled and shrugged, then punched away at her BlackBerry, head down.

On one level, the move allows Lowden to grab the high ground in what’s expected to be one of the nastiest races in the country.

On another level, the episode shows Reid is getting under Lowden’s skin, if only by distracting her from a rigorous and competitive primary.

Lowden expected the Reid onslaught, but it appears her campaign wasn’t prepared for it this soon.

Instead of prepping for an impending debate with Tarkanian she was poring over files related to Reid’s attacks.

As the front-runner, Lowden is fighting two battles. Whether she can withstand the dual, scorched-earth assaults from Reid and Tarkanian is the race’s biggest question — one she shakes off with swagger.

“This is all winging it,” she said. “Throughout my life, I see a door cracked open and I’ve been getting through it.”

After long break from politics, a new GOP role

When the door closed on her career in the Legislature, with her failed re-election bid in 1996, Lowden immersed herself in business and family and put politics on the shelf.

On the campaign trail, Lowden emphasizes she’s the only candidate who knows what it’s like to make payroll.

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Senate candidate Sue Lowden pauses while talking to attendees of a Lincoln Day lunch in Battle Mountain during a campaign tour of northern Nevada Saturday, February 20, 2010.

Over the past two decades, she has held various titles, first at Sahara Gaming Inc., then Archon Corp. Asked to cite her major corporate responsibilities, she said she oversaw workers’ compensation in 1992. Beyond that, her day-to-day role is less clear. In an interview, she said most of her work has involved marketing and public relations.

Michael Gaughan, a longtime casino operator who owns the South Point, summed up the prevailing industry view of the Lowdens: “Her husband was a hermit, and she was the one out front.”

Reid is mining this part of Lowden’s resume for his attacks, digging up a ream of workplace safety violations at four Lowden properties.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the Lowdens’ companies more than 221 times over 20 years, resulting in more than $100,000 in fines.

Celeste Monforton, a workplace safety expert at George Washington University, said that for an industry not perceived as hazardous, the number and level of fines for the hotel and casino violations are notable. The largest fine appears to be a $17,500 penalty for a repeat violation at the Hacienda for failing to keep the floors free of nails, splinters and loose boards.

Lowden’s campaign dismisses the issue. Besides suggesting that some of the violations were the result of “union thuggery,” it cited a 1992 letter from Reid himself urging Illinois regulators to give Paul Lowden a gaming license. In the letter, Reid calls the Lowdens “great assets” to Nevada.

“When you build things of this magnitude, generate tax revenue and create thousands of private-sector jobs, putting it into context with others who have invested in this state, the Lowdens have always been solid, upstanding corporate citizens,” Uithoven said. “The fact is they were always able to maintain their business and gaming licenses.”

Lowden’s life changed in 2004, when she lost her teenage son, Will, to alcohol and drug addiction. It’s hard for her to talk about it. Over the course of two days of interviews, she broaches the subject a few times, unprompted — and then moves on.

After Will’s death, Lowden sank into a deep depression. Friends weren’t sure she would emerge.

Gradually, she recovered, inching back into politics. She held fundraisers for candidates and supported former Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign, weighing in on strategy.

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Sue Lowden waves goodbye to supporters as she leaves Elko during a campaign swing through northern Nevada Saturday, February 20, 2010.

“I saw the spark ignited back in her,” said Hunt, who has known Lowden since her TV days. “I realized she hadn’t skipped a beat.”

When Hunt lost the Republican primary, Lowden supported the winner, Jim Gibbons — and stood by him publicly after he was accused of assaulting a cocktail waitress in a Las Vegas parking garage.

Cheerleading in the rain is typical Lowden. She once told a friend that if a happiness gene exists, she had it.

Her optimism is the source of high praise and harsh criticism from Republican leaders and operatives who recruited her as party chairwoman in 2007.

That Lowden would embrace one of the most thankless jobs in party politics speaks volumes about her desire to get back into the game. The Nevada Republican Party was in debt and drifting aimlessly after years of dominance.

At the same time, Democrats were working to build a network of volunteers and activists in advance of their party’s early presidential caucus, with an eye toward Reid’s 2010 re-election campaign.

Lowden worked with Republican consultants to remain competitive.

But it was too little, too late. Democrats had a yearlong head start, and Lowden had little to no help from the state’s top Republicans.

All told, in 2008 Nevada Democrats raised $3.5 million compared with the GOP’s $695,535.

But you won’t hear any of that from Lowden, who presided over the party’s worst losses in memory, including a presidential landslide and the loss of a congressional seat and control of the state Senate.

“They were really difficult years,” Lowden said. “We didn’t have a Harry Reid leading the charge to persuade companies to help us with our caucus.”

To a certain extent, party insiders say Lowden did the best she could with a bad hand. Some operatives, though, questioned her skills as a manager, blaming her for failing to build even a skeletal network of precinct captains and ground troops for Election Day.

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Sue Lowden talks with Jay Elquist during a stop at Cowboy Joe in Elko while campaigning on the Lincoln Day circuit in northern Nevada Saturday, February 20, 2010.

Some say she squandered the opportunity to cultivate the GOP grass roots during the state party’s aborted 2008 convention, when, faced with an uprising from Rep. Ron Paul supporters, she recessed without selecting delegates to the national convention. In a strange twist, an unopened ballot box was discovered in a Reno casino cage last year. It’s an event that rank-and-file Republicans haven’t forgotten.

A case can also be made that Lowden’s candidacy reflects her failure as party chairwoman to develop talent. When Reps. Dean Heller and Jon Porter passed on the chance to take on Reid, she entered the race, dismissing a crop of other candidates.

“I didn’t think anyone else could beat Harry Reid,” she said.

Extreme right wing a factor in Nevada politics

At the gun show, Lowden works the receptive audience.

“Harry Reid has pissed off a lot of people,” one man says. “And Nancy Pelosi, I wouldn’t pee on her if she were on fire in the street.”

Lowden smiles, hands the man a pamphlet and moves on.

She chats with a vendor about a “fair tax,” before he offers this:

“I was going to tell you Harry Reid was here 45 minutes ago. Then you would ask me, ‘Where is he now?’ And I would say, ‘He’s laying down in the parking lot.’ ”

The man laughs with gusto, the image of a bullet-riddled U.S. senator hanging in the air.

Lowden flashes a beauty-pageant smile and makes an awkward exit.

The exchanges illustrate the delicate line she walks, appealing to the Republican base — including the active fringe — while recognizing that each step to the right takes her further from the politics of a general election.

Few issues provoke more anger among Tea Party members than the Bush-era bank bailout. And Lowden has tried to have it both ways, echoing her attempt to be both establishment and grass-roots candidate.

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Dr. Patricia Wright uses Sue Lowden's back to write down contact information at Cowboy Joe in Elko Saturday, February 20, 2010 during Lowden's campaign tour of Lincoln Day events in Northern Nevada.

In January, she seemed to espouse an appreciation for the nuances of the financial crisis and congressional decision-making.

“It’s easy to say, ‘No, I wouldn’t have voted for it,’ ” she told a Northern Nevada newspaper. “But people were panicked, we were facing collapse — that’s what they were saying. It’s easy to say from a distance, ‘I would have voted no,’ but I can’t do that.”

Indeed, the facts were on her side. Many mainstream economists says the injection of capital into major financial institutions prevented the collapse of the financial system.

As Reid’s campaign points out, her casino company appears to have benefited, if indirectly, from the bailout, receiving a $29 million line of credit in 2008 from Colonial Bank, which later received $550 million in federal assistance through the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

Tarkanian, sensing an opening, claimed Lowden supports socialism.

Lowden responded by walking back her comments, saying that they were part of an “intellectual conversation” with the reporter and that she would not have voted for the bailout, period. In an interview, she went further, saying that the financial meltdown was the result of too much government regulation, not too little.

How this dance plays with the Tea Party crowd is unclear, but Lowden hopes to win its support.

“I think they’re good for the country,” she said of the Tea Party movement. “We’ll see if they’re good for me.”

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