I just wrote about the national importance of the Nevada Senate race in my column this week, and Sen. John Ensign’s sudden decision to resign early next month makes this state even more pivotal for the White House and congressional campaign strategists.
Nevada has now become a battleground state on steroids. It’s expected to be one of the most hotly-contested states for the presidential race, is hosting a high-profile Senate showdown, and there could be as many as three competitive House races (in the state’s four districts, after redistricting). Here’s what Ensign’s decision means for the state of play in Nevada politics:
1. Slight boost to Heller for the Senate seat. Republican sources said that the timing of Ensign’s resignation had nothing to do with assisting GOP Rep. Dean Heller in the Senate race—the two have had a notably chilly relationship in recent years—and had everything to do with the timing of the Senate Ethics Committee's investigation.
But Heller is likely to be appointed to serve the rest of Ensign’s term, which would give him the advantage of incumbency in a race. While the Senate race looked like a battle between two members of Congress who held equal standing, now Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley will have to make the case that Heller should be unseated after serving time as a senator. It’s not an impossible task, but it’s slightly more difficult than running for a purely open seat.
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2. Nevada becomes an even bigger battleground. It’s telling that President Obama was campaigning in Reno, Nev., today—Heller’s home district—a part of the country that is critical for his reelection. While Republicans traditionally performed well outside of Las Vegas, Obama carried Washoe County with 55 percent of the vote in 2008. Meanwhile, Heller will probably need to carry Washoe County to win the Senate election. And now, if Heller is appointed to the Senate, it appears we will have a hotly-contested House special election in this same territory that will test the mood of the country—just months away.
Washoe County, in the northwest corner of Nevada, virtually defines the term battleground, at least in recent years. Obama won with 55 percent of the vote. Heller carried it during his 2008 reelection, but not his 2006 election to the House. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid won the county with 49 percent of the vote against Republican Sharron Angle—an important showing for his victory.
3. A very special election. If Heller gets appointed to the Senate, his House seat suddenly becomes the scene of the first major election of 2011—one that could give us a lot of clues about the trajectory of 2012. A House special election, in northern Nevada, would be an early test of both parties’ messaging, particularly when it comes to competing budgetary proposals.
Heller’s district was one of the most competitive of any House district in the country in 2008, giving GOP Sen. John McCain a razor-thin, 89-vote edge over Obama. It still leans Republican, though, and voted for President George W. Bush twice with 57 percent of the vote.
The special election would offer an early test of how damaging—if at all—House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget proposal is to Republicans. The district's constituents are the oldest in the state, and Democrats would likely test drive their message that Ryan’s budget unfairly goes after seniors loud and clear in the race. If Republicans hang onto the seat in these circumstances, it could take some potency out of the effectiveness of that argument. But if Democrats pick up this traditionally Republican seat, it could offer serious warning signs for the GOP’s standing in Nevada in 2012—both for the presidential race and the Senate contest.
Another fascinating twist: The special election could allow Republican leaders to bypass Angle in favor of someone who party leaders view as more electable. Several GOP strategists said that it looks like candidates for the House seat would be nominated through the state party central committee and not through a primary process.
That offers both promise and peril. It’s promising because Republicans could nominate a less polarizing candidate, like retired Navy commander Kirk Lippold or Nevada Republican Party Chairman Mark Amodei, without having to go through the messiness of a primary fight. But it offers peril because such a move would infuriate Angle’s loyal throng of conservative supporters—she raised an impressive $710,000 in the last quarter, predominantly from national conservative donors—and she could threaten to run as a third-party candidate.
That could pose an unpleasant replay of what Republicans experienced two years ago, when they lost a Republican-leaning seat in a New York special House election thanks to the third-party candidacy of a conservative dissatisfied with the closed process and the ideological commitment of the GOP nominee. It divided the party badly, and handed an otherwise winnable seat to the Democrats.