Picking Ensign’s successor

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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Senator John Ensign’s announcement last night that he would resign before his term ended seems likely to send Nevada electoral politics into a state of confusion.

Ensign’s resignation will be effective as of May 3 and Gov. Brian Sandoval will appoint someone to replace him.

“Under Nevada law, the Governor has the authority to make an appointment of some qualified person to fill the vacancy, who shall hold office until the next general election,” said the Governor in a statement Friday. The appointment, he said, would be announced before Ensign leaves office.

It is expected that Sandoval will appoint Rep. Dean Heller, who currently represents Nevada’s second district and had announced his intention to run for Ensign’s Senate seat when his term ended in 2012.

Sandoval’s statement, however, insists that this is not a foregone conclusion. “I take very seriously the importance of this appointment,” he said, “so to speculate on potential candidates for appointment before then would be premature.”

But if he does appoint Heller, as many are speculating, the issue arises of who will replace him in Congress and how that special election will be run. Three Nevada laws conflict regarding how an election would work, and as Nevada Republican Party spokesperson Mari Nakashima pointed out, “there’s no precedent” either.

“From what I can divine from our muddled laws here,” explained David Damore, a Political Science Professor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, “…there are basically two scenarios.”

The first scenario, he said, “is the party central committees pick their candidates and those are the ones that appear on the ballot.”

“The other scenario is you basically make it a jungle,” he said. Any candidate who wished to run could do so, pending approval by the Secretary of State.

Republicans, says Damore, would favor the first scenario. The district leans Republican, so if there were only one Republican candidate on the ballot, that person would likely do well. Democrats, on the other hand, would be helped by the second option, which would likely pit multiple Republican candidates (two have already declared for the race) against a single Democratic candidate. If no single candidate won a majority, the top two candidates would have a run off.

The two scenarios would be very different for candidates.

“Convention politics are different from traditional races just because you are absolutely catering to your 150 to 200 key activists within the county,” said Nakashima. “So it’s really just about whipping the vote on the floor, and keeping a consistent message that resonates with those key folks. And you need to absolutely demonstrate your electability and your viability in a general election against the nominee.”

The “jungle” scenario, on the other hand, would play to candidates like Sharron Angle with large voter bases.

What happens depends on what the Secretary of State determines the law requires, and at the moment, his office says they’re not sure.

“We’re not going to get into the situation of addressing hypotheticals,” said Robert Walsh, Deputy Secretary of State for Southern Nevada. He pointed out that at the moment, “the vacancy itself does not yet exist.”

“There’s a lot of really complex law and precedents from both state and federal election law and regulation. We’ve got a lot of studying to do,” he said. “Until such time as we’ve done that studying, we’re going to keep our powder dry.”

Walsh added that a decision would certainly have been made by the time Heller’s seat hypothetically becomes vacant.

Damore points out that with a Democratic Attorney General and Democratic Secretary of State, “they’re going to be under a lot of pressure to interpret the law” in the way most favorable to democrats: the so-called “jungle” style election.

State parties are waiting on that decision before moving ahead. “Until we’re given that, we don’t have an official stance,” said Nakashima, but added: “We’re definitely prepared and ready to defend our seat.”

The Nevada State Democratic Party issued a statement that did not address the potential vacancy of Heller’s seat, and rather attacked Heller and his policies, saying, “Democrats remain committed to electing the kind of Junior Senator Nevada deserves – one who puts the interests of middle class Nevadans first.”

On the Republican side, two candidates had already declared they would run for Heller’s seat in 2012: Sharron Angle, and former USS Cole Commander Kirk Lippold. Other candidates whose names have been floated include Nevada Republican Party Chairman Mark Amodei and Lieutenant Governor Brian Krolicki. Amodei would have to resign his position as party chairman in order to run.

Lippold has already announced that he will stay in the race no matter what, saying in a statement: “I remain committed to running for the 2nd Congressional District regardless of election scenarios.”

Redistricting, set to occur this summer, presents yet another complication. Nevada gained a new district after the census.

A municipal election is scheduled for June 7 in Nevada, and, Damore pointed out, “if Sandoval wants to go for a short time period” and hold a special election at the same time, “then all the sitting state legislators can’t run because they’re going to be doing the budget and redistricting.”

That would pose a particular problem for Democrats, who Damore says are eyeing state legislator Debbie Smith as their nominee.

Who wins the race could also affect redistricting, if that person is elected before the new lines are drawn.

“Angle, she’s the wildcard for this whole thing,” said Damore. “If she wins the seat, they’re going to redraw that district more Democratic and give Joe Heck a little more Republican-friendly district.”

There is dispute over whether or not Heller will have an incumbency advantage when running for the Senate seat in 2012, when he will be challenged by Shelly Berkley, a Democrat, who announced that she will enter the race then. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight wrote that “There’s not much evidence, however, that the incumbency advantage applies to an appointed rather than elected senator. Instead, appointed senators who run for re-election win it about half the time … Essentially, these elections still follow the dynamics of an open-seat race.”

The only “real advantage,” says Damore, “is the name recognition down here.” He noted that Heller is not all that well known in Las Vegas, but if he becomes a Senator, he will be able “to have a full time staff down in Las Vegas where he’s less well known.”

For the moment, there are no concrete answers. “It’s all speculative right now,” said Damore. But he pointed to one simple solution: “The Governor could make it a whole lot easier and not appoint Heller.”