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December 21, 2014

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This is all winging it’

Chickengate notwithstanding, GOP Senate candidate Sue Lowden is charting an uncertain course between her party and the fringe

"A lot of these holsters make you look fat,” the frontrunner says. “You don’t want to look fat while you’re carrying.” Sue Lowden, a wealthy casino executive and leading Republican candidate for Harry Reid’s Senate seat, is turning on the charm at the “Crossroads of the West” gun show in Reno during a recent statewide campaign swing. For an hour, she moves through the place, talking to folks and sampling the wares—except at the Taser booth; those people are actually Tasering each other. As the bearer of a concealed-carry permit, she had this crowd at hello. (It won’t be her only firearms-related event, either.)

At one booth, she picks up a tube top and flirts with the salesman. “I bet they love this in Virginia City,” she says. He laughs: “Yes, they do.” Soon, it’s time to go. As she leaves with a goody bag containing exploding targets, lipstick-shaped pepper spray and a box of hollow-point bullets, she says, grinning, “I love the gun show. I knew you were my people.”

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Power point: Sue Lowden loves guns, gun shows and gun people.

But not her only people. A few stops earlier, after an event in Winnemucca, while her rivals John Chachas and Sharron Angle troll for votes at a nearly empty barbecue joint, Lowden sips a Manhattan and talks to a group of business leaders—and prospective donors—at a Basque restaurant. Her campaign called ahead.

Of course, this dance between populist appeal and establishment connections is part of the job description for any serious candidate. They all know the steps. But it’s a particularly interesting and complicated process when it comes to Lowden—a wealthy woman trying to play off of her humble roots; a party insider hoping to channel anti-establishment anger in an election cycle upended by the Tea Party; a candidate with a decidedly mixed political record, both as a state senator and GOP state chairwoman; a candidate who has to fend off her party’s primary opponents even as Reid has already opened fire on her.

And that was before Chickengate.

So it’s fair to ask, what makes 58-year-old Sue Lowden the frontrunner? Is it because she has more experience than Danny Tarkanian? More name recognition than Sharron Angle? More Nevada bona fides than John Chachas? Is she the frontrunner because Harry Reid treats her that way?

In short, Lowden is the best of the rest—the rest being 13 scrappy Republicans who, in any other year, would be lucky to win a seat on their homeowners’ association board, maybe an Assembly seat. Surely, this was not the scenario the national GOP envisioned for Operation Daschle 2.0. In 2004, Republicans successfully ran South Dakota’s lone congressman, John Thune, against Sen. Tom Daschle, Reid’s predecessor as majority and then minority leader. This time around, they had hoped to recruit Rep. Dean Heller, a popular elected official whose district covers most of Nevada. Heller says no. The national party’s second choice, former Rep. Jon Porter, also took a pass.

A third contender, Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, was under a cloud of indictment stemming from his management of a college savings plan while he was state treasurer. (The charges were later dismissed.) Enter the fringe, including Bill Parson, a 23-year Marine vet who gives The Big Lebowski’s Walter Sobchak a run for his money (“We’re talking about unchecked aggression here, dude”). Tarkanian quickly became the Republican favorite. Perhaps Lowden, then the chairwoman of the Nevada Republican Party, offered the best comment on the field—by resigning her post to become a candidate herself.

“I didn’t think there was anyone in the race who could beat Harry Reid,” she says.

It’s March, and Lowden has had enough. That’s the reason she, her husband and her campaign consultants are holed up in the second-floor conference room of the Jones Vargas law firm. They’re hunkered down 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 opposition researchers.

Reid’s re-election campaign has been working to define the frontrunner in the Republican primary, seeking to inflict a fatal wound—or, failing that, soften her up for a general election trouncing. His aides have scoured every form of personal and professional record—business, taxes, real estate. The headline on an early press release read, “Lowden’s Casinos A Dangerous Place to Work,” noting, in bold, that some employees had once been exposed to “Bloodborne Pathogens.”

All of this serves a simple campaign narrative: Lowden will do anything to make a buck. Within the last week, Reid’s campaign had piled on, painting her as a legislator who crafted tax policy to enrich her own business and a homeowner who cheated workers out of payment for the construction of a lavish $4 million estate. The attacks were weak but nevertheless dangerous in a state struggling with some of the highest unemployment and foreclosure rates in the country.

So Team Lowden is a bit testy—and eager to change the ground rules. Campaign manager Robert Uithoven says Sue and Paul Lowden would no longer publicly respond to Reid’s charges. “When Harry Reid is ready to come out and launch these attacks himself, we’ll have at it,” Uithoven says. “He can hide behind his staffers, but Sue Lowden is not going to respond to his henchmen.”

Lowden smiles and shrugs, then punches away at her BlackBerry, head down. She really should be prepping for an upcoming debate with Tarkanian, who has been working in earnest to sully her conservative credentials by portraying her as the establishment candidate. But clearly, Reid is getting under her skin. As the frontrunner, Lowden must fight two wars simultaneously. Whether she can withstand the dual, scorched-earth assault remains the race’s biggest question—one she shakes off with swagger.

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

On paper, Lowden is Reid’s perfect foil. She’s an attractive woman adept at retail politics. In many ways, she’s Nevada’s answer to Sarah Palin.

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Before Sue Lowden's first political career she was largely known as a TV reporter and anchorwoman.

Their profiles are strikingly similar: one-time beauty queens who got their start in television news before embracing conservative politics and seeking higher office. Both connect through body language (smiles and winks), stick doggedly to message and revert to their reporter roots when under media fire, answering questions with questions. They both love to shoot.

But the Palin factor cuts both ways.

The two share a propensity for missteps when they go off script. Last year, Lowden laughed at a conservative radio talk show host’s suggestion that Reid was exaggerating a 1981 incident in which police found a crude bomb under his family’s station wagon. Problem was, she couldn’t recall the threat, despite being a reporter here at the time. This winter, 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.

Then came Chickengate, spurred by Lowden’s very own Macaca Moment, captured on tape by Reid’s researchers. It started at a town hall meeting in Mesquite last month. Lowden offered the following when discussing health care: “Bartering is really good. Those doctors who take cash, you can barter … and that would get prices down in a hurry. I would say go ahead and pay cash for whatever your medical needs are, and go ahead and barter with your doctor.”

The gaffe quickly made its way into Jay Leno’s Tonight Show monologue, but Lowden didn’t flinch. In fact, she doubled down, defending the comment on a Northern Nevada public affairs program. “You know, before we all started having health care, in the olden days our grandparents, they would bring a chicken to the doctor, they would say I’ll paint your house,” she says. “I mean, that’s the old days of what people would do to get health care with your doctors. Doctors are very sympathetic people. I’m not backing down from that system.”

The Reid campaign sent out a statement with the subject line: “Has Sue Lowden Lost her Mind?”

Clearly, the slip threatened to make her appear out of touch, which is the very attack Republicans had hoped to use against Reid. It was an attack ad that wrote itself. As Lowden’s campaign continued to defend the comments, distributing a lengthy background document to the media about negotiating with doctors, the remarks went viral: withering blog posts and YouTube videos, including a memorable one by the liberal ProgressNow Nevada that featured dancing chickens and a techno beat, complete with the refrain, “Bring a chicken to the doctor.” Stephen Colbert devoted an entire four-and-a-half minute segment to it. Former Gov. Bob List, a GOP national committeeman, started getting calls from Republicans in Washington: What the heck is going on?

It wasn’t until last week, after weeks of ridicule, that Lowden tried to clarify her comments. She penned an opinion column in Politico, seemingly a play at winning back the Washington types. “The comment I made about bartering was not, and was never intended to be, a policy proposal,” she wrote. “It was an example of how struggling families are working to pay for medical care in any way they can during these tough times.”

Lowden likes to tell Republican crowds the race is a rerun of her first, and only successful, political campaign, albeit on a much larger scale. In 1992, she beat state Senate Majority Leader John “Jack” Vergiels in a heavily Democratic district, swinging control of the Senate to Republicans. Up to that point, Lowden had made a name for herself as a TV reporter and anchorwoman in Las Vegas, trading a decade-long career in journalism for an executive suite at her husband’s casino company, Sahara Resorts Inc., in 1987.

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 longtime friends and political pundits. They seemed to surprise Vergiels even more. “She hasn’t learned yet to keep her mouth quiet ...,” he told a newspaper columnist. “She ought to get her research together and stop talking like everything’s a sound bite.”

But that was the strategy. Although the pension increase was reversed before it took effect and Vergiels was never indicted in the securities investigation, Lowden used the material as campaign fodder.

“We forgot people don’t care about the details,” says a Democratic operative familiar with the campaign. “She knew that 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.

“This is somebody you don’t want to underestimate,” the Democratic source says. “When you get her one on one with people, they feel what’s in her heart.”

And yet few of her friends and associates seemed to know about her political leanings until that campaign. Lowden says she quietly changed her voter registration from independent to Republican toward the end of her TV career in the late 1980s so that she could vote in the primaries. “I couldn’t take it anymore. I have a passion for right and wrong.” Her most political act before running for state Senate was touring Vietnam in 1971 with Bob Hope and the USO.

In the Legislature, she showed her conservative colors.

Lowden’s signature achievement in the 1993 session was leading efforts to privatize the state’s workers-compensation system, allowing businesses to opt out of the public program and purchase private insurance. The law was enacted after a study showed the system faced $2.2 billion in long-term debt. To drive the crisis home, she voted to reduce workers benefits, before voting again to restore them. “It gets people’s attention when you see the worst-case scenario,” she said at the time.

Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, Lowden and her husband were engaged in a full-on labor war with the Culinary Union over its efforts to organize the Santa Fe, one of the couple’s four casinos. The Lowdens dug in their heels, fighting the organizing drive, in part because they said the union had broken its promise not to unionize the locals casino. The deal, they said, was part of receiving generous contracts in 1989 at the couple’s Strip properties, the Sahara and the Hacienda.

But the Culinary, whose membership is confined to the Strip and Downtown, had long sought to unionize the locals market, and the Santa Fe provided the perfect opening. Labor and management fought bitterly throughout 1993, filing unfair labor practice charges against each other as a union election approached. Ultimately, the union won the vote, 300-241, but the Lowdens challenged the results, claiming employees had been intimidated.

In Carson City, she supported a proposal to remove union representatives from the workers-compensation board. The Culinary sent representatives and workers to frustrate her reform efforts and embarrass her in hearings. The back-and-forth was ugly. The union sent a mailer to voters in Lowden’s district with the heading “The Lowden Firing Squad,” complete with drawings of bullet-riddled workers.

At one point, an AFL-CIO official threatened to tell union members about one of her votes. Her response: “There’s nothing you can do to me that you haven’t done already.”

Labor proved her wrong. The Culinary poured all its resources into a “So Long, Sue” campaign in 1996. The union backed Valerie Wiener, a former Reid press secretary, and lobbed a vicious attack, saying Lowden opposed immunizations for children. Labor leaders cited her support for an amendment that would have eliminated a mandate for parents to vaccinate their children for diseases such as measles and tetanus. At the time, Lowden said children were “suffering and dying from the shots themselves” amid a national scare, and that requiring immunizations is “the ultimate government intervention.”

She lost reelection by 9 percentage points.

On the 2010 campaign trail, too much government experience is a liability in a Republican primary driven by voters angry over health-care reform and the bank and auto bailouts. So Lowden emphasizes her business background, saying she’s the only candidate who knows what it’s like to make payroll. Over the past two decades, she has held various titles, first at Sahara Gaming Inc. and then Archon Corp. Asked to cite her major responsibilities, she says she oversaw the company’s workers-compensation system in 1992. Otherwise, her day-to-day role is unclear. In an interview, she says most of her work over the past two decades has involved marketing and public relations.

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

It’s this part of her resume that Reid is mining—thoroughly. Most damaging is the ream of workplace safety violations at four Lowden properties. The Occupational, Safety and Health Administration cited the Lowdens’ companies more than 221 times over a 20-year period, resulting in more than $100,000 in fines.

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

Because OSHA fines are generally low, around $600, the $100,000 figure is significant, Monforton says. “Anyone that gets $100,000 in penalties stands out,” she says.

Besides suggesting that some of the violations were the result of “union thuggery,” Lowden’s campaign officials declined to comment on the specific charges. Instead, they cited a series of proclamations by former Democratic Gov. Bob Miller lauding the Lowdens for their Nevada business ventures and an official recommendation letter from Reid himself in 1992 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. “Like many other private-sector employees and job providers, they have had ups and downs. But 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. Over the course of two days of interviews, she broaches the subject a few times—and then moves on. He comes up, unexpectedly, when Lowden is asked about her favorite book. It’s Night by Elie Wiesel, though she couldn’t remember the author. Besides being a powerful Holocaust narrative, the book left marks for another reason: Reading it with Will in middle school, she discovered her son was dyslexic. Shifting direction, she says he was a gifted musician, a bass player. Lowden and her husband, Paul, joyfully recall his audition at Las Vegas Academy. Paul, a former jazzman himself, jammed on keyboards.

Lowden wipes away tears. It’s still too raw.

Gradually, she recovered, inching back into politics. She held fundraisers for candidates and says she even gave Tarkanian, her chief rival in the primary, media advice during his failed bid for secretary of state in 2006. “I saw the spark ignited back in her,” says Lorraine Hunt, the former lieutenant governor whose 2006 gubernatorial bid Lowden supported. “I realized she hadn’t skipped a beat. She had kept up with things locally and nationally.”

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 has it. It’s also the source of high praise and harsh criticism from the 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.

Lowden says the Nevada Republican Party was in debt to the tune of a few hundred thousand dollars when she took over, depleted from the 2006 cycle and drifting aimlessly after years of dominance at the top of the ticket.

At the same time, Democrats, bolstered by Reid and his rainmaking, were working methodically to build a grass-roots network of volunteers and activists in advance of their party’s early presidential caucus, with an eye toward Reid’s 2010 reelection campaign.

Lowden worked with Republican consultants to remain competitive. But it was too little, too late. Lowden found herself engaged in a disappointing game of catch-up, with little to no help from the state’s top Republicans. Gov. Gibbons was sidelined by low approval ratings and personal problems; Sen. John Ensign, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, seemingly made things worse by siphoning money from Nevada donors for Senate races elsewhere.

All told, Nevada Democrats raised five times as much as Republicans in 2008, taking in $3.5 million compared to the GOP’s $695,535.

To make matters worse, Sen. John McCain, the party’s presidential nominee, wrote off the state’s early caucus and invested little money in building a Nevada campaign for the general election.

But you won’t hear any of that from Lowden. Whatever criticism she offers is subtle, always conscious of protecting the brand. “They were really difficult years,” Lowden says. “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. Still, some 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. Even a small organizational effort could have saved vulnerable Republicans like state Sen. Joe Heck, who lost reelection by less than 1 percentage point.

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. It’s an event that rank-and-file Republicans haven’t forgotten.

Lowden admits she was unprepared for the state convention but notes that Clark County Democrats also needed a do-over because of massive disorganization and confusion. “People were excited and passionate about the races,” she says. “This year, that energy is not the same.”

Of all the scheduled stops on Sue Lowden’s bus tour of rural Nevada, the parking lot of a Reno shopping mall is not on the list. Having just charmed voters at the gun show, the Republican Party’s next great hope to unseat Harry Reid is ensconced in a leather captain’s chair on her bus, 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 and her husband are casino executives worth an estimated $50 million.

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Sue Lowden's lazy left eye required some retouching for the side of her tour bus.

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 says. “We had to touch it up a lot before we got it right.”

Nevada’s GOP 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.

While other candidates have leaflets at these events, Lowden has banners. Big banners. On prominent display. “All the relationships I built as party chair,” she says, “they’re bearing fruit.”

It doesn’t get much more establishment than this. In any other year, the label would be a prize. In 2010, it’s a slur, especially to the Tea Party movement that’s animating the Republican primary. The movement, while fractious, is defined in large part by its deep, abiding hatred of the political establishment.

Few issues provoke more anger among them 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. In January, she seemed to appreciate the nuances of 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, many economists say the injection of capital prevented the collapse of the financial system.)

However, as Reid’s campaign points out, her 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.

Tarkanian, sensing an opening, claimed Lowden supports socialism.

She responded by moderating 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 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.

Which brings us back to the Reno gun show, where she’s getting an earful of populist discontent.

“I was going to tell you Harry Reid was here 45 minutes ago,” one vendor tells her. “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 gunned-down U.S. senator hanging in the air.

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

That’s the delicate line Sue Lowden 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.

It will certainly take more than a few gun-show appearances to win over the fringe: Not long afterward, the Tea Party Express endorsed Sharron Angle.

Still, the frontrunner hasn’t given up on them. “People who sat on their couches and yelled at their TVs for years are getting involved,” she says. “It’s a mixture of folks who never felt they had a voice. I admire them. I’ve worked in the trenches for years. I’m glad people are getting more engaged in politics.

“I think they’re good for the country,” she says. “We’ll see if they’re good for me.”

J. Patrick Coolican contributed to this story. A version of this ran in the Las Vegas Sun.

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