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Sandoval chooses Dean Heller for John Ensign replacement

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

U.S. Rep. Dean Heller speaks at the grand opening of the Mandarin Oriental at CityCenter, Friday, Dec. 4, 2009.

Updated Wednesday, April 27, 2011 | 2:03 p.m.

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Brian Sandoval

WASHINGTON - What seemed inevitable is now official: Gov. Brian Sandoval announced at noon Wednesday that he’d be appointing House representative and presumptive Republican Senate nominee Dean Heller to round out the rest of Sen. John Ensign’s term.

“Nevada needs an experienced voice in Washington, D.C.,” Sandoval said in a statement announcing his decision. “Dean is an experienced representative who is ready for the responsibilities of this office, and who will work hard, not just for Nevada, but the entire nation.”

The announcement sparked an immediate outburst of approval from national Republicans, whose job defending their most at-risk seat in the 2012 election may have just gotten slightly easier, and a simultaneous outcry from state Democrats, who will now have to depose a sitting -- albeit unelected -- senator rather than try to fill an empty seat.

“At this time of economic uncertainty, it is critical that we have common sense, fiscally responsible leaders like Dean Heller in Washington; leaders who are focused on creating real economic growth by supporting a balanced budget and reining in reckless Washington spending,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Sen. John Cornyn in a statement applauding Heller’s selection. “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.”

But Democrats aren’t willing to concede any extra electoral cushioning to Heller’s new incumbency. They’ve been rolling out the wisdom of the Nevada Democratic machine’s favorite expert pollster, Mark Mellman -- the one person who called Reid’s eventual victory over Sharron Angle correctly during the 2010 midterms -- to debunk the assumption that Heller’s new seat will give him any sort of boost.

“Since popular election of senators began in 1913, 118 appointed senators sought election and just 62 — or 52.5 percent — won their seats,” Mellman wrote in an editorial that ran in the Capitol Hill publication The Hill on Tuesday. “An appointed senator has about the same odds of winning a coin flip as (s)he does of keeping his or her seat: about the same odds as an otherwise evenly matched race for an open seat.”

But recent appointed incumbents do seem to have fared rather well, at least in the past few election cycles.

Take New York’s Kristen Gillibrand, the Democrat who was appointed to fill Hillary Clinton’s seat when she was named secretary of state. She won her 2010 re-election campaign handily, by a margin of almost 25 percent. Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, who was appointed to the Senate in 2002 by her father, also won her first re-election, though by a much narrower margin in a much smaller state.

Democrats hope those recent examples don't replicate themselves in Nevada.

“No amount of backroom deals will change the fact that Dean Heller voted earlier this year to destroy thousands of Nevada jobs and just weeks ago voted to eliminate Medicare to pay for more tax breaks for billionaires,” said Nevada State Democratic Party spokesperson Zach Hudson. “We remain fully committed to electing a Democrat to the United States Senate who will fight to create jobs and protect Nevada’s seniors, veterans, middle class and first responders from Dean Heller and the Tea Party’s extreme agenda.”

With a solid 18 months left until the general election, it seems part of that politicking may end up taking place on the Senate floor -- where the votes Heller takes will be determined largely by the Nevada Democrats’ most senior member and chief political operator, Harry Reid -- who controls the schedule on the Senate floor.

Reid had only innocuous words of welcome for Heller at the news of his appointment.

"I welcome Dean to the Senate,” Reid said in a statement. “As his responsibilities shift to representing all Nevadans, rather than a single district of our state, I am confident he will work with me and members of both parties to address the serious challenges facing Nevada and the nation."

But only a few minutes before Sandoval announced his decision to appoint Heller, Reid announced he planned to bring up a vote on Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal 2012 budget in the Senate -- a bill he and most Democrats despise, and have openly derided as a secret plan to kill Medicare.

The move is pure politics, aimed at putting Republican senators -- now including Heller -- on record as often as possible backing initiatives such as altering social spending programs, that presumptive Democratic nominee Shelley Berkley has said she “absolutely” intends to make the focus of her campaign.

Of course, how well those political tactics work depend on how the electorate reads those votes.

Heller hasn’t apologized or shied from his votes in favor of Ryan’s proposal, which he says are necessary to save the program -- and believes the voting population of Nevada will agree.

His office also points out that the changes Berkley is trying to wave as a red flag in front of the seniors of Southern Nevada -- the population-rich part of the state where Heller doesn’t have all that much of a profile yet -- wouldn’t apply to those voters, or anyone under the age of 55. Democrats have rebutted that assertion, arguing that the repeal of Obama’s health care law that’s part of the Ryan budget takes a hit at current seniors’ prescription payments.

But budgets and Medicare aren’t likely to be the only areas that are going to get play in this election. Energy, taxes and the job growth are all issues that are going to play large in Nevada; and while Senate Republicans have yet to announce where Heller will end up focusing his policy attentions as a senator, it’s likely they’ll feed him assignments that will play well on the campaign trail.

"Dean brings a demonstrated record of success to the Senate and he'll be an asset to the Republican efforts to create an environment where jobs can come back, stop the administration's war on American energy during record gas prices, reduce the massive debt that is slowing job growth and repeal the job-destroying health spending law and replace it with commonsense reforms that actually lower costs," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

But most important for him is Southern Nevada -- an area where Berkley is a well-established. Heller currently represents at portion of Clark County, as well as Nevada’s other 16 counties, but this appointment will be the first time his constituency has included Las Vegas.

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