Sam Morris and Mona Shield Payne/Las Vegas Sun
Friday, April 22, 2011 | 5:40 p.m.
- Until the end, Ensign a master of close-call politics
- Heller appointment to Senate changes campaign calculus
- If Dean Heller chosen to replace John Ensign, fallout would be felt down the ticket
- Sandoval: Sen. John Ensign replacement will be named before May 3
- Nevada’s special election laws not so clear, probably will result in lawsuit
Sen. John Ensign’s departure shakes up the art of political prognostication for the Silver State, but it’s not yet entirely clear how.
While nothing’s got an official rubber stamp of finality until the primaries are over, the field for the general election is already clear: Rep. Dean Heller is the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee and Rep. Shelley Berkley is the same for the Democrats.
That doesn’t change, regardless of whether Gov. Brian Sandoval taps Heller for the open Senate spot. If he doesn’t, things would move along at an even keel -- though if Sandoval passed Heller over, suspicions would circulate as to why the governor, who’s already endorsed Heller’s candidacy, suddenly didn’t have enough confidence in the congressman to appoint him to the seat.
But if Sandoval does appoint Heller, as most believe he will, it gives the Republican congressman a leg up.
It’s not just because he’d assume the title of “senator.” But with that comes the privileges of incumbency, experience in the role and automatic expansion of his constituency: Heller’s lack of a profile in the southern part of the state was his greatest Achilles’ heel going into the 2012 contest, but take on a statewide office and your constituency comes to you.
That doesn’t mean Heller will suddenly scoop up Southern Nevada, especially around population-rich Las Vegas, where Berkley is especially popular and well-rooted. But it creates some space for Heller to maneuver in territory that he was previously going to have to fight his way into.
To this point, Nevada’s Senate contest was shaping up to be the most head-to-head matchup in the nation. Heller and Berkley are both in the House, and while Berkley’s had her seat for almost three times as long as Heller, they’re the two members with seniority in a House delegation of three, where the other, Republican Joe Heck, is a freshman.
That means every vote in the House is a potential election issue, whether it’s on the budget (Berkley supported a deal with $38.5 billion in cuts on the eve of a government shutdown earlier this month, Heller voted against it because he said it didn’t cut deep enough), repealing President Obama’s health care law (Heller voted to repeal it, Berkley voted to preserve it) or the controversial Medicare and Medicaid overhauls put forward in Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget bill for next year (Heller voted for them, arguing the changes were necessary to save the system; Berkley voted against them, arguing they would effectively end the Medicare program).
They weren’t just set to go head to head on the House floor. Berkley and Heller also sit across the aisle from each other on the much smaller, but still quite potent Ways and Means Committee, where Nevadans were expected to have the unique privilege of watching their two Senate candidates duke it out over down-the-line election issues like taxes, Social Security, and health care programs on a weekly basis.
If he graduates to the Senate, the perpetual verbal boxing match gets toned down a notch, and Heller potentially gets the opportunity to diversify himself in ways he can later sell at home. You can bet the higher-ups in his party -- for whom the Nevada seat is the most threatened of the 10 they have to protect in 2012 -- will do anything to bolster and protect him, and make sure he gets the opportunity to present himself two Novembers from now with the strongest possible record.
But is that sort of incumbency enough to kick him comfortably over the top?
Not necessarily, say some analysts. Nate Silver of the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight Blog, which focuses on polling, said senators who later try to maintain their seats in an election don’t enjoy the normal incumbency advantage -- which he pegs to be about 7 percent, on average.
“Essentially, these elections still follow the dynamics of an open-seat race,” Silver wrote.
But that’s not always been the case in the last few years. Recent replacements who chose to run for re-election actually fared rather well in both parties: New York Sen. Kristen Gillibrand won re-election to the Senate in 2010 to a seat she was appointed to when Hillary Clinton was named Obama’s secretary of state. In the Republican camp, Lisa Murkowski is a recent example: appointed in 2002, by her father nonetheless, Murkowski was re-elected handily in 2004 and pulled off the first write-in victory in Senate history last year, trumping Tea Party candidate Joe Miller, who had beaten her for the Republican nomination during the primary.
In Nevada, Democrats do still have one advantage rather akin to incumbency: a well-oiled ground game that’s run by the state’s most institutional incumbent, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The get-out-the-vote machine he built over the last several election cycles was always going to be a force to be reckoned with.
But there’s no knocking the fact that the Nevada GOP is salivating at the prospect of coalescing its party renaissance over a potential Senator Heller.
“This is a nice boost,” said former Nevada Gov. Bob List. “It’ll give him a leg up with his fundraising. It’ll get him a head start.”
And it could potentially help them take out one more prized target: Reid.
Reid won’t lose his Senate seat, that’s for sure. But a loss in Nevada will put him a step closer to losing what makes him the institution that he his: his leadership of the Senate.
Reid has to emerge from the 2012 elections with at least 20 of the seats up for review safely in his camp -- assuming Obama can keep hold on the White House, if not, he needs 51 -- in order to maintain his position.