"The people of Nevada deserve a new senator who can begin work immediately," Gov. Brian Sandoval said of his fellow Republican. "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, DC."
Sandoval took less than a week to replace Ensign, who abruptly resigned amid a Senate Ethics Committee investigation into corruption charges arising from an extramarital affair and payments made to a former top aide.
Ensign, a Republican who once harbored presidential ambitions, will leave office May 3.
Sandoval's selection of Heller was no surprise. The congressman had announced his intention to run for Ensign's seat in 2012, and Sandoval immediately endorsed him, working to help clear the GOP field. There are two Democrats angling for the Senate seat, Rep. Shelly Berkley of Las Vegas and attorney Byron Georgiou.
Heller's appointment creates an opening in Nevada's 2nd Congressional district and will require a special election to be held within 180 days after Sandoval calls for the vote. He has a week to make that announcement.
But the rules for that election are subject to interpretation, with important political implications. There will be no primary, but the system for selecting each party's nominees are unclear.
Democrats are hoping for-a-free for all that would pit several GOP candidates--including former state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle--against one another. That would give a consensus Democrat a shot at winning a seat that has been in GOP hands for the entirety of its 30-odd year existence.
Republicans are hoping for a more managed selection process that would put the choice of nominees in the hands of party leaders. Angle, who angered many in the GOP establishment by waging a fumbling campaign last year against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, would almost certainly be passed over in that selection scenario.
The rules are to be determined by Secretary of State Ross Miller, a Democrat and Nevada's chief election officer.
"I pledge to work closely with Secretary of State Ross Miller on the timing of the upcoming transition and resulting special election," Sandoval said in a written statement announcing Heller's appointment.
But whatever Miller decides, one of the aggrieved parties seems certain to sue, leaving a final verdict, most likely. in the hands of the Nevada Supreme Court.