Sen. John Ensign (R-NV), rocked with a sex and blackmail scandal that made winning re-election impossible, announced that he will resign his seat effective May 3rd. This will give newly elected Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) the opportunity of appointing a successor to serve until the next regular election in November 2012. All indications suggest that Sandoval will appoint Rep. Dean Heller (R-NV-2) as the interim senator. The congressman has already announced his intention to run for the open seat and has become the virtual consensus Republican candidate. Sandoval endorsed Heller for the seat long before it became known that Ensign would not serve the balance of his term.
Appointing Heller would give him incumbency advantage for the 17 months prior to the election. This will undoubtedly help him raise money; though, as a consensus candidate in a competitive U.S. Senate race, money would likely not have been an obstacle. One key difference, however: Upon appointment, Heller will be treated as an incumbent by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, thus making their involvement much easier than if the race happens to evolve into a contested primary. The party and institutional financial backing should give Heller an added boost in the general election as he will square-off with Las Vegas Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV-1). Last week Berkley made official her entry into the Senate race.
Nevada, the fastest growing U.S. state during the past decade (35 percent growth over the 10-year period; the national average was 9.7 percent) is a changing region. Previously, a place that leaned more Republican than Democrat, Nevada is now the quintessential swing state. While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was re-elected 50-45 percent in a very difficult campaign, Sandoval was simultaneously out-distancing Reid’s son, Rory, in the governor’s race, 53-42 percent. Freshman Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV-3) was also turned out of office by current Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV-3) in the seat that has become the most over-populated congressional district in the nation, housing over one million inhabitants. The strong growth rate awarded the state a new congressional seat, the third consecutive decade such as happened. In 2008, Pres. Obama carried the state over John McCain by a lopsided 55-43 percent mark. Four years earlier, then-President Bush outpaced John Kerry here 50-48 percent.
Thus, the stage is set for another close election, and an incumbency advantage for Heller could be just the impetus he needs to cross the political finish line first.
But, appointing Mr. Heller could cause further controversy at the U.S. House level. Heller actually vacating his congressional seat to finish Ensign’s term, means a special election will be held in NV-2 later this year. Sharron Angle, the Tea Party activist who won the GOP Senate nomination but came up short against Sen. Reid, has already announced that she will run for the open seat in 2012. A special election would hasten the political clock and she will undoubtedly enter the early contest, with a strong chance of winning a split primary. In 2006, when Heller was first elected, Angle only lost the Republican primary to him by 421 votes (39.5 – 39.3 percent). In a crowded field of candidates, which will likely occur, securing a base of +35 percent likely means winning the nomination, and she has previously done better in this very territory. The 2nd district touches a small part of Clark County (Las Vegas), and then occupies the rest of the state, including Angle’s power base of Washoe County (Reno).
In a way, the special election might actually hinder Angle’s chances of winning the primary. In a redrawn 2nd district, the seat will likely lose it’s Clark County portion, a place where Angle performed 11 percentage points under Heller in 2006. But, the special election will occur in the current 2nd district. Originally drawn as a safe Republican seat, the 2nd has become marginal. In fact, Heller only scored a 50-45 percent win over Nevada Democratic Party chair Jill Derby in ’06, followed with a closer-than-expected 52-41 percent victory two years later against the same opponent. Derby may again become a candidate, and could be strong in a special general election particularly if Angle wins the Republican nomination.
It appears evident that Nevadans are headed for another lively and potentially bitter election cycle yet again, and one that will almost assuredly begin early.
For further detailed insights, to sign up for my daily email updates, or to sign up to track specific issues or industries, please contact me at PRIsm@performanceandresults.com.