Tea Party Express seeks to influence Nevada politics in wake of Ensign resignation

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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Tea Party Express, the national organization that stepped into Nevada politics last year when it supported Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle, is hoping that it will be able to exert its influence in the aftermath of  Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign’s resignation.

Republican Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval is expected to appoint Republican Rep. Dean Heller to replace Ensign, setting off a series of complications relating to a special election to fill his congressional seat. Tea Party Express likes Heller as a candidate, but they’re not necessarily on board with appointing him to replace Ensign.

“We’ve been watching this develop,” said Levi Russell, spokesperson for Tea Party Express. “What we are supporting and would like to see happen, is that the governor appoint a placeholder, and not appoint Heller, but appoint a placeholder that would be suitable for the coming year, and then let the normal elections proceed as planned for 2012.”

“We think the whole process should have more transparency and we should give the voters the opportunity to go to the polls and choose who they want,” he explained.

A placeholder, he said, “would give the right candidate the time to emerge” to fill Heller’s congressional seat in 2012 when Heller runs for the Senate seat vacated by Ensign. The placeholder would simply need to be someone conservative, who “wouldn’t be seeking reelection, but would do a good job for the voters while the other candidates sort of go through the process,” Russell said.

Tea Party Express is also concerned about the negative impact being appointed could have on Heller’s career.

“Historically,” said Russell, “senators who are appointed have a terrible record of getting reelected. I think when you get appointed, you always hold that office with a bit of a stigma that you didn’t earn it, didn’t go through the process like a normal candidate; it was handed to you. We think that Heller is a good candidate, and if the voters choose him, we’d like him to be in office for a while.”

Assuming that Sandoval appoints Heller as expected, Tea Party Express still plans to be involved.

“We’re definitely keeping a very close eye on it, and we’re watching all these races emerge with great interest,” said Russell. “We have frequent discussions as to how we would be involved, or how we would try to be influential with the overall goal, as always, as having the best conservative candidate win the election.”

There are two possible scenarios for a special election for Heller’s congressional seat should he be appointed to the Senate: candidates will either be nominated by each party’s central committee, or it will be a free-for-all in which any candidate who wishes to run may enter the race if approved by the secretary of state. Tea Party Express favors the latter.

“We would be in favor of leaving it up to the people of Nevada to choose who represents them,” said Russell. “That’s what the Tea Party movement is all about.”

The group potentially already has a horse in the race: Sharron Angle has already announced that she would run for Heller’s seat in 2012. Tea Party Express has not yet endorsed any candidates, Russell said, but he expressed the group’s continued approval of Angle. “Given our history with her, we still think she’s a great choice for Nevada,” he said.

“Nothing has been announced, but we still support her message and think that she has the right ideas for Nevada and is a strong supporter of tea party values.”