Rep. Dean Heller was appointed Wednesday to replace Nevada's scandal-stained Sen. John Ensign, giving Republicans a leg up on a seat both sides are eyeing as vital to control of the Senate after 2012.
The selection of Heller by his fellow Republican, Gov. Brian Sandoval, was no surprise. Heller had announced plans to run for Ensign's seat in 2012, and the governor was quick to endorse him.
The appointment came less than a week after Ensign abruptly announced his resignation amid a Senate Ethics Committee investigation into corruption charges arising from an extramarital affair and payments made to a former aide. The senator plans to leave office May 3.
In a written statement, Sandoval praised Heller as a fiscal conservative and vouched for his personal integrity. "I am confident he will help get Nevada working again," the governor said in a nod to the state's dire economic condition, adding, "I have no doubt Dean will serve Nevada in the Senate for many years."
At least two prominent Democrats, Rep. Shelley Berkley of Las Vegas and attorney Byron Georgiou, are working to keep that from happening. But a costly and contentious primary between the two and an 18-month head start for Heller could make it tougher to take over the seat and offset losses Democrats could face elsewhere around the country.
Meantime, Heller's appointment creates an opening in Nevada's 2nd Congressional District, which covers almost the entire state, save for the Greater Las Vegas area. A special House election, the first in state history, will be held this year.
But the rules for that election are subject to varied interpretation. There will be no primary, but the system for selecting each party's nominees is unclear.
Democrats are hoping for a free-for-all that would pit several GOP candidates, including "tea party" favorite Sharron Angle, a former state assemblywoman. That would give a consensus Democrat a shot at winning a seat that has been in GOP hands for the entirety of its three-decade existence. Republicans are hoping for a more managed selection process that would give the choice of nominees to party leaders. Angle would almost certainly be passed over in that scenario.
The rules are to be determined by Secretary of State Ross Miller, a Democrat and Nevada's chief election officer.