Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., gives a thumbs up after winning re-election… (Eric Jamison / AP Photo )
It's a race in Nevada. Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley is climbing into the ring to square off against Rep. Dean Heller, a Republican, in a battle for the retiring John Ensign's Senate seat.
In a release, Berkley, who has represented her Las Vegas-area district for 12 years, blasted the GOP budget plan in the House that targets Medicare and Medicaid, a refrain voters are likely to hear again and again in the coming months.
"This race is about a clear choice for Nevada’s future," Berkley said. "While Dean Heller is proudly fighting on behalf of the Tea Party to dismantle Medicare and Social Security and protect corporations that ship American jobs overseas, I will continue working on behalf of Nevada’s middle-class families by creating good paying jobs and keeping our promises to seniors."
With an early 2012 presidential primary, Nevada is shaping up as a key battleground state--and Democrats see a pickup opportunity. President Obama carried Nevada over John McCain by a dozen points, and the state has a burgeoning Hispanic population.
But it's also been hammered by the recession, particularly in the housing market--and unhappiness with the nation's direction cost Democratic Rep. Dina Titus her seat last November.
The race will set up a regional conflict in Nevada. Heller, who has held state office, hails from the rural north, Berkley from the populous southern tip. Heller's campaign is also likely to be buoyed by ex-Senate candidate Sharron Angle's decision to seek his old seat, something likely to motivate the conservative base in the state.
Berkley may also have endure a primary. Wealthy businessman Byron Georgiou has already announced his Senate candidacy.
"If Congresswoman Berkley does survive what is sure to be a very expensive primary, she will have a very tough time selling mainstream Nevadans on her rubberstamp support for higher taxes, more spending, and a record debt, at a time when Nevadans are focused on creating jobs and growing the economy,” said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, cited Berkley's announcement as proof Democrats will be aggressive in 2012, even as they defend 23 seats--many in moderate swing states--and a slim Senate majority.
Murray said the DSCC spoke to a number of Democrats in the state, but Berkley rose to the top because "of her energy, her knowledge of the state and her enthusiasm."
"We're proud to support her," she said.
Ensign, a Republican dogged by a scandal stemming from his affair with aide, announced last month that he would not stand for re-election.
Slowly, Democrats are fielding candidates to take on Republicans in what likely will be some of the bitterly contested Senate races of next year's cycle. Earlier this month, former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine signed up for a contest--likely against former Sen. George Allen--to replace Sen. Jim Webb. And New Mexico Rep. Martin Heinrich enlisted in the fight to succeed the retiring Sen. Jeff Bingaman. He is likely to take on former Rep. Heather Wilson.
Several questions in key states remain, including whether Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, still recovering from a gunshot wound, will make a bid for Arizona's open Senate seat, likely in a race against GOP Rep. Jeff Flake, and whether any prominent Democrat will challenge incumbent Republican Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts.