On the first day of filing for a Sept. 13 special election, Sharron Angle unexpectedly dropped out of the U.S. House race and 15 contenders unsurprisingly dropped in.
Angle's announcement Wednesday that she will not run in the special election to replace former Rep. Dean Heller was met with shock and relief by Republican leaders, who haven't forgiven the GOP tea party favorite for losing last year to U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader.
Her bowing out clears the way for two leading establishment Republicans -- state Sen. Greg Brower and former Nevada GOP chairman Mark Amodei -- to compete for support in an internal party nominating contest. It also could make it harder for a Democrat to take advantage of GOP infighting and vote-splitting to win the 2nd Congressional District seat for the first time in three decades.
"Our chances of holding the seat just improved," said former Gov. Bob List, a GOP national committeeman. "Fewer conservative candidates will help us consolidate and gather our support."
The drama is far from over, however. Dozens of major and minor party candidates and independents are expected to file to compete in the special election, although most won't make it on the ballot unless the Nevada Supreme Court intervenes in a battle over ballot access by June 30.
The 15 hopefuls who filed Wednesday ranged from serious contenders -- such as Brower, Amodei and Democrats State Treasurer Kate Marshall and failed 2010 House contender Nancy Price -- to a few mysterious contenders who didn't list addresses. One, Eric Hintermeyer, a Republican, wore an Army uniform and refused to answer reporters' questions, saying only that he was on active duty.
Amodei said he has no idea what turn the race will take next.
"The road is pretty much all curves," he said. "We still don't even know for sure as we speak whether the parties are going to nominate or if it's going to be a dog pile on Sept. 13."
Secretary of State Ross Miller, a Democrat, initially set the rules to let all major party hopefuls declare their own candidacies for what he called a "ballot royale."
That would have allowed Angle to compete with several other top Republicans, likely splintering the GOP vote in a way that could have permitted a well-financed Democrat with party backing to pick up the seat.
The Nevada Republican Party sued Miller, arguing the special election law and a related statute requires major party central committees to nominate one candidate each for vacancies.
Last week, District Judge James Todd Russell ruled in the GOP's favor, halting Miller's free-for-all rules and giving the parties until June 30 to nominate candidates for the ballot.
Miller and the Democratic Party appealed Russell's ruling to the state Supreme Court. And the secretary of state said he would allow candidates to file for free through June 30 in case he prevailed.
Angle, in giving up her bid, denounced the special election. She called it "an illegitimate process that disenfranchises the electorate" because there is no primary and party leaders may pick candidates.
"I do not have any desire to participate in a process described by others as a 'ballot royale' or a situation where the party central committees choose their nominees because it makes a mockery of the most important constitutional element in exercising freedom," Angle said in a statement.
Angle left the door open for running for office later, however. People close to her said she decided to drop out after growing tired of the uphill battle to win support. The former Reno assemblywoman could run for the House seat in 2012, but for now she's keeping her options open.
"I would not expect Sharron Angle to go quietly into the night," said Heidi Smith, a GOP national committeewoman who said Angle realized she couldn't win the special election. "She'll be back."
Brower said Angle getting out of the race doesn't affect his strategy, which includes contrasting his anti-tax votes with Amodei's support for a $1 billion tax package as a lawmaker in 2003.
"I'm reaching out to Republicans to let them know what my record is," said Brower, a former U.S. attorney who served in the Assembly and was appointed to finish the term of retired state Sen. Bill Raggio.
Kirk Lippold, the former USS Cole commander when it was bombed by al-Qaida in 2000, said Wednesday he will compete whether it's a free-for-all or GOP leaders nominate a candidate.
Previously, Lippold had said he would not seek the party nomination, but changed his mind after the judge's ruling.
Lippold did not file on Wednesday, but planned to do so before the June 30 deadline.
Republicans are scheduled to meet June 18 to nominate a party candidate.
Democrats plan to pick a nominee at a June 25 meeting if the party loses its state Supreme Court appeal.
As Republicans maneuver for advantage, Democrats seem intent on scooping up the House prize in a special election, a low-turnout affair in which the party has had much success across the country.
Marshall, the leading Democratic contender who was recruited by the national party to run, emphasized her efforts to cut spending in her office and "fiscal discipline."
"We are still in a fiscal crisis. I think I have something to contribute," Marshall said.
Price, who lost to Heller last year, noted she has crossover appeal and used to be a Republican until former President George W. Bush started "allowing torture" of terrorism suspects.
"The party made a hard turn right," she said. "There is no Republican Party as I knew it."
Jill Derby, who nearly beat Heller in 2006 and did well in 2008, has said she plans to run, too, although she didn't file on the first day. She has high name recognition in the district.
The House vacancy opened after Heller was appointed to complete the term of U.S. Sen. John Ensign, who resigned in disgrace after an affair and ethics scandal.
Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel contributed to this story from Carson City. Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919.