Q & A: Nevada Political Journalist Jon Ralston

“People just hate Harry Reid... They would vote for Charles Manson over Harry Reid."

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.

His approval ratings are absolutely horrific. Here is arguably the most powerful senator Nevada’s ever had and his approval rating rarely gets above forty percent. How does that happen? I don’t think you can cite one thing. Certainly, that he is part of the three-headed face of the agenda in Washington—Obama, Reid, Pelosi—has definitely hurt him. His numbers clearly started to suffer when he got into leadership and he’s been perceived by some as becoming more of a D.C. denizen than a resident of Nevada; he can’t relate to Nevada anymore. All of which Angle has exploited.

There’s also something more ineffable and it’s something that I like to call “Reid fatigue.” He’s been in the state in elected office on-and-off for forty years. You have the whole familiarity-breeds-contempt problem. But the intensity of it is what’s shocking. People just hate Harry Reid. They would vote for Charles Manson [if he] took up residence in Nevada over Harry Reid.

Sharron Angle’s not making the kind of inroads that Charles Manson would?

She has made inroads. But in the six weeks since her primary her campaign has been nothing short of a disaster in some ways. Reid has exploited certain things she’s said. He’s just pounded her on TV. And her campaign, which essentially has been run out of her living room for every campaign she’s run, is struggling now to become a campaign for the highest office in the country beside the presidency.

The Los Angeles Times recently ran a piece on Las Vegas newspapers characterizing the Sun as Reid-friendly and the Review-Journal as hyper-partisan and bent on ousting the senator. How accurate did you feel that was?

There’s no question that Brian Greenspun, who’s the head of the Sun, supports Harry Reid. But he does not have that much hands-on impact on the Sun and what it does on a day-to-day basis. Would he like to see Harry Reid win? Yes. Do people who work for the Sun know that? Yes. Does he influence day-to-day coverage? I’m not at the Sun, I can’t really speak to that, but I don’t think so. I know the political reporters and they’ve done some great coverage.

I’ve worked for both organizations, and the Review-Journal is a completely different story. The Review-Journal is essentially a part of the “anybody-but-Reid” caucus. It might as well be a PAC the way that it plays stories, slants stories. It’s one thing for the publisher, who I believe is clinically obsessed with defeating Reid. But when you have the editor of a newspaper showing antipathy toward Reid and sympathy for Angle in blog posts, and he’s supposed to be overseeing supposedly dispassionate coverage, any objective reporter of the scene—as Jim Rainey certainly is at The Los Angeles Times—would come to the same conclusion.

So where do Las Vegas residents get straight news coverage?

I would not say you can’t get any straight news coverage in either newspaper; you can. But the Sun is a very different animal than the Review-Journal. It appears daily inside the Review-Journal but it’s devoted to doing more in-depth contextual reporting. So it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison to compare what the Sun does to the Review-Journal.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal’s coverage of the U.S. Senate race cannot be taken seriously and they’re the ones who are doing it on a daily basis. Where do you go to get straight news? That’s a good question to ask.

Did the rise of Review-Journal darling Angle take you by surprise?

The answer is yes and no. I do these predictions in the first column of the year in January. While I thought Sue Lowden was going to win, I said don’t be surprised if Sharron Angle pulls an upset. She was the only one in that very crowded primary who had an actual political base to work off of. And that’s what really wins primaries with their low turnouts.

How did Angle win?

She took the race for two reasons. One was because Lowden imploded. She had this infamous “bartergate” chickens-for-welfare thing that she allowed to metastasize. And then the Tea Party Express and The Club for Growth came in and took, again, what I said was a living room campaign, with little money relative to what Lowden had, and juiced her up. They put about a million bucks in.

Angle has spoken about “earned media”; the idea that she won’t bother talking to the mainstream media because she can’t hawk her Web site and ask for direct donations. She’s avoided most unsympathetic media outlets. Is this a new extreme in the way politicians play—and evade—media?

All politicians are going to try to get their message out as best they can and try to talk to as sympathetic media folks as they can. Angle has taken this to an extreme. She seems only comfortable with the sympathetic conservative radio hosts and, to a lesser extent, the Review-Journal. But she’s done my program, and it got national attention. But the statement that she made where essentially she said, “I can go on Fox News and they’ll let me put up my Web site and they’ll let me beg for money and others won’t,” was not just saying out loud what a lot of politicians might think quietly. It was a much more extreme example of the phenomenon, I thought.

Is there anyway the media can push back against that?

It’s difficult when they do what they’re doing now. In an event about two weeks ago—and I attended this—she said she was going to make a statement and take no questions. They had her set up in front of a door, which someone held open for her, so when I tried to start asking questions she immediately just went out the door. Just last week, she held another news conference on the estate tax and said she would only take questions on the estate tax. Now if I had been there I would not have followed those rules. The press should never follow the rules the candidate sets up. They should do their job. I’m not sure that’s always happened here, although some reporters, I think, are not going to stand for it.

Is it more damaging to her image to be seen as not being able to answer questions?

A lot of people don’t like the media. It’s shocking but true. So they might think we’re badgering her. But she has taken such an extreme way of handling this—walking away from cameras, etc.—that it contributes to a “not ready for prime time” image. There are those who believe she should just ignore us completely; just run ads and have her friends in American Crossroads and other groups run ads bashing Harry Reid, and hope she can win that way. In some ways that might be, while an abhorrent strategy to me, a more effective political strategy.

So how did you get your interview with Sharron Angle?

I asked for it [laughs]. The interview came soon after the primary, when they were getting pounded for not doing mainstream media interviews. Someone from her campaign came to me and said, you’re the guy who’s known for doing the toughest interviews, we’re going to do you and that will shut everybody up.

Did they make any attempt to limit the scope of the interview?

Not at all. They know me and they know that that would be fruitless.

Have there been cases as equally extreme candidates in Las Vegas in the past and how have they fared?

The only historical analogy that’s been made in the U.S. Senate race—and it’s not completely apt—was with a little known assemblyman named Chic Hecht, who ran against a senator named Howard Cannon. Cannon came out of the primary badly damaged, and they hid Hecht for the general election season. Because Cannon was so damaged, Hecht eked out a victory. He became a one-term embarrassment for the state. But they didn’t have to hide Hecht for as long as they’d have to hide Angle. Then, the general election season was only a couple of months. It’s five months now. And in 1982 there wasn’t the 24/7 media explosion there is now.

How do you feel the national media has covered this race?

Chuck Todd at NBC and MSNBC has a great handle on what’s going on in the states, and certainly does in Nevada. Mark Barabak at The Los Angeles Times, who’s not in Washington but is a national reporter, actually takes the time to come here. Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post has a great handle on what’s going on out here and across the states.

It’s very difficult to cover a state race from Washington, D.C. What’s interesting is that for months and months and months the conventional wisdom in Washington was that Harry Reid was dead. Except for just a couple of people there who really understood that you can never count Harry Reid out and the Republicans could really blow this primary. Now, the conventional wisdom has completely turned around to, “Oh my God, who did they nominate? This guy might actually survive. This is incredible!” They certainly picked up on the shift.

Was Harry Reid ever dead in your mind?

He’s never been dead in my mind. In my January prediction column I predicted he was going to win, just barely. Because he’s probably the most resilient figure in Nevada political history. He’s also just the most ruthless, Machiavellian, scorched-earth guy that you will know. He will do whatever it takes to win. What his campaign has done to Angle in the six weeks since the primary—a daily assault either through media releases or on TV—has been something to behold.

You’ve had six months to revise the prediction you made in January. Care to make a prediction now?

I think the Senate race still leans to Reid. I’ve believed that since January and I still believe it. There are people now who think that Angle’s buried and cannot come back and Reid’s going to win by a significant margin. I can’t believe that even if he does win the margin could get past five or seven points. But that’s crazy to say—we’re still three months from the general election, and a lot of things could happen. Harry Reid’s not the deftest politician, too; he could say some crazy stuff.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.