CARSON CITY -- Secretary of State Ross Miller's decision Monday to open a Sept. 13 special U.S. House election to all candidates means a Democrat could for the first time win the GOP-held seat representing Northern and rural Nevada.
Miller, a Democrat, said he set the rules to replace soon-to-be Sen. Dean Heller based on his reading of the law and not on politics, but Republicans accused him of "partisan gamesmanship." He also argued that allowing an unlimited number of major- and minor-party candidates as well as independents in the race is more democratic than permitting "a few political power brokers" in the Republican and Democratic parties to choose one nominee each to compete.
"Let the people decide," Miller told reporters, dubbing what could be a crowded contest a "Ballot Royale."
For Republicans, however, a free-for-all election could be a royal pain. Tea party favorite Sharron Angle will be competing for votes with several other likely GOP contenders who could split the balloting into thin slices of support. Such an outcome would leave the opening for a party-backed Democrat to emerge as the top vote-getter.
"The Democrats have an excellent shot to steal this seat if this ruling holds up, and that's still a big if," said David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report. "Republicans have a better opportunity to save this seat in the courts than in the trenches."
Nevada Republicans were preparing a lawsuit to challenge Ross' ruling and could file it as soon as the end of this week to prevent what one wag described as the potential for a wild and woolly "jungle campaign."
Several potential GOP candidates were making final calculations about whether to get into the race, including Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki and state GOP Chairman Mark Amodei. Angle, who lost to U.S. Sen. Harry Reid last year, is raising $150,000 for the special election, partly by urging supporters to help her prevent a Democrat or "left-wing" Republican from winning. State Sen. Greg Brower of Reno filed to run for the seat last week. Former USS Cole commander Kirk Lippold also is running.
"Whatever process is laid out I will follow," Brower said. "I'm confident it's going to be a fun summer."
Krolicki said Miller "erred" in his decision.
"Parties count. I think it is appropriate for the parties to choose who should be on the ballot," Krolicki said. "I think I would be competitive, regardless of the process."
The Nevada Democratic Party is raising money to compete while working to build support behind one candidate, probably State Treasurer Kate Marshall, according to several sources who said she will get into the race and is seen as the strongest contender. Jill Derby, a former state party chair who ran against Heller in 2006 and 2008, announced she is running but could bow out. Nancy Price, a Democrat who lost to Heller last year, isn't seen as a big electoral threat if she stays in.
"On CD2, we were always planning on contesting that race, and nothing has changed," said Zach Hudson, spokesman for the Nevada Democratic Party. "We will work tirelessly to elect a Democrat who will fight to create jobs and protect Nevada seniors."
A Democrat has never won the 2nd Congressional District since it was created in 1982. Republicans hold a 40,000 registered voter advantage over Democrats in the district, which covers all of Nevada except urban areas of Clark County.
Cory Adair, executive director of the Nevada Republican Party, took direct aim at Miller.
"Secretary Miller seems to have allowed partisan politics to direct his decision concerning how to conduct the special election," Adair said, adding a free-for-all "disregards both legal precedent and the traditional nomination method in Nevada."
Miller, the state's chief election officer, said he expected to be sued over his interpretation of state election laws as Nevada holds its first special election to fill a House vacancy in its 147-year history. He said the special election law clearly says there should be no primary and major-party contenders can get on the ballot by filing a "declaration of candidacy."
"If the Legislature had intended to have the central committees appoint, they could have simply said that," Miller said.
David O'Mara, a lawyer for the Nevada GOP, however, said sections of the law clearly state that the major political parties should nominate candidates to fill vacancies. He cited a legal precedent in Nevada for a special election to fill a vacant Senate seat.
In 1954, the parties each picked candidates for a special election to replace U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran, D-Nev. Alan Bible, D-Nev., won over Ernest Brown, a Republican who had been appointed by a GOP governor to fill the seat after McCarran suddenly died.
If the special election challenge makes its way up to the Nevada Supreme Court, a near certainty given what's at stake, a largely moderate panel of justices would hear the case.
Justice Kris Pickering is the most conservative member of the high court . Justice Michael Cherry is the most liberal member .
The remaining justices, James Hardesty, Nancy Saitta, Ron Parraguirre, Mark Gibbons and Chief Justice Michael Douglas, are moderate to slightly right of center. Hardesty and Pickering both live within the 2nd Congressional District.
The need for the special House election came about after GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval last week selected Heller to fill the seat of U.S. Sen. John Ensign, who is resigning effective today in the wake of a scandal over his extramarital affair. Heller will be sworn in Monday.
Sandoval set the Sept. 13 date, but Miller has the authority to set the rules.
Miller said the special election will cost $1.3 million, which he said the state might pick up to help budget strapped counties.
Under the rules announced by Miller, all candidates will file May 23 to May 25. Independent and candidates for minor political parties with ballot access can start collecting signatures now. They need 100 valid signatures to have their names placed on the ballot. Parties with ballot access, such as the Independent American Party, will select one candidate, and that candidate must file May 23 to May 25. There will be no filing fees for any candidate.
Because federal law requires him to send ballots to overseas voters in the military by July 30, Miller said he needs to have legal matters settled by July 15 to have time to prepare and print ballots.
Miller said early voting will be allowed Aug. 27 to Sept. 9.
Whoever wins in September will serve the final 15 months of Heller's congressional term. An election for the full two-year term will be conducted in November 2012.
Review-Journal reporter Doug McMurdo contributed to this report. Contact Laura Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702 387-2919 and Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at email@example.com or 775-687-3901.