Reporting from Reno — With a growing Latino population and possibly the worst economy in the country, Nevada promised to be a central focus of the 2012 campaign, as the state offered a look at America's changing face and a verdict on whom voters blame for the problems of the last few years.
Now, a first-ever special election has heightened the state's political import by providing an early testing ground for issues and themes before next year's presidential race and the renewed fight for control of Congress.
Sen. John Ensign set off a chain reaction last week when he announced he was quitting amid an ethics investigation that arose from his affair with a campaign aide. On Wednesday, Gov. Brian Sandoval appointed Rep. Dean Heller to finish Ensign's term. (All three are Republicans.) The appointment created a vacancy in Nevada's 2nd Congressional District, which President Obama lost in 2008 by just 89 votes.
The district leans Republican, notwithstanding the president's strong showing, and Democrats are not certain how vigorously to pursue the open seat.
Still, the two major parties have already begun testing their messages, as an assortment of prospective candidates considers whether to run and party strategists in Washington await a decision from Nevada's secretary of state on the ground rules. (The law requires a vote to fill the seat within six months. Beyond that, the applicable statutes — which have never been applied — are a muddle.)
"I think Medicare is a big issue," said Dorie Guy, head of the local Democratic Party, citing the proposal by House Republicans to turn the federal insurance program for the elderly into a voucher system as a way to reduce federal spending. "A lot of people are waking up and saying, 'Wait a minute. Things aren't going the way I thought they would' " with the GOP in control of the House.
Tyler Q. Houlton, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee in Washington, countered that the race would present a classic choice "between a big-spending Democrat and a fiscal conservative," regardless of who ended up running. "We're confident that Nevada voters will choose the latter."
Obama easily carried Nevada in 2008 and, though his standing has fallen here as elsewhere, the state remains vital to his reelection hopes. (Last week, the president held a town hall meeting at a small renewable-energy business in Reno, his fifth Nevada visit since taking office.)
In addition to being a presidential battleground, Nevada will host what may be one of the most competitive Senate races in the country in 2012, offering one of the few opportunities Democrats have to gain a seat and offset potential losses in other states.
Heller's appointment won't change the partisan balance in the 100-member Senate, where Democrats hold a 51-47 majority, with two independents. But he is likely to face a stiff challenge from one of two Democrats eyeing the seat, Rep. Shelley Berkley of Las Vegas and wealthy businessman Byron Georgiou.
On the House side, Nevada will gain a fourth representative as a result of population growth over the last decade, and after redistricting may have as many as three competitive congressional races in 2012. The Democrats need to win 25 seats to take back the House, and the vacancy in Heller's district, which Republicans have held for three decades, offers an early chance to start whittling away.
But their success very much depends on the rules for conducting the contest, which lawyers and Nevada lawmakers are busy sorting out.
While the law says that "no primary will be held," it is not clear how the candidates representing each party are supposed to be chosen. That has led to widely differing interpretations — Democrats prefer a crowded field, which would potentially splinter the Republican vote — and an almost certain legal fight once Secretary of State Ross Miller issues his guidelines. Miller, a Democrat who is not known to be a rabid partisan, is not expected to act anytime soon.
The 2nd District is one of the largest, by land mass, in the country, taking in the entire state save for the Las Vegas metropolitan area. Sharron Angle, a former Reno assemblywoman and "tea party" favorite, carried the district in her losing 2010 campaign against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and figures in much of the intrigue surrounding the special election.
Angle announced she would run for the seat even before Heller's appointment — he had previously said he would run for Senate in 2012 — and this week she reiterated her determination, whatever happens in the short term.
Angle has never gotten on well with establishment Republicans, and many were infuriated by her bumbling campaign against Reid. They hope that Miller will allow party leaders to pick their nominee, which would almost certainly mean that Angle would be passed over, perhaps in favor of Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, state Sen. Greg Brower of Reno, or Mark Amodei, the state GOP chairman. On the Democratic side, party leaders are hoping to coalesce behind a single candidate, with state Treasurer Kate Marshall an early favorite.
"If there's only one Republican on the ballot running, then clearly they have the advantage," said Chuck Muth, a conservative strategist and political blogger in Las Vegas. "But if you have a free-for-all, it's anybody's game."
Sandoval pledged to work closely with Miller on setting rules for the election, but once the legal fight is joined, the ultimate arbiter may be Nevada's Supreme Court.