In a state where the major newspapers are often highly partisan, Jon Ralston has been offering Nevadans some of the sharpest coverage of the U.S. Senate race between Harry Reid and Sharron Angle. Ralston, who writes a thrice-weekly column for The Las Vegas Sun and hosts the nightly TV news program Face to Face, spoke to CJR assistant editor Joel Meares about the race and the media covering it. Here is an edited transcript of the conversation.
How would you describe Nevada’s politics for those outside of the state?
It’s always the same, but also always different. While it seems like there is the same issues—small, incestuous, state and city, the oddities of being Nevada, “Sin City,” the last frontier in some ways—the stories just keep changing. The faces are different, the twists are different. It’s a protean world and that’s what I love about covering it.
And what are the driving issues this cycle?
We have an unusual situation here: we may have the worst economy in the country. We’ve got the highest unemployment rate; we’re the foreclosure capital of America. And even though that’s different in the magnitude from other cycles, it still dovetails with an issue I’ve been writing about and talking about for years, which is that the Nevada economy is based on a very narrow set of taxes. So when something bad does happen it’s going to hit us disproportionately. The state budget is based so exclusively on gaming and sales taxes, and despite efforts to try to change that over the years, for a variety of political reasons it has never been accomplished. Now we’re feeling the excessive brunt of this recession because of that. I think the issue of jobs, while it’s the issue everywhere, is especially huge here. In the Senate race, it’s about Harry Reid’s handling of the economy and responsibility for the economy, such as it is, versus Sharron Angle’s various comments about how she would fix or not fix the economy.
How are the candidates faring in that contest?
Angle has made some controversial comments now being exploited by Reid, including saying it’s not the job of the US senator to create jobs. In this economy, that is something that can be exploited. She’s clarified and expanded upon those comments, as she’s doing with a lot of her comments, saying that all the government can do is create a “climate” for job creation. She does essentially have one policy for fixing the economy here in Nevada, and that’s to get rid of Harry Reid.
How have Nevadans responded to Reid’s decision to interject in the near-bankrupt CityCenter project, and protect the jobs of those working on it?
People generally perceive it as a senator doing his job, trying to keep people working during the recession. I haven’t seen any polling to back that up but I think that’s how people perceive it. Now, I, and maybe one other reporter at the time, raised questions about a U.S. senator calling banks, essentially, and trying to influence who they loan money to. Reid’s people reacted by saying, “If this is not his job, what is his job?” But I thought there might be an ethical issue with him doing it.
My issue with Angle is not so much that she said it’s not a U.S. senator’s job to create jobs, but the other things that she’s done. For instance, how do you attack Harry Reid for being responsible for the unemployment rate at the same time as saying it’s not a senator’s job to create jobs? I think that is a dissonance that is very difficult for her to resolve.
More recently, during an interview with the Review-Journal’s editorial board, she was asked about John Ensign making the same phone call. She went into this dissertation saying it was fine to make phone calls to help out a constituent. But Reid did the same thing Ensign did. I just think she’s twisting herself into rhetorical knots here. You can’t say it’s not a U.S. senator’s job to create jobs then accuse Harry Reid of not creating jobs.
And now she’s even trying to massage that rhetoric, saying it’s a senator’s job to create a “climate” for creating jobs. The whole “what I meant to say” mentality of the general election, I think, is hurting her.
It’s helped Reid, who began in a terrible position.