Politics & Policy

The Nevada Free-for-All

Who will win Dean Heller's old House seat? Perhaps a Democrat

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.

Nevada Republican party chairman, former Army JAG officer, and former assistant United States attorney Mark Amodei also is running.

At one point, the GOP field appeared likely to get even more crowded, but Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki ultimately decided against a bid. Individuals have until May 18 to file petitions of candidacy.

On the Democratic side, three women are currently competing for the seat: state treasurer Kate Marshall and two lesser-known candidates, Air Force veteran Nancy Price and Jill Derby, a former regent of the state university system.

With more big-name Republicans in the race than Democrats, the possibility of a Democratic upset is significant.

“They all have their bases,” laments a senior Republican strategist in Washington who is watching the Nevada developments closely and thinks it will be hard to win under the rules that have been chosen. “They have three, we have at least four or five, and for now, we have to assume we’ll be in this free-for-all status. It is incumbent on someone to narrow the field. . . . It’s still early in the process, but right now this is really troublesome. I don’t see a path for how we get this done yet.”

The Nevada Republican party is challenging Miller’s decision. “Our stance has remained consistent,” said Mari Nakashima, communications director for the party, in a statement. “We believe that Nevada’s election law and tradition clearly ensure major party central committees are the nominating body for their own candidates. We are fighting for a fair election and constitutional rights of association, in compliance with Nevada law and the U.S. Constitution. Whether it is politically expedient or popular is not the issue, the Nevada Republican Party is willing to take the necessary steps to stand up for the rights of all Nevadans in the interest of protecting the integrity of our election process.”

The senior Republican strategist in Washington thinks the party leadership is right to want a primary, but fears a grassroots backlash if there’s a perception of party bosses hand-picking the candidate. “Both instances give us problems. . . . There’s no doubt that the Secretary of State picked the special-election process that is the worst possible one for Republicans.”

Usually states turn to precedent in cases like this, but in Nevada, they’ve never had a U.S. House vacancy during a congressional session. The closest precedent is a 1954 senatorial special election, in which candidates were nominated by a central-committee vote.Lawyers for the state party argue that Miller’s special-election rules violate Nevada’s Administrative Procedures Act and that under state law, each party must nominate a candidate; they argue that a “fundamental principle” of the state’s election-law statutes is that in a partisan election, there shall be only one nominee from each party.

But the secretary of state is likely to argue that the law’s text “no primary election may be held” means that primaries are not permitted, not that they are optional, and that letting the state party committees select their nominees would take the decision out of the hands of the voters of Nevada.

The decision is bringing new scrutiny to Ross Miller. It’s not often that you find a Democratic secretary of state whose office has executed search warrants at ACORN offices and filed criminal counts against members of that organization. But Miller’s Democratic roots run deep; he interned in Bill Clinton’s White House, and his father, Bob Miller, was governor from 1989 to 1999.

With Nevada gaining a congressional seat in 2012, the state’s district lines are certain to change. Republicans had believed that they would split the state two seats to two; they fear that if a Democrat wins the special election, Democrats could attempt to create a long, narrow district that links Reno and the Las Vegas suburbs, and the GOP could, potentially, end up with only one of the state’s four seats.

It is perhaps fitting that in a state known for gambling, a special House election would turn into such a risky bet.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.


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