Sen. John Ensign's (R) resignation announcement last week again stirred Nevada's political world into a frenzy, setting off a likely domino effect that led to the secretary of state and both parties feverishly poring over state law to decipher what the special election process is. It's so complicated that a decision is not expected to come until this week.
Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) announced Friday he would appoint someone to fill Ensign's seat before the Senator's resignation becomes official on May 3. Most political observers in the state expect him to appoint Rep. Dean Heller (R), who was already running for the seat and whose candidacy previously pushed Ensign to announce he would not run for re-election.
If Sandoval appoints Heller, the governor will have seven days to set a special election to fill his 2nd district seat; the election must be held within 180 days.
With that expectation, Democrats and Republicans are waiting to hear from Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller on the procedure for filling a vacant House seat — something that has never been done in the Silver State.
"The Ensign resignation was unexpected, and so it's put quite a scramble in motion," Republican National Committeeman and former Gov. Bob List said. "Step one is the governor's appointment to fill the seat, which in all likelihood will be Congressman Heller. Beyond that there is some confusion about the process for filling what would be an empty chair on the House floor in [the 2nd district]. The law is a bit unclear."
The only thing clear from the law is that no primary can be held to decide nominees. The two options state insiders read from the law include the parties' state central committees choosing their nominees or a free-for-all election with unlimited candidates from any party.
Party insiders said this could become a chaotic process with the potential for multiple lawsuits by candidates not chosen to represent their party, if that indeed is how the decision is made. And there are several prospective candidates in each party.
Republicans already running for the seat include 2010 Senate nominee Sharron Angle, retired Navy Commander Kirk Lippold and state Sen. Greg Brower, who announced his candidacy on Friday. Two others are strongly considering running, and insiders said they would likely be frontrunners in either scenario — Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki and state GOP Chairman Mark Amodei. Krolicki recently said he would delay his decision on whether to run, but adviser Ryan Erwin said Krolicki now has no choice but to move up his timeline.
"Ideally he would be able to get through the legislative session," Erwin said. But "a vacancy is not something you predict or expect."
There is chatter that Amodei could have the inside track on the nomination if the state central committee gets to pick the nominee. But with nearly 200 people choosing between five possible candidates, that is not a sure bet, insiders said.
Two potential Democratic candidates were also hoping to finish the session before making a decision on running, but they, too, will likely have to expedite the process. State Assemblywoman Debbie Smith and state Treasurer Kate Marshall, along with two-time former House candidate Jill Derby, are all in the mix as possible special election candidates.
"I think that there are very serious issues facing Nevada, and I'm giving it very serious consideration," Marshall told Roll Call. "It has been my view and it will continue to be my view that the district is absolutely winnable for a Democrat."
Smith was more circumspect when asked about the special election.
"I'm staying focused on my job at hand," she told Roll Call. "We'll wait to see how things shake out." Everyone in the state seems to be doing that as well. Bob Walsh, the deputy secretary for southern Nevada, said the secretary of state's office will not comment on a hypothetical situation, since there is no guarantee the seat will even come open. But in the meantime, the office is reviewing state law to determine how a replacement would be chosen if Heller is indeed appointed to the Senate.
"We're not going to start opining until we've had an opportunity to have a solid review of this stuff," he said. "The logistics of the law — both state and federal — makes this extremely complicated."
Republicans are hoping the secretary of state gives the parties the power to choose their candidates, avoiding the possibility of five Republicans running against one Democrat — giving Democrats a strong shot at picking up the Republican-leaning seat. A multi-candidate race would also boost Angle's prospects, several insiders said.
"I have to say that if it's a real free-for-all, I have to think Angle has some kind of advantage," Democratic consultant Billy Vassiliadis said. "She's probably got the most loyal base of everyone and just got done running a pretty competitive statewide race."
Angle also has a national fundraising base to tap, but she has few fans in the state party establishment. One top party source told Roll Call there was "no way" Angle would be selected as the nominee. She could, however, run as an Independent.