CARSON CITY -- U.S. Sen. John Ensign's snap decision last week to resign shook Nevada's political world like an 8-point earthquake that will set off unpredictable aftershocks to come.
Ensign's departure will shift the electoral landscape. Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval will appoint a successor by May 3, when Ensign's resignation takes effect. If Sandoval picks U.S. Rep. Dean Heller as expected by the governor's inner circle, it will give the GOP the edge to keep the seat in 2012.
It also will give Sandoval seven days to call a special election, to be held on a Tuesday within six months, to fill Heller's seat, a first in Nevada's 146-year history.
The competition to replace Heller promises to be a free-for-all as more than half a dozen candidates, mostly GOP hopefuls eyeing what has been a safe Republican seat covering Northern and rural Nevada for 30 years, battle to get on the ballot and the Republican and Democratic parties maneuver for advantage.
"This is playing chess without a chess board," Tom Clark, a lobbyist and longtime Nevada campaign consultant, said of the unprecedented situation.
Nevada has never had a political shake-up such as the one that brought down the once-powerful Ensign following an extramarital affair and an aftermath of ethical and legal problems culminating in his resignation last week.
Complicating matters, state law regarding House special elections is open to interpretation. That thrusts the process into unchartered territory and possible litigation by the political parties and the candidates, including tea party favorite Sharron Angle.
The failed 2010 Senate contender could win a multicandidate race if she holds her conservative base, or she could throw an open election to a lone Democrat, some Republicans worry.
"John threw everything into the air," said Heidi Smith, the Republican national committeewoman from Northern Nevada. "We're still talking about all kinds of scenarios, bouncing balls around, trying to figure out what happens next."
The law gives the governor power to appoint a senator when there is a vacancy, so Sandoval is on solid ground there.
Heller already had announced he was running to replace Ensign, who earlier said he would retire in 2012. The governor quickly endorsed Heller in a move to discourage GOP primary competition.
Sandoval issued a statement Friday trying to tamp down speculation, but gubernatorial insiders said they are confident he will choose Heller.
But some Republicans are pressuring Sandoval to appoint a place holder, such as former Gov. Bob List, to avoid an open special election for Heller's House seat. That wing of the party fears Angle would likely prevail, or a Democrat could win the House seat if multiple GOP candidates split the vote.
It's unlikely Sandoval will buy those arguments.
List, fly fishing in Ohio Saturday, said he hadn't heard from Sandoval about such a possibility.
"It would be a way to resolve this confusion over the House race, but that's the governor's call," List said. "I would be open to discussing it with him."
Billy Vassiliadis, a veteran Democratic campaign consultant, said Sandoval as leader of the Nevada GOP must pick Heller because he is the party favorite.
"I don't think he has a choice," Vassiliadis said. "I think it certainly helps Heller."
Most political observers say Heller would enjoy an advantage over his likely Democratic opponent, Rep. Shelley Berkley, if he gets to run as the incumbent. Over the coming 18 months, Heller will be able to raise more money from a seat in the upper chamber, where minority Republicans can challenge Democratic leaders on economic issues at the heart of the campaign.
Vassiliadis, however, discounted the notion that Berkley would be at much of a disadvantage. He cited New York Times statistics that show over time only half of Senate appointees win election, though in more recent years about 90 percent have done so.
"I don't think it will change the dynamics of the race that significantly," Vassiliadis said. "Had Senator Ensign resigned a year ago -- and Dean would have had a whole year before he began campaigning, giving him time to build a financial contributor network -- it would be a big advantage for him."
Dave Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, argued Heller would benefit because he would be representing people statewide instead of only in his district.
"This should help raise Heller's profile, which is something he needs to do in the urban parts of the state," Damore said, referring to Las Vegas, Berkley's political turf for the past dozen years.
Having Sandoval's strong backing also could boost Heller's chances in 2012, as long as the new governor remains popular despite deep budget cuts and battles with Democrats in the Nevada Legislature, Damore said.
U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., will even the electoral playing field for Berkley, however, by helping her raise money and by lending her the party machine that got him re-elected in 2010. Reid already has scheduled fundraisers for Berkley, and at least one member of the senator's staff accompanied her in Nevada this week. Democrats see the Senate seat here as one of the top pickup opportunities in the nation as Reid fights to maintain his majority, now a slim 53-47.
Berkley's first obstacle will be a Democratic primary where she faces Las Vegas businessman Byron Georgiou, who has given his campaign $500,000 and raised as much from outside donors.
scramble FOR CONGRESS
While the Senate battle plays out, the most interesting political wrestling match to watch in coming weeks could be the special election scramble for Heller's 2nd Congressional District seat.
Sandoval would likely set the balloting for summer or early fall to give candidates time to raise money and campaign, said one GOP source.
Republicans would like the party's central committee to back a single candidate, control the process and increase the odds of holding the GOP seat.
Democrats want a free-for-all with candidates of every political stripe jumping into the race, which could help them capture the seat if turnout is low.
"An open election would be disorderly. That could be ugly," said List, a Republican national committeeman.
Smith, the national GOP committeewoman in Nevada, said Republican candidates often jump in with little regard for what is best for the party. The crowded GOP Senate primary in 2010 allowed Angle to emerge, which critics say helped Reid win despite his unpopularity.
"We're called the party of the big tent, and everybody gets a ticket," Smith said.
Behind the scenes handicapping of potential candidates suggests Angle is a key player to watch whether there is an open special election or a central committee vote. Angle was damaged by her Senate defeat last year, but she is working the phones to shore up support, Smith said. Angle also is a strong fundraiser and took in more than $700,000 in three months ending in March.
"Sharron's the hardest campaigner," Smith said. "She's trying to get people back."
Angle was first to get into the House race after Heller declared for the Senate.
Former USS Cole captain Kirk Lippold of Carson City also announced early, but he is not widely known and has little GOP support.
State Sen. Greg Brower, R-Reno, a former U.S. attorney for Nevada, said he will file for the House seat on Monday. Appointed to finish state Sen. Bill Raggio's term, Brower is not widely known in the GOP or the district.
Nevada GOP Chairman Mark Amodei also plans to enter the race, said Smith, who backs him. A former Carson City state senator, Amodei has many allies on the 180-plus central committee and might benefit from a party pick.
GOP Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, who lives in Douglas County, said he would consult with family over the Easter weekend before deciding what to do.
Krolicki is seen as the GOP establishment favorite; a longtime friend of Heller's who now works side-by-side with Sandoval. Yet he seems reluctant to throw his fate into a special election while the Legislature is in session _ he's the presiding president of the Senate _ and when the field may be crowded.
If Krolicki enters the House contest, insiders suggest Sandoval and other party leaders may urge Amodei and Brower to step aside for the good of the party.
"If Krolicki gets in, who knows what will happen," said one Republican.
On the Democratic side, several names have surfaced: Nancy Price, who lost to Heller in 2010, said Saturday she's running again. State Treasurer Kate Marshall, former Nevada Board of Regents member Jill Derby, who nearly beat Heller in 2006, and Sparks Assemblywoman Debbie Smith are also mentioned. Smith is said to be too busy with the Legislature to show real interest.
Only one candidate is expected to compete, whether as a party pick or in an open election.
SPECIAL ELECTION CHALLENGES
Meanwhile, both political parties are getting legal opinions to support opposing positions on a special election, and a court challenge is expected.
"The lawyers are trying to figure it out right now," said Erin Bilbray-Kohn, the Democratic national committeewoman in Nevada.
Ultimately, Secretary of State Ross Miller, a Democrat who has a reputation for fairness, will rule on how to apply special election law.
"We've got our noses buried in the law books right now," said Bob Walsh, deputy secretary of state for Southern Nevada.
Lorne Malkiewich, director of the Legislative Counsel Bureau, said the special election law dates to only 2003. It was passed in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, when government officials feared terrorists could attempt to kill members of Congress en masse, requiring special elections to replace them.
The Nevada law, NRS293, says "no primary may be held" in such a special election and the secretary of state "shall prescribe" when candidates can file or declare they are running for the office. But it also says political parties can fill vacancies for a "nomination," which could open the door for Miller to rule that he can accept party picks.
Malkiewich, who was not giving an official legal opinion, said it appears the statute was designed to allow an open special election and the parties would get involved only if there already had been a primary and the nominee dropped out.
"I'm thinking that it's wide open," Malkiewich said.
Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919.