Senate races

Ensign resignation sets off political scramble for Nevada’s seats

Sen. John Ensign’s (R-Nev.) pending resignation has set off a high-stakes political scramble in Nevada, with Democrats preparing for the possibility of running against an incumbent in next year’s Senate race and lawyers trying to sort out a muddled special-election statute. 

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) said Friday he will appoint someone to fill Ensign’s seat before May 3, the date Ensign’s resignation becomes effective. Most insiders expect it to go to Republican Rep. Dean Heller, who had already announced his Senate candidacy to replace Ensign in 2012 and has been endorsed by Sandoval.

{mosads}If Heller gets the appointment, he would be in a much stronger position against likely Democratic nominee, Rep. Shelley Berkley.

But the possibility of a Heller appointment has generated uncertainty as to how his House seat would be filled. There’s also the potential for tension between Nevada conservatives, namely supporters of Republican Sharron Angle, who’s running for Heller’s seat, and the party establishment. 

Angle, the failed 2010 nominee against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), is someone many Nevada Republicans worry could be a drag on the Heller and the rest of the GOP ticket.

The Nevada GOP is entering into uncharted waters, said Republican consultant Ford O’Connell, who argues that while the “near-certain appointment” of Heller gives him a leg up in the Senate race, “the impending House special election could cause the party some real heartburn, given Angle’s interest in the soon-to-be vacant House seat.”

“Frankly, the amount of Tums the party ingests really depends on Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller’s ruling,” he added.

The initial confusion over how Heller’s House seat would be filled if he were appointed to the Senate was crystallized Friday as Miller’s office explained the statute regarding House vacancies was far from clear and that state elections officials are still “studying” how to move forward. 

Miller spokesman Bob Walsh said that should Sandoval appoint Heller, the secretary of state’s office will have clarity on the special-election process by the time Heller’s House seat is declared vacant.

“There’s a lot of case law to be studied,” Walsh said. “And we’re currently studying it. But we’re not addressing any of the hypotheticals.”

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.

“I’d be stunned if the parties didn’t end up having some role in this,” said GOP consultant Ryan Erwin, an adviser to Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, who also has some interest in Heller’s House seat. Erwin described the open election option as akin to a “free-for-all.”

“We’ve never had this happen before so I think the lawyers will get rich, but we have conflicting statues that have to be sorted out,” he said. 

A party committee process would likely leave Angle on the outs, given that she’s not exactly a favorite of party insiders while Krolicki is well-liked by the GOP establishment. According to one GOP insider in Nevada, “That’s not even a contest. They won’t pick Angle.” 

Krolicki hasn’t formally announced he’s running for Heller’s House seat but is expected to do so.

And if Heller’s thinking about his own electoral future, argued another GOP consultant, he’d likely prefer anyone but Angle running in the 2nd district.

“If he’s got Angle up there, you have someone who ticks off independents and whose numbers are upside down with her own party,” the consultant said. “Dean Heller would be doing a lot more worrying about northern Nevada in that case.”

For Heller, some of the advantages of an early appointment are obvious, and it’s become clear that national Republicans see it as something that can offer their likely nominee a major leg up in a race that Democrats have vowed to target. 

Being elevated to the Senate translates to an immediate bump in name ID and would give Heller a year and a half in a statewide post to further build his profile. He’d also enjoy some of the traditional advantages of Senate incumbency, particularly when it comes to fundraising.

As for the electoral reality, statistician Nate Silver, who resurrected some stats on appointed senators and how they fared in subsequent campaigns, argues that a Heller appointment wouldn’t elevate the Republican’s 2012 status all that much. 

“There’s not much evidence,” Silver wrote, “that the incumbency advantage applies to an appointed rather than elected senator. Instead, appointed senators who run for reelection win it only about half the time (counting defeats in both the primary and general election) — much lower than the 88 percent reelection rate for normal incumbents. Essentially, these elections still follow the dynamics of an open-seat race.” 

Democrats, meanwhile, are preparing to use Heller’s status as a statewide officeholder against him. An early Senate appointment for Heller, Dems argue, offers his opposition a chance to capitalize on his higher profile.

As a sitting senator, Heller’s public statements and, more importantly, his votes will bring added scrutiny. And Democrats argue that’s far from a net positive for Heller.

“He would have preferred to sit back, raise money and not be noticed for a while longer,” said one Democrat in the state. “He can’t do that now. We’ll shine a light on every wrong move he makes.”

Tags Dean Heller Harry Reid

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