Former Oklahoma Legislator Blamed For Sharron Angle's Incredibly Inept Nevada Senate Campaign
|Angle and John McCain at the event Terry Campbell|
tried to torpedo.
By Shira Toeplitz/Politico ~ It’s widely recognized that in the marquee 2010 Senate race, Majority Leader Harry Reid ran a nearly flawless, textbook campaign, an operation so extraordinary that it enabled him to defy an almost certain political death.
It turns out he got some inadvertent inside help.
Interviews with Nevada and Washington Republicans familiar with the campaign of Reid’s GOP opponent, Sharron Angle, describe a not-ready-for-prime-time effort that was equally astonishing — a model of dysfunction that was as bad as Reid’s campaign was good.
At the center of it was Terry Campbell, Angle’s closest adviser, who held the title of campaign manager. A longtime political ally to Angle, Campbell ran her campaigns for the state Legislature almost a decade ago before taking the reins of her long-shot Senate primary bid along with another veteran supporter, Jerry Stacy, and several tea party volunteers.
Running a primary campaign out of the candidate’s living room, Stacy and Campbell were the only two staffers on Angle’s payroll — and the only two aides she thanked publicly in her June victory speech. That proved to be the high point of the campaign.
In one occasion that was emblematic of the chaos that marked the fall effort, Campbell nearly scuttled an appearance by Sen. John McCain while the 2008 GOP presidential nominee was midair on the way to an Angle rally at The Orleans Hotel and Casino. While McCain was en route to the event, held five days before Election Day, Angle was bombarded with calls from teary tea party activists who begged her not to campaign with the Arizona senator because they contended he was not conservative enough to appear on the same stage with her.
The source of the emotional appeals from some of Angle’s most loyal followers? Campbell himself did the urging, according to multiple sources with first-hand knowledge of the incident. Much to the relief of national Republicans, Angle ignored their pleas, and the McCain event went on without a hitch.
“In the 20 years that I’ve been involved politically, I’ve never had the misfortune of working with such sheer, utter incompetence. Too much is at stake in these political campaigns — people like Campbell don’t need to be anywhere near them,” said Chris LaCivita, who served as political director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee this fall and worked directly with the Angle campaign.
“If they were filming a sequel to the movie 'Dumb and Dumber,' Terry Campbell would have a feature role.”
After capturing the nomination, Campbell was consistently unaware of the daily metrics in the campaign, including the cash-on-hand situation and which advertisements were on the air, according to several Republican operatives who were frequently on conference calls with him.
Every Republican who worked with the campaign and was interviewed for this story recalled how both of Campbell’s voice mail boxes were consistently full and he would often not answer e-mails for days at a time — no matter if he was in his self-described “Command Center” in his Missouri home or on the road with Angle in Nevada.
In one instance of his haphazard engagement, Campbell called the National Republican Senatorial Committee to inquire if it had heard anything about the president coming to the state and attacking Angle — two days after President Barack Obama visited Nevada to campaign for Reid in July, according to the accounts of three GOP operatives familiar with the conversation. An NRSC spokesman declined to comment on this incident and others that involved Campbell. Campbell did not return several messages seeking comment for this story left on each of his two phone numbers over the course of a couple days. Stacy declined to comment for this story as well.
Campbell frequently pitched unorthodox forms of advertising, such as buying advertisements on closed-circuit television cameras at gyms and hiring a plane to be called “Angle One” for sky-writing the candidate’s name — all of which were criticized as a waste of money by the professional operatives working on the race.
At one point, Campbell hired a digital billboard truck with Angle’s face on it that drove around the tourist-drenched Las Vegas Strip — a tactic he referred to as a “game changer,” according to three sources.
“I haven’t heard one person say one good thing about Terry Campbell and how he ran that campaign,” said Chuck Muth, a conservative commentator and activist in Nevada.
By the end of the campaign, some of Angle’s former staffers described an operation at odds with itself, with some going to great lengths to work around Campbell, such as making sure he was out of the room or in another part of the state when they made decisions about advertisements or Angle’s schedule.
In order to prepare the candidate for the campaign’s lone debate against Reid in mid-October and sequester her, the professional staff took Angle to Las Vegas for four days to get her ready while Campbell was sent on the road as a surrogate to discuss Social Security with senior voters.
Many of the problems were rooted in tensions between Angle’s trusted loyalists, like Campbell, and professional campaign operatives seeking to retool for a general election unfolding under a national spotlight.
Several Republican operatives working on the Angle race said that Campbell operated as the ring leader for local tea party activists, especially volunteers in the Las Vegas field office — a group of people who were collectively viewed by the campaign professionals as so incompetent that some on Angle’s staff even referred to them as the “Island of Misfit Toys.”
Campbell’s authority derived from his close relationship with Angle, who aides described as a maternal figure in the campaign and intensely loyal to her supporters. Angle and Campbell shared similar ideological views and a bond that proved almost unbreakable.
Campbell wasn’t exactly a political neophyte: A former state legislator in Oklahoma, he also spent several years serving as a district director for former Sen. Jim Talent in his hometown of Springfield, Mo. [Campbell held the House District 100 seat prior to the election of Mike Fair.]
In the late 1990s, Campbell moved to Nevada and worked at a Reno-based conservative think tank, The Nevada Policy Research Institute, where he met Angle. With more than a decade of history with the candidate, Campbell had Angle’s trust: When he was not at home in Springfield — which is where he lived for much of the campaign — he would stay in Angle's home, making it difficult for any of the other aides to get access to the candidate without him present. She almost always backed up his decisions and instructions to staffers.
“Terry was a major source of the problem but not the only one. He was the one Sharron listened to,” said one Republican with close knowledge of the situation.
Over the course of the campaign, there were several pleas from outside organizations for Angle to drop Campbell. One Nevada-based GOP aide recalled overhearing a call from a top donor for the Club for Growth — a group that backed Angle both in her unsuccessful primary bid for Congress in 2006 and in the Senate race — asking her to fire Campbell, but she refused.
Operatives recall that Campbell initially resisted hiring senior staff after the primary, including a communications director, and insisted on using his own Nevada-based media buyer — arguments that eventually prevented the campaign from going on the air for several weeks following her upset primary win.
And not long after that primary election victory, Campbell opted to have elective knee surgery — going off the grid for several weeks except to speak with Angle in the mornings.
During that time, national operatives made moves to hire a fundraiser, press secretary and deputy campaign manager, as well as bring in consultants and make preparations to go on the airwaves. That sluggish start to the fall campaign — and the delay in going on the air — proved devastating.
Reid pummeled Angle on television, painting her as an out-of-touch extremist — attacks that went unanswered for weeks until the Republican aired her first television advertisement of the general election more than a month after winning the nomination.
In the meantime, Angle’s public poll numbers had slipped significantly — from an 11-point edge over Reid several days after the primary to trailing the Democrat by 2 points on July 28, according to two Rasmussen Reports polls.
“There was a period where we could not defend ourselves. We did not have the money to do it; we did not have the infrastructure to do it and they quickly branded Sharron Angle in an unfavorable way,” said John Brabender, a veteran Republican media consultant who advised Angle. “And I think that was a problem for the campaign from Day one.”
While the finance, press and advertising operations came together by the middle of the summer, the field and political operations suffered — and it showed. In June, Campbell was advised to start putting between $1 million and $2 million into a ground operation, but according to four operatives who worked with the campaign, a field operation was never put in place through the campaign — it was farmed out to local activists instead. And the campaign never hired a field director or a political director. Instead, the state party implemented much of the field operation with the help of a $156,000 transfer from South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint’s reelection campaign fund and about $700,000 from the NRSC. Republican operatives recall there was only a single organized coalition, “RVers for Angle,” instead of the kinds of groups — such as women, veterans or ethnic minorities — that typically promote their support for a candidate in an organized fashion.
In an appropriate coda to its disorganized field operation, the Las Vegas field office closed and the phone banks shut down at an unheard of 5 p.m. on election night — instead of when the polls closed at 7 p.m. — because volunteers told the Angle staffers that they needed to get ready for the victory party.
“It’s the job of a field office to get the right voters to go to the polls to vote for a particular candidate,” said Ryan Erwin, a Nevada-based Republican political consultant. “You need to be working until that final minute to turn out every voter. In a race that’s decided by a point or two, it makes a difference.”
On election night, the general election campaign ended much the way it started — with tensions between the rival GOP camps. As Campbell stood outside Angle’s hotel room door at The Venetian hotel, the results showed the Republican nominee down by 34,000 votes in Las Vegas’s Clark County and 7,000 votes in Reno’s Washoe County, an impossible deficit to make up in the state’s less populous rural counties.
Nonetheless, Campbell and a cadre of tea party activists cornered her in a suite and tried to persuade her not to concede the race for almost an hour. They said she should demand a recount and charge voter fraud in Clark County. Echoes of the chant “Don’t concede” were heard from outside the room by other members of Angle’s staff.
The national operatives later talked to Angle privately in another hotel suite and told her the fight was over.
More than an hour after the networks called the race for Reid, she conceded.