LAS VEGAS - Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid survived a ferocious challenge from tea party star Sharron Angle on Tuesday to win a fifth term, sparing him the indignity of becoming the first Senate leader to lose re-election in 58 years and giving the White House reason to celebrate on a night of sweeping Democratic losses in Congress.
"Today Nevada chose hope over fear," Reid told supporters at a Las Vegas rally late Tuesday. "Nevada chose to move forward, not backward."
The dour, soft-spoken Reid was the Republicans' top target in the nation, and for months he appeared headed for defeat as Nevada suffered with the nation's worst unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy rates.
But in a Lazarus-like comeback, he avoided the fate of being linked in history to Arizona's Ernest W. McFarland, whose defeat in 1952 marked the last time a Senate majority leader lost a re-election bid.
Reid proved a firewall against resurgent Republicans, telling voters that no one could match his clout on Capitol Hill and warning that Angle would usher in an era in which Social Security and Medicare would be on the chopping block.
Reid's win is "a rejection of the right-wing radical agenda and a reaffirmation that this ... state has rejected the return to Bush economics," said Democrat Dan Kruger, 61, a small business owner in Las Vegas.
Reid was holding a 5-point edge with about half the precincts reporting, along with a tally of mail-in ballots and two weeks of early voting. His victory was powered by overwhelming support from minority voters, an Associated Press analysis of preliminary exit poll results found. He bested Angle among all nonwhite voters surveyed, including about two-thirds of Hispanics, about eight in 10 blacks and about three-quarters of Asians.
In a state known for its centrist politics, Angle's tested the limits of anti-Washington sentiment. In addition to privatizing Social Security and Medicare, she wanted to slash federal spending and break up the Education Department. She opposes abortion in all cases, and accused Reid and Democrats in Washington of trying to "make government our God" by expanding entitlement programs.
She predicted "a tsunami of conservatism is coming in waves across our country," but it stopped in her own race.
Speaking to supporters in Reno shortly before the polls closed, Angle said, "I want to say thank you to God. This is one nation under God. In god we trust and we owe our future to him."
"This is an awakening of America, of our Nevada, that goes across party lines, that goes across age lines, that goes across gender lines, that goes across ethnic lines. This is what America is all about," Angle said.
Nevada Democrats have a 60,000-vote registration edge, and Reid and his union allies mounted a huge get-out-the-vote operation in the campaign's closing days.
An Angle win would have made her Nevada's first woman senator.
Reid's win was a surprise in a race where a succession of polls showed a dead heat and he acknowledged he was in trouble.
The race played out against a turbulent national political year. It was the tea party against the Beltway, insider versus outsider, the old hand versus the new face.
It pitted Reid, never widely popular at home, against the unpolished, gaffe-prone Angle, whose sometimes unconventional ideas included using a drug-rehabilitation program for inmates devised by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Reid's platform was power. The 71-year-old one-time boxer touted his ability to bring federal money to his home state - no one could do more, he argued - and played up his role salvaging the Las Vegas Strip's massive CityCenter development, in which he pressured bankers to keep money flowing, and his hand in killing the Yucca Mountain nuclear dump. He had the backing of the powerful casino industry, and the union members who work in them.
But Angle saw Reid as part of the problem - a Democratic-led Congress broadening government's reach into places it shouldn't go, while accelerating spending and debt. She called Reid "the poster child of what's gone wrong in America."
The 61-year-old grandmother became an improbable Republican Cinderella story. Earlier this year, her campaign was broke and she barely registered in polling in a crowded GOP primary field. But a flood of outside money from the Tea Party Express and other groups helped her pull off a come-from-behind victory over moderate Sue Lowden, and a tea party champion was born. "I am the tea party," she says.
The majority leader struggled for months to hold voters' confidence in a state battered by the economy. On his watch, tourism dropped, jobs vanished and homes and condos stood unsold around the state. The face of Washington authority, Reid sidled close to President Barack Obama, even as the Democratic president's popularity slipped.
At one point, polls showed Reid losing to any of several potential Republican candidates. He defended bailouts and stimulus spending, while unemployment and foreclosures climbed.
The race was a clash of personalities as well as ideas.
Angle, whose father was a potato farmer, could be folksy at times, and also brash. She told Reid to "Man up" in their only televised debate, in which Reid appeared listless and uncomfortable. Reid, a miner's son who grew up on the fringes of poverty, is famously awkward in public and, like Angle, is known to stumble over his words, sometimes embarrassingly so.
Obama visited three times to campaign for his friend, and in a final radio interview Tuesday on KVEG in Las Vegas made his final pitch, "I know things are still tough out there," the president said.
Spending in the race, from the candidates and outside groups, will exceed $50 million, mostly for a torrent of negative TV ads that ran nearly nonstop in the campaign's closing days. Reid's first negative ad came just days after Angle's June primary win, depicting her as a heartless extremist.
Reid survived close races before - in 1998, he was re-elected by 428 votes.