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LAS VEGAS — Republicans said for months that if the Nevada Senate race was a referendum on Harry Reid, the unpopular Majority Leader would lose. Reid didn’t let that happen. He adeptly painted opponent Sharron Angle as an extremist immediately after she won her primary – and proceeded to make the contest as much about her awkward and unconventional statements as Reid’s own troubles.
Then he deployed his secret weapon: a powerful turnout machine that brought Democratic and Hispanic voters out to the polls in droves.
Reid’s relentless TV ad assault against Angle and his powerful get-out-the-vote effort were huge factors in his no-holds-barred victory over Angle on a day when Republicans seized control of the House and gained Senate seats.
Talking with reporters Wednesday, Reid pointed to Angle’s proposal to privatize Social Security as a defining contrast between them. He calls it one of the great government programs in history.
Reid’s first negative TV ad of the campaign, put up just days after the June primary, portrayed Angle as a heartless budget-slasher who would abandon the elderly. “Sharron Angle wants to wipe out Social Security,” a narrator intoned darkly. “What’s next?”
Angle argued that she wanted to make changes only for younger workers, but the damage was done. It took her weeks to get her campaign organized and air her own ads, a period when Reid had an open field to define her on his terms, an image that stuck.
By the time he was done with her, Reid had pummeled Angle over everything from her proposal to phase out Medicare to her suggestion while in the Legislature that inmates enter a drug rehabilitation program devised by the founder of Scientology.
“Before Sharron could put her hands up and put her (boxing) gloves on, they did a pretty good job tagging her,” said Republican media consultant John Brabender, a member of Angle’s team.
“There clearly was a point when she was treading water, at best. That ultimately hurt her campaign in the long run,” he said.
Reid media consultant Jim Margolis said there was a window after the primary to quickly define Angle – and the campaign seized it.
The campaign wanted “to tell the story we thought was important,” he said. “There was a real change in how people perceived her. … We continued that conversation through Election Day.
Republicans also marveled at Nevada’s Democratic turnout machine, which helped President Barack Obama win a 12-point victory here 2008. Reid built off that for 2010. The Democratic leader and his union allies deployed hundreds of volunteers to knock on doors, make phone calls and drive voters to the polls.
The turnout drive was boosted by several appearances in the state by Obama, who helped build momentum behind the Senate leader he called “my partner.”
In contrast, the National Republican Committee didn’t come through with a comparable get-out-the-vote effort for Angle.
National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Jones, who advised the Angle campaign, said “you have to respect the Democratic operation in Nevada.”
An Associated Press analysis of exit poll results showed that Reid’s turnout efforts seemed to help Reid trounce Angle among minorities.
The exit poll showed that Reid won two-thirds of the Hispanic vote, eight in 10 blacks and three-quarters of Asians. He said Wednesday he has long sought to make inroads with Hispanics, even when others questioned him.
“People, in fact, made fun of me, saying ‘Why are you wasting your time with a group that doesn’t register, and if they register don’t vote?’ Well, we proved that wrong in 2008 and we certainly proved that … wrong last night.”
Never widely popular in his home state, Reid was struggling in a year when he faced a litany of challenges: Voters were angry because of the state’s nation-leading unemployment and foreclosure rates, and the tea party energized Republican voters across the country.
But exit poll results suggested that while voters were unhappy with Reid, he in many cases was a preferable choice.
More than half of all voters said they disapprove of the way Reid is handling his job as senator. But the majority leader kept more than one-third of votes among those who somewhat disapproved of his performance.
Voters expressed overwhelming dissatisfaction for how the federal government is working and a majority of voters expressed unfavorable feelings toward the Democratic and Republican parties.
Even so, Reid carried the race by nearly 6 points.
There were other factors.
Reid collected the support of high-profile Republicans, who viewed him as too influential to lose with the state’s economy in turmoil and were reluctant to vote for Angle because of her extremist views.
A moderate Republican “would have had a better chance of defeating Reid,” said Republican state Sen. Bill Raggio, who backed Reid. “Their positions were less extreme, more in line with what the majority of Nevadans felt.”
Angle’s campaign was also slowed by internal bickering – national operatives who joined her campaign after her come-from-behind primary win often clashed with some of her longtime Nevada advisers, a rift that never fully healed.
Reid denounced a long series of polls that projected a neck-and-neck race – and when publicized in the media created an unfair impression of the race.
“We’ve got to do something about these misleading polls,” said Reid, who uses pollsters himself. “Every public showed me losing.”
Associated Press writers Oskar Garcia and Sandra Chereb in Las Vegas contributed to this report.