The Tea Party has made a crusade of defeating Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) in the 2010 elections, but its efforts are being thwarted...by the state's self-described "Tea Party candidate," Scott Ashjian. Both Republican and Tea Party leaders are allegeding that Ashjian is a fake — perhaps even a liberal plant — who threatens to split right-leaning voters and hand Reid a victory. Here's a concise guide to the situation:
Who is Jon Scott Ashjian?
Ashjian, 46, is a former longtime Republican, a Mormon father of three, and the owner of an asphalt company and 26 other small ventures. He created the Tea Party of Nevada in January and is running under its banner in a bid to unseat Reid. He says he identifies politically with Ronald Reagan, Sarah Palin, and Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX).
So why are Tea Party organizers after him? They accuse Ashjian, a complete unknown, of fraudulently using the grassroots movement's name to further his career — or, worse, acting as a Reid-backed stalking horse. Tea Party-backed Republican candidates, including GOP front-runner Sue Lowden, fear that an unauthorized "Tea Party party candidate" could siphon off GOP votes and let Reid squeak by to reelection. "Get lost," says Tea Party Express spokesman and talk radio host Mark Williams, in an anti-Ashjian web ad. "None of us has ever heard of you, or even seen you at a Tea Party rally."
Are the third-party fears justified?
Yes. In a February poll for The Las Vegas Review-Journal, before Ashjian entered the race, either Lowden or GOP candidate Danny Tarkanian beat Reid in head-to-head matchups — but the inclusion "generic" Tea Party candidate narrowly threw the race to Reid.
What's behind the allegations that Ashjian's a Reid plant?
Detractors have noted that the secretary of Ashjian's Tea Party of Nevada, Barry Levinson, is a registered Democrat. The fact that Ashjian and GOP candidate Tarkanian share an Armenian heritage is also being questioned. Tarkanian alleges that "Harry Reid's staff, campaign, whatever" hand-picked Ashjian to split the state's Armenian vote: "They know the Armenians are very close [and will] vote for each other." Reid and Ashjian deny any collusion, and say they've never had any contact. The Las Vegas Sun looked at the charges and concluded that Ashjian is "no stooge of Sen. Harry Reid."
How does Ashjian respond to the split-vote concern?
"I don't think Republicans own the Tea Party," Ashjian told CNN. "In fact I know they don't in Nevada, because I do. That's what's really got them in an uproar."
How much of a threat is Ashjian to rival Tea Partiers or the GOP?
It's unclear. He has legal and financial issues — he resolved a $5,000 bounced-check accusation April 2, avoiding a possible felony charge. But he reportedly still owes more than $200,000 in back taxes. Ashjian maintains he's the victim of a GOP smear campaign, and vows to "finish this race."
What implications does the Nevada intrigue have nationally?
It has heightened fears of third-party Tea Party candidacies. In an April 4 Washington Post op-ed, former Vice President Dan Quayle warned Republicans nationwide to co-opt the Tea Party movement so it doesn't split the conservative vote as Ross Perot did in 1992. That said, argues David Phillips in Examiner.com, a strong Ashjian showing may "help the Tea Party populist movement in the long run by showing that the Tea Party is strong enough to field its own candidates," despite the self-serving warnings of Palin and other Republicans.
Las Vegas Review-Journal, Las Vegas Sun, Washington Post (2), Washington Times, CNN, Talking Points Memo, New York Times, Examiner.com