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April 19, 2014

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Lively primary race shaping up for Dean Heller’s House seat

Dean Heller

Dean Heller

As Nevada Republicans scramble to clear the way for U.S. Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., to ascend unimpeded by his own party to the U.S. Senate, a rollicking primary is shaping up for the congressional seat he will leave open.

As expected, Heller officially jumped in the race for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev. The congressman sent an e-mail to his supporters Tuesday announcing his decision.

The party’s top elected officials — Gov. Brian Sandoval and Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki — quickly closed ranks around Heller, sending the message that a primary fight would only hurt the GOP’s chances of hanging on to the seat.

Meanwhile, a bevy of Republicans are circling Heller’s 2nd Congressional District seat, commissioning polls, talking to donors and floating their names to reporters.

Five Republicans are on the shortlist for the seat: Krolicki; Nevada Republican Chairman Mark Amodei; state Sen. Greg Brower of Reno; Kirk Lippold, former commander of the USS Cole; and former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle — the true wild card who might thwart Republican hopes of Heller escaping a primary challenge in the Senate race.

Democrats are watching with interest, hoping a fight among Republicans opens an opportunity for a Democrat to win the congressional district for the first time since it was created in 1981.

Republicans see that as a near impossibility.

“It’s totally ludicrous to think a Democrat has an opportunity in that district,” said Ryan Erwin, a Republican consultant who has worked with Krolicki. “For Democrats, it would be a Hail Mary from Day One. It’s one of the most Republican districts in the entire nation.”

Still, some Democrats see a scenario unfolding that might not be so laughable:

• The seat is open, meaning no powerful incumbent to defeat.

• A Republican primary would weaken whoever makes it to the general election. In 2006, Heller, who scraped by in a difficult primary with Angle, won the seat by 5 points when Republicans had a 13-point registration advantage.

• Since then, Washoe County has trended more Democratic, voting for both President Barack Obama and Sen. Harry Reid. If Obama maintains enough popularity to resurrect the ’08 wave, a Democratic candidate would receive a boost.

• All eyes are on Angle, a subpar general election candidate in last year’s U.S. Senate race. Polls show her lacking support among Republicans. Democrats are crossing their fingers over the possibility of running a candidate against her again.

Another variable that might work in Democrats’ favor: redistricting.

Asked last week whether a Democrat could win the 2nd Congressional District, Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, said it’s too soon to tell. “We don’t know what it will look like, so it’s an impossible conversation to have,” she said.

As they look at redrawing district boundaries to reflect new U.S. Census population figures, some Democrats have floated the idea of handing the district of Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., to Republicans and drawing the 2nd Congressional District into a Democratic district that extends from Washoe County to Clark County.

That could strengthen Democrats’ chances in the district, but would be more likely to catch the wrong side of a judge’s decision if the redistricting plan is vetoed by Sandoval.

Operatives with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee visited Carson City last week and expressed interest in recruiting Smith or state Treasurer Kate Marshall to run for Heller’s seat.

Still, while many Democrats express cautious optimism over the opportunity, some privately express an opinion closer to Erwin’s: Such a run would be ludicrous.

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