But his decision to not seek reelection, announced March 7, opened up a highly competitive GOP field. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) of Nevada is expected to appoint three-term Rep. Dean Heller (R) of Nevada, who is already in the Senate race, to replace Ensign.
Congressman Heller, a former stockbroker, state assemblyman, and Nevada Secretary of State, would add a strong conservative voice to the Senate Republican caucus.
In recent House votes, Heller broke with GOP leaders to oppose a spending bill for FY 2011 on the grounds that it did not cut deeply enough. He also backed a failed conservative bid to cut non-defense discretionary spending to FY 2006 levels.
“The truth no one is likely to admit is that Sen. Ensign is being pushed out to give the Republican party a leg up in the 2012 election by allowing Governor Brian Sandoval to appoint Rep. Dean Heller (R) of Nevada to the seat so he can run with all the advantages of incumbency,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, in a statement Friday.
Typically, incumbency is worth at least a 5-point advantage on election day, but appointees historically haven’t reaped the same advantage. Since 1913, of the 189 people who have been appointed to vacant Senate seats, only a third were later elected to those seats. Of those who opted to run for election (70 did not), 62 won their races and 57 were defeated, according to the Senate Historical Office.
Here’s what’s not in dispute: Should Congressman Heller be appointed to Ensign’s Senate seat, his House seat becomes a key bellwether for the 2012 campaign cycle.
But Nevada has never had a special election for a US House seat, and state law is unclear on how to proceed.