Rep. Heller appointed to Ensign seat

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) announced Wednesday he will appoint Rep. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) to fill Sen. John Ensign's (R-Nev.) seat.

Sandoval praised Heller as "a fiscal conservative who believes in limited government" and rejected the notion of naming a "caretaker" to fill Ensign's seat. 

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"The people of Nevada deserve a new senator who can begin work immediately," Sandoval said. "Too many important issues face our state and our nation to name a caretaker to this important position; Nevada needs an experienced voice in Washington, D.C."

Sandoval was widely expected to tap Heller, who was already in the 2012 Senate race, for the seat.

Heller said in a statement Wednesday that he is "deeply humbled" by the appointment and ready to get to work in the Senate. He made no mention of the 2012 race.

"There is a lot of hard work ahead to get our state and nation moving in the right direction," Heller said. "Nevadans across our state have been struggling with job loss, high gas prices, and foreclosures. There is no question that our nation needs to change the way we do business if we are going to get our economy back on track and get Nevadans working again."

The chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, John Cornyn (Texas), congratulated Heller in a statement and said his appointment will give Nevada voters the opportunity to "see firsthand why Dean Heller is the right leader, at the right time, to continue serving them in the U.S. Senate."   

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) issued a short statement statement welcoming Heller to the Senate.

"I welcome Dean to the Senate. As his responsibilities shift to representing all Nevadans, rather than a single district of our state, I am confident he will work with me and members of both parties to address the serious challenges facing Nevada and the nation," Reid said.

Republicans anticipate that Heller's appointment will give him a leg up in next year's Senate race against likely Democratic opponent, Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), but national Democrats were quick to argue just the opposite Wednesday.

"As the unelected senator, Dean Heller will now be forced to explain to all Nevadans why he is working in Washington to end Medicare and cut loans for small businesses that create clean energy jobs in Nevada," said Matt Canter, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Becoming the unelected senator will come with a level of heightened scrutiny that will hurt him in a general election." 

Sandoval's decision triggers a special election to fill Heller's 2nd district House seat, but state elections officials are still working through the logistics of how that will work.

"Recognizing that this appointment will create a vacancy in the office of U.S. Representative from Nevada's 2nd congressional district, I pledge to work closely with Secretary of State Ross Miller on the timing of the upcoming transition and resulting special election," Sandoval said Wednesday. "I have asked Secretary Miller to provide me with information on the rules for conducting this election at his earliest convenience."

Late last week, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office said it would have clarity on how to move forward with a special election by the time Sandoval settled on an appointment for Ensign's seat.

There are two possible outcomes, but one is clearly preferred by the state's GOP establishment. In the case of a special election, the nominees of both major parties either will be selected by the state party committees or there would be an open election.

Nevada Republican Sharron Angle, who isn't a favorite of party insiders in the state, denounced both scenarios Tuesday, pledging to run for the seat in 2012, no matter what.

Ensign announced last week he will resign his seat effective May 3rd. He's under a Senate Ethics Committee investigation over claims he violated ethics rules in the aftermath of an affair with Cynthia Hampton, the wife of former top aide Doug Hampton, whom he allegedly helped obtain a lucrative lobbying job. He cited the investigation in his resignation statement. He was not running for reelection.

This story was last updated at 4:10 p.m.