Nevada Senate candidate Sue Lowden has seen her momentum slow in recent weeks as she has struggled to defend her claim that a bartering system — such as paying doctors with chickens — can lower the cost of healthcare.
Lowden remains the leading Republican vying to face Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), but her comments on healthcare have been widely ridiculed — including on late-night talk shows like “The Colbert Report” and the “Tonight Show.”
The quote has left Washington-based Republican strategists scratching their heads — bartering is not part of the GOP’s playbook for attacking the Democrats’ healthcare bill. And it might have opened the door for her primary rivals to seize the nomination.
“It absolutely creates the opportunity for other candidates to get in this race,” said Ryan Erwin, a Las Vegas-based consultant who is working with Republican Senate candidate John Chachas.
Lowden’s original statement about bartering came almost three weeks ago at a town hall in Mesquite, Nev., that was videotaped by the Reid campaign. Strategists and political observers say Lowden’s campaign should have been able to move past the story more quickly. Instead she has repeatedly expanded on her comments — reiterating her support for bartering in a Las Vegas radio interview on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, her campaign has been trying to shift the focus to job creation. Nevada has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee has been quietly watching the Lowden chicken comment play out. It has pledged to stay neutral in the June 8 primary.
Lowden’s opponents initially avoided the issue, but the campaign of Republican Senate candidate Danny Tarkanian released a memo Tuesday saying Lowden appears “more and more unprepared for a U.S. Senate candidacy.”
Erwin said the issue has given Lowden’s rivals an opening, but not a big one. “It’s still going to be difficult for a candidate to catch her,” he said. Chachas, Erwin’s candidate, has been running fourth in most polls.
A recent Nevada News Bureau poll showed Lowden, a former state senator, leading Tarkanian 41-24. Former State Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, who has been endorsed by the group Tea Party Express, is in third, at 17 percent.
The situation could force Lowden to spend more during the primary, although Erwin said he didn’t expect her remarks to improve Reid’s chances of winning a fifth term. “Sue Lowden talking about chickens doesn’t make Harry Reid’s approval rating go up,” he said.
Observers noted that Reid is waiting to take advantage of these kinds of slip-ups.
“If she makes it past the primary, it would probably be a liability in the general election. Harry Reid would have some fun with it,” said Ted Jelen, a political science professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
With polls showing only a small group of undecided voters, Jelen said the result will hinge on turnout. “This might help Harry energize the base,” he said.
Should Lowden become the nominee, she has her own reservoir of Reid gaffes to tap into. She mentioned one in a release from her campaign Wednesday.
“Harry Reid recently stated that Nevada was facing ‘robust growth,’ the stimulus bill prevented things from getting worse, only losing 36,000 [jobs] in one day is ‘really good’ and trillion-dollar, job-killing healthcare reform makes sense,” Lowden said in a statement. “The unemployment numbers in Washoe and Clark counties beg to differ.”
Unemployment in Nevada was above 13 percent in March, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and above the national average of 10 percent.
Reid’s campaign said the senator has helped create “thousands of jobs for teachers, firefighters and police officers through the Recovery Act.”
“While Lowden’s flailing campaign tries desperately to distract from the fact she’s literally become a national laughingstock, Sen. Reid won’t be taking advice from a multimillionaire executive like Sue Lowden who made herself rich by handing out pink slips to hundreds of struggling Nevadans,” said Reid campaign spokesman Kelly Steele.