Winning comparison probably won’t follow through for Angle

Reruns are a summertime staple, so it’s fitting for Sharron Angle—whether or not she knows it—to try and rerun a previous Nevada political campaign. The difference is: This time, it won’t work.

Angle has been limiting her media appearances. She disappeared so quickly when reporters tried to question her on election night, Lance Burton probably was jealous of her magical abilities. Since then, she has appeared on Fox & Friends and Sean Hannity’s liefest, and ran from the press on Capitol Hill when reporters tried to interview her about running for the Senate.

In 1982, conservative Republican Chic Hecht upset Howard Cannon, a powerful four-term Democratic senator from Nevada not noted for charisma. Sound familiar? Since Hecht wasn’t tall and handsome and had a slight speech impediment, he avoided the media whenever possible. His mostly stealth campaign concentrated on small personal appearances and attack ads that occasionally contained a grain of truth.

Hecht’s campaign was brilliant because it worked, although his election enabled President Reagan and Congress to target Nevada for the nuclear-waste dump that Sen. Harry Reid has blocked after a 24-year fight, one Angle would overturn in 10 seconds. A comparison or two with Angle’s situation already has popped up, but the differences help explain why what worked for Hecht in 1982 doesn’t work for Angle in 2010:

• Cannon entered the general election campaign wounded. Four-term congressman Jim Santini challenged him from the right in a bitter primary. Some Santini supporters wouldn’t back Cannon in the general election. This time, if the primary hurt anyone, it’s Angle.

• Hecht came into the general election with a mostly unified party. Some longtime Republicans were loyal to Cannon and stayed that way. But Angle doesn’t have the relationships in the Republican establishment that Hecht had.

• Hecht had been out of office for 10 years and had nothing to do with national issues. Angle ran for the House in 2006 and was a member of the state Assembly from 1999-2005, so she has a record to run on or from.

• Cannon’s campaign didn’t take Hecht seriously. The day after the primary, Cannon turned to campaign manager Jim Joyce—not the author of Ulysses or the umpire run through the wringer for messing up a perfect game, but maybe the shrewdest Nevada political operative ever. Cannon told him to schedule a debate. Joyce said no. Knowing of Hecht’s speaking issues, Cannon said, “I’d destroy him.” Said Joyce: “You’d legitimize him.” So, they never debated. Meanwhile, Cannon’s campaign paid little attention to what Hecht did or said.

For Angle, the problem isn’t a debate with Reid so much as whether his campaign takes her seriously. Considering how quickly critical ads and websites materialized, Reid and his campaign take her very seriously—as they should. Hecht could fly under the opposition’s radar. Angle can’t—and won’t.

• The media didn’t take Hecht seriously—or, more accurately, paid him little attention. After the campaign, some reporters and commentators accused him of hiding from them. Not really. He just didn’t seek them out—but that was mutual. When the media wanted to find Hecht, he could be found.

Whether or not journalists take Angle seriously, they aren’t ignoring her. Nor can they. Nearly 30 years ago, 24/7 cable news was in its infancy and the Web was something Charlotte spun to save Wilbur the pig. If Hecht said anything embarrassing before he ran for office or during the campaign, it didn’t go viral on YouTube.

Furthermore, no one in the media seemed so determined to elect Cannon or defeat Hecht in 1982 as to slant coverage so baldly as to be journalistically embarrassing. On the Sunday after this month’s election, the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s front page promoted a story on Angle with a skewed headline and took the unusual step of promoting an anti-Reid editorial. Whether the R-J’s unsubtle unfairness helps Angle or redoubles Democratic efforts remains to be seen.

The final difference is that Cannon and Hecht were living these events as they happened. For Reid, they’re history—and he doesn’t want history to repeat itself.  The betting here says it won’t.

Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada and author of several books and articles on Nevada history and politics.