National Democrats saw their chances to pick up a Senate seat increase Thursday when Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) announced her decision to run for retiring Sen. John Ensign’s (R-Nev.) seat.
She quickly won backing from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who touted her candidacy in a statement, and from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), whose chairwoman told reporters Thursday, “We’re very proud to support her.”
Earlier this year, the scandal-plagued Ensign announced that he wouldn’t run for reelection in order to avoid a nasty campaign that would have focused on his admitted affair with a former staffer.
“This race will boil down to who’s best equipped to represent the state of Nevada, and I think the distinctions between me and my possible opponent are pretty dramatic,” Berkley told The Hill, adding that Reid’s quick support “reflects the relationship that we have, and I think it also emphasizes the importance of this race.”
The relationship between Berkley and Reid reaches back to 1968, when Berkley was a high school senior walking precincts to help Reid’s bid for the Nevada State Assembly.
“We’ve known each other a long time and we’ve been friends and allies for a long time,” said Berkley, who is likely to get all the help she needs from national Democrats next year.
She also warned national Republicans against using her close relationship with Reid as a negative.
“The last time I checked, he won his election,” she said with a smile.
Berkley’s entry into the race gives Democrats a solid candidate to counter another top Republican recruit — Rep. Dean Heller (R-Nev.).
“This race is about the future of Nevada and our country,” Heller said in a statement. “Do we continue down the same path that led to record unemployment, high gas prices, and maintains the status quo, or do we chart a new direction that makes government accountable and responsible to the people? There is no doubt that this will be a tough race regardless of who enters it, but I look forward to the challenges that lie ahead.”
The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), meanwhile, was quick to criticize Berkley.
“Shelley Berkley’s candidacy highlights the choice Nevadans will have in this Senate campaign between yet another big-government, tax-and-spend liberal and a fiscally responsible Republican,” NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh said in a statement.
“If Congresswoman Berkley does survive what is sure to be a very expensive primary, she will have a very tough time selling mainstream Nevadans on her rubber-stamp support for higher taxes, more spending and a record debt, at a time when Nevadans are focused on creating jobs and growing the economy.”
DSCC Chairwoman Patty Murray (Wash.) pegged the Nevada Senate race as one of the committee’s “6 in ’12” match-ups, marking it as one national Democrats plan to aggressively contest in an attempt to pick up some GOP-held seats in the upper chamber next year.
Democrats are defending 23 seats in 2012. Republicans, if President Obama wins reelection, will need a net gain of four seats to win control of the upper chamber.
Of Berkley’s entry into the Nevada race, Murray said, “Shelley rises to the top in her energy and her knowledge of the state and her enthusiasm and we’re very proud to support her.”
The endorsement of Berkley from the DSCC comes early. The committee has not yet endorsed House Democrats vying for open Senate seats in New Mexico and Connecticut.
Berkley said the official decision to enter the race came in just the past few days after final discussions with political advisers and her family.
“Things accelerated this week and I decided it was time to make a decision,” Berkley said. “I spoke with many, many people throughout the state of Nevada and spent a lot of time discussing it with my family over the weekend. Everyone was extremely supportive.”
An internal poll released late last month from Berkley’s camp showed her with a 4-point edge over Heller. A January survey from Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling found Heller ahead of Berkley in a hypothetical general-election match-up, 51 percent to 38.
She also has more than $1 million in her campaign war chest.
Democratic enthusiasm about the race is further bolstered given the turnout dynamic expected in 2012. Obama won Nevada by double digits in 2008, and Democrats are hopeful that strong turnout for Obama next year, as well as the state’s shifting demographics, will play in their favor.
A slew of other rumored Democratic contenders, including Secretary of State Ross Miller, State Treasurer Kate Marshall and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, were waiting on Berkley’s decision.
The congresswoman says she has received assurances from all three that they would stay out of the race if she opted for a run, and Murray said Thursday that she doesn’t expect a contested primary.
At least one Democrat is already in the race — Nevada businessman Byron Georgiou, who is expected to self-fund.
Meanwhile, on the Republican side, Heller looks to have cleared the primary field. Sharron Angle, who challenged and lost to Reid last year, said she will run for Heller’s House seat. Nevada Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki (R) is also likely to run for Heller’s House seat.
— This post was originally posted at 11:17 a.m. and last updated at 8:04 p.m.