WASHINGTON -- Democrats are seeking a bright side to the news that they will have to face an incumbent in Nevada's 2012 Senate race now that Gov. Brian Sandoval has declared he'll appoint Rep. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) to the seat.
Heller will replace Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who is resigning, effective Monday, amid investigations into his affair with a staffer.
Democrats would have preferred for Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), who has already declared her Senate candidacy, to face off with Heller on equal footing, with both of them running from seats in the House of Representatives. They were banking on the fact that Berkley is well-known in the crucial, populous Las Vegas area that she represents to give her an advantage. But now that Heller will be running as an incumbent, they are hoping that his higher profile will provide a silver lining in the Silver State -- that his bigger job will make him a bigger, easier target.
“Dean Heller remains largely unknown in parts of the state and I assume he prefers it that way, given his enthusiastic support for the Republican budget plan," a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Committee, Matt Canter, said, referring to the controversial budget plan put forth by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). "Becoming the unelected senator will come with a level of heightened scrutiny that will hurt him in a general election."
Yet it also comes with a guarantee of better name recognition, and Heller's appointment gives him license to spend the next year and a half holding events on Berkley's turf.
"I think it was so important for Dean Heller to get the interim appointment because it allows him to use the resources of the Senate to set up some presence down here, where he's not very well known," said David Damore, a University of Nevada-Las Vegas political scientist.
Heller will also have to convince people he is not the extreme right-winger that Democrats will claim he is. That will not be a simple task, Damore argued, because Heller has been steadily shifting to the right ever since Sharron Angle nearly beat him in his first Congressional primary in 2006.
"Ever since then, his goal has been to never get a Republican challenger, and he's been successful," Damore said, noting that the appointment gives Heller time to shift toward the less conservative voters in the southern portion of his state. It also gets him out of the incredibly polarized House, and into a chamber where he should be able to lay a little lower.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) -- the state's Democratic powerbroker -- was already set to make Heller's life tough, even as he offered a gracious public welcome. Reid announced Wednesday that he'll hold a Senate vote on the Ryan budget -- and Democrats have already begun to target Republicans who support it in swing districts.
When the vote occurs, Heller will have to either reaffirm his House vote for the plan, or switch sides, casting a vote against it after he was for it. Neither option is especially palatable.
Still, Republicans have recent history on their side. Although appointed senators have often lost their subsequent election bids in the past, most of the recent appointees who ran ended up winning, including Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.).
Damore and other observers believe the contest will be a toss-up. Democrats were quick to point to a new survey by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling, which finds Berkley gaining fast on Heller, trailing him just by four points. (In January, she was behind by 13.) They hope Heller is well past his high-water mark.
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) signaled his side was confident in Heller.
“Dean’s Democratic opponents have embraced Harry Reid’s failed, big government policies, and if elected they will continue to steer our country on a downward path of fewer jobs, more spending and a record debt," Cornyn said. "Next year’s election is critical, and in the months ahead, voters throughout Nevada will see firsthand why Dean Heller is the right leader, at the right time, to continue serving them in the U.S. Senate.”