Lawyers loom to take 'nastiest race ever' deep into overtime

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The Independent US

You could still see the odd person in fancy dress staggering home through Las Vegas yesterday morning, after what had presumably been extremely-convivial Hallowe'en celebrations, but heaven forbid that they should have tried to enter a polling station to vote.

In one of the more surreal moves in American political history, Nevada banned chicken costumes from within 100ft of any place where ballots are cast in the crucial Senate race between the Democrat Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Tea Party-backed right-winger Sharron Angle.

The move came after left-wing activists used fluffy yellow poultry costumes to taunt Republican rivals. A staffer dressed in one such outfit has spent recent weeks trailing Ms Angle hoping to highlight her refusal to allow the media to attend campaign events, or to ask awkward questions.

This being America, the ban sparked a debate over the constitutional right to free speech, and was just one of the reasons why both sides were yesterday flying teams of lawyers into Sin City to oversee the climax of one of the most important races in what has surely been the nation's nastiest-ever election.

Anticipating a close-run race, which could hinge on a few thousand votes and may well enter recount territory, the Angle campaign was crying foul. Her attorneys filed a “voter intimidation” complaint with the Justice Department yesterday claiming that owners of a casino in Las Vegas tried to “intimidate and coerce employees to vote for Harry Reid.”

With first exit polls saying Reid leads the race by the tiny margin of 48 percent to 47 percent, it now seems likely that Nevada’s future will have to be hammered out in court. The Silver State could also be in recount territory, which would spin the controversy out for days.

To an extent, this is the typical stuff that emerges in the final stages of any campaign, it has only added to the malign tone of this election, which has touched every corner of the land.

It has been weeks since you could turn on a television without being subjected to shouty advertisements levelling slurs at candidates. The Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks campaign messages, says this year's race is the most negative in recent history: since 1 September, 50 per cent of Democratic television adverts and 56 per cent of Republican ones have attacked opponents.

One key reason for this trend is the increasing polarisation of US politics, exacerbated by cable channels like Fox News and MSNBC.

Another is the decision by the Conservative-dominated US Supreme Court to allow corporations anonymously to donate money to advocacy groups. With that money those groups can run ads favouring one or another candidate. The result has been the costliest midterm election ever seen, with total campaign expenditure on track to reach $4bn. Groups backing the Republicans have outspent their rivals by a factor of two-to-one.

It hasn't all been one-way traffic, though. Attacks have been levelled at many right-wing candidates, most notably Christine O'Donnell, the Republican candidate in Delaware who won the nomination after originally rising to prominence as a "born-again virgin".

Last week, the internet site Gawker posted a first-person account of a drunken romantic liaison between Ms O'Donnell and a younger man. The website was promptly accused of a "smear campaign" and condemned by women's groups.

Voters, for their part, seem weary at the constant wave of negatively, which is one reason why turnout is expected to have hit record lows. In California, big spending has backfired: they are expected to reject the former Ebay chief Meg Whitman, who has spent an estimated $150m of her own money trying to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor.

In the final debate, Ms Whitman was challenged to pull all her ubiquitous negative TV ads from the airwaves (her opponent Jerry Brown promised to do the same thing in return). She refused, prompting loud boos from the crowd. They have perhaps seen the angry direction in which US politics is headed, and don’t like what they see.