Nevada Republican Dean Heller, formerly a three-term congressman, is the newest member of the U.S. Senate — giving him a leg up in what is likely to be a high-stakes fight for a full term in 2012. But the race to fill his seat in the House is creating headaches for the GOP in Nevada — and in Washington.
After Sen. John Ensign resigned and Heller was appointed to replace him. Nevada secretary of state Ross Miller declared that “Nevada voters, not a small group of political party officials, should choose their preferred candidate to fill a vacancy in the U.S. House of Representatives.” This means that there will be no party primaries for the special election for this seat, scheduled for September 13; every Republican, Democrat, and other candidate who wishes to run will be listed on the ballot, and whoever gets the most votes wins. There’s not even a filing fee. Minor-party candidates and independents need a mere 100 signatures to qualify for the ballot.
This takes what ought to be a relatively safe seat for Republicans and turns it into a toss-up. Under its current lines, Nevada’s 2nd congressional district is the most Republican in the state, geographically encompassing almost the entire state outside of Las Vegas, including Reno and the capital, Carson City. It may be the single most bizarre district in the country, encompassing ghost towns, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Nevada Test Site, Yucca Mountain, legal brothels, and Area 51. The non-extraterrestrials in the district tend to vote Republican; it scores an R+5 in the Cook Partisan Voting Index. Heller won increasingly easily, earning 63 percent of the vote in 2010. In 2008, John McCain and Barack Obama effectively tied in the district, while Obama won the state’s other districts handily.
But in a free-for-all election, as this process is nicknamed, the winner is anybody’s guess. Republicans in Washington are nervous that Democrats might unite around a candidate while GOP voters remain split among no fewer than four big-name contenders.
On the Republican side, the biggest name is probably former state assemblywoman Sharron Angle, known nationally for her very well-funded Senate bid against Harry Reid last year. Angle raised $27 million and led in many pre-election polls, but she finished with only 45 percent of the vote.
Angle will face one of her former primary foes in state senator Greg Brower, a former U.S. attorney. Brower served two terms in the assembly before losing in the 2001 primary to Angle. Earlier this year, the Washoe County Commission appointed Brower to serve out the final two years of the term of state senator Bill Raggio, who had retired citing health problems.
One GOP candidate with a unique biography is Kirk Lippold, a retired Navy commander who piloted the USS Cole when it was attacked in Yemen by al-Qaeda in October 2000. Lippold was among the first to issue a statement, ruling out a withdrawal in the name of party unity:
I want to put a quick and decisive end to any speculation about my candidacy: I am in this race to stay and regardless of the outcome of the special election, I will also be a candidate for CD2 next year. If the [Nevada] Central Committee decides to hold a separate election anyway, however, I will not participate. While Central Committee members are hardworking, dedicated, and a vital part of the political process in Nevada, a decision of this magnitude should be open to all voters and not left in the hands of a small group of party insiders. Whether running against the Harry Reid machine or habitual Republican candidates, now or in the primary election next year, I am undeterred in my goal to restore Nevadans’ faith in their elected leadership and to bring a measure of honesty, integrity and proven, tested leadership to the political landscape.