It's U.S. Sen. Dean Heller now.
Just six weeks after the Republican congressman announced he would run for the Senate, he got the job on Wednesday when GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval appointed him to finish Sen. John Ensign's term through 2012.
Heller's membership in the exclusive club of 100 will start after Ensign's last day Tuesday. It will give him an immediate boost, raising his profile statewide and his ability to raise money for his campaign against Rep. Shelley Berkley, the likely Democratic nominee and a seven-term representative who outranked the three-term congressman in the House.
The appointment also means Sandoval must call a special election for the first time in state history to fill Heller's House seat. Secretary of State Ross Miller will decide whether to allow a free-for-all or let political parties nominate one candidate each.
The GOP prefers a party choice to block tea party favorite Sharron Angle from running and to avoid a crowded field that could cost them the seat. Democrats want an open contest. Court challenges are planned, and the Nevada Supreme Court might decide.
Sandoval took just five days to name Heller after Ensign announced he would resign rather than face continuing ethics and legal problems from an extramarital affair. The choice was obvious for the GOP governor and widely expected.
"The people of Nevada deserve a new senator who can begin work immediately," Sandoval said in a one-page statement released at noon, a day after the two men met in Carson City to talk about the job. "Too many important issues face our state and our nation to name a caretaker to this important position. Nevada needs an experienced voice in Washington."
Sandoval touted Heller's service as secretary of state for 12 years and as a former member of the Legislature. He also noted that Heller already represents 16 counties in rural and Northern Nevada and parts of Clark County, the state's most populous, which also happens to be Berkley territory where seven out of 10 state residents live.
HELLER ACKNOWLEDGES HARD WORK AHEAD
Heller, who did not make an appearance Wednesday, said he was "deeply humbled and honored" to be appointed.
"There is a lot of hard work ahead to get our state and nation moving in the right direction," he said in a statement. "Nevadans across our state have been struggling with job loss, high gas prices, and foreclosure. There is no question that our nation needs to change the way we do business if we are going to get our economy back on track and get Nevadans working again."
"It is time for government to be accountable to the American people," Heller added, echoing a theme of Republicans who took the House after the 2010 election on promises to cut spending and reduce the nation's debt and deficit at a time when the United States is struggling to recover from an economic downturn that hit Nevada the hardest.
Sandoval, who was overwhelmingly elected last year on a pledge not to raise taxes, praised Heller for similar thinking. The governor called him "a fiscal conservative who believes in limited government," a popular theme in libertarian Nevada.
Democrats immediately dismissed the idea that Heller's elevation to the Senate would help his 2012 campaign. A pollster for Berkley, Mark Mellman, said history shows only about half of Senate appointees who ran for election have won.
An hour before the Heller announcement, Berkley said Heller won't gain an edge from his Senate perch.
"I don't think there's a great advantage," Berkley said at a school event. "It doesn't really affect my plans.
"The people of the state of Nevada are going to have a very clear choice," she added, accusing Republicans such as Heller of wanting to get rid of Medicare and privatize Social Security, two frequent Democratic charges this election cycle.
Heller, 50, is among the more conservative members of Congress, backing a new GOP House proposal to cut spending by $6.2 trillion over 10 years, for example.
Berkley, 60, has been a largely reliable vote for President Barack Obama's programs, ranging from the stimulus bill to health care insurance reform that Republicans such as Heller have rejected. Like other Democrats, she opposes the GOP budget cut plan because it would shift Medicare to a voucher-like system for younger recipients.
Jennifer Duffy of The Cook Political Report said the Heller appointment "is an overall net plus" for him because he gains status, attention and a wider fundraising network, what she called a few more "tools" for his campaign kit. She also predicted the competitive dynamics of the race will be about the same, a heated battle that probably will be a tossup until the end.
"For Heller, he gets to run as an incumbent with all the perks that come with that," Duffy observed. "That said, I don't think it makes the general election any less competitive. It really doesn't change Berkley's game."
BERKLEY ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL
Berkley on Wednesday visited Fremont Middle School in Las Vegas, which she attended as a child. She promoted a program to discourage alcohol use by children and to encourage exercise and healthy eating and lifestyles.
"I'd rather have a donut," she joked at one point, telling several dozen children alcohol has lots of calories, too.
Today, Berkley plans to push development of clean energy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she graduated. Democrats promoted the event by noting Heller "voted to eliminate renewable energy jobs in order to pay for more tax breaks for billionaires and more government giveaways to big oil companies."
The two events show Berkley as the clear aggressor, working to define Heller as taking budget cuts too far. It also demonstrates her reputation for being tireless on the trail. It's a trait she will need to win one of the most competitive races in the country as Democrats seek to take the GOP seat to help U.S. Sen. Harry Reid keep his slim Democratic Senate majority.
So far, Heller hasn't gone out of his way to attack Berkley, employing a front-runner, and now incumbent, strategy that seeks to keep him above the fray. That's sure to change once the Senate campaign heats up and voters pay more attention.
Both candidates are popular in their districts, his the 2nd and her's the 1st, but they need to build support beyond their bases. Berkley said she will campaign more in Northern Nevada, and Heller said he will swing through the South more often.
Berkley also has to contend with a Democratic challenger, Byron Georgiou, a millionaire who could give her trouble.
Contact reporter Laura Myers at lmyers@review journal.com or 702-387-2919.