Brace yourselves. The 2012 election has already begun — or at least the jockeying and speculation surrounding the seat of disgraced Republican U.S. Sen. John Ensign and the new congressional seat Nevada expects to gain.
The 2010 season had enormous stakes, with U.S. Sen. Harry Reid surviving a GOP attempt to take down the Democratic Senate majority leader. Yet it is the next election cycle that will, in many ways, determine the political direction of the state for years to come.
With so many players, it also promises to rival a three-ring circus for high-wire drama and potential pratfalls.
“You should get some popcorn,” joked Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, newly re-elected and among those at the top of the list of Republicans who could seek Ensign’s Senate seat.
For now, Krolicki, like other candidates who won last Tuesday, is focused on his day job, which includes working with GOP Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval and the Nevada Legislature, under Democratic control, to get the state back on track after an economic downfall of record proportions.
How they and other potential 2012 contenders at the state and federal levels do their jobs in challenging times will determine who is in the best position to make a real run at higher office.
Meanwhile, those who lost elections in 2010, including Reid’s GOP challenger, Sharron Angle, are waiting in the wings and scoping out their next political moves.
“I think you’re going to see a lot of competition for Ensign’s seat and for every congressional district,” said Gary Gray, a longtime Democratic political consultant. “And I think there are more eager and able candidates than there are opportunities in 2012.”
Here’s a look at some of the potential contenders, along with early handicapping:
ENSIGN’S U.S. SENATE SEAT
The big prize will be Ensign’s seat. It will be key for Republicans to hold as they try to take control of the Senate from Democrats in 2012 as they did the House in 2010. Only 10 GOP Senate seats will be up for grabs, including Ensign’s, compared with 23 Democratic seats to defend.
Ensign has not ruled out running for a third six-year term, even as he is under federal and Senate investigation related to his affair with a former staffer and alleged attempts to help the woman’s husband get lobbying jobs in violation of ethics laws. Ensign, who denies doing anything illegal, would begin any re-election venture with a bare campaign bank account that is being exhausted by attorney fees.
Whatever Ensign does, Republicans expect a lively primary contest. And Democrats will want to put up their strongest contender, too, and make a big push for a takeover.
On the Republican side, all eyes are on Rep. Dean Heller. What he does will determine who else gets in the race. Heller on Tuesday easily won re-election to a third two-year term representing the 2nd Congressional District, a safe GOP-heavy area that covers most of the state outside Southern Nevada.
Heller may be tempted to stay put since he now is in the majority party in the House and is gaining seniority on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which decides tax issues. But he also is ambitious. He sat out the 2010 Senate race, avoiding a potential shredding by the Reid campaign.
If the popular Heller runs for Ensign’s seat, he would likely face several weaker GOP primary challengers, including those who lost to Angle, such as Danny Tarkanian and John Chachas. Both Tarkanian, a Las Vegas businessman and former University of Nevada, Las Vegas basketball player , and investment banker Chachas, an Ely native, have been open about their desire to run for the seat.
Angle, too, could take another run at a U.S. Senate seat. Because of the bruising 2010 campaign, she would have to overcome high negative ratings among voters after Reid successfully portrayed the staunch conservative as extreme and even dangerous. Donors also might be reluctant to bet on the Tea Party favorite again, unless she could make the case to her anti-Reid backers that gaining a Senate seat would allow her to oppose their Democratic nemesis every day in Washington.
Other potential GOP contenders include former Rep. Jon Porter, who took a pass at running against Reid, and Krolicki, who didn’t run in this year’s Senate race because he was sidelined by what he called a politically motivated investigation. In late 2009, Krolicki was cleared of charges that he mismanaged a college savings program while he was state treasurer.
Krolicki and Heller are GOP allies as well as friends, so it’s unlikely the lieutenant governor would challenge the congressman in a primary and might instead consider running to replace him.
On the Democratic side, Rep. Shelley Berkley, who won a seventh term to represent the 1st Congressional District, has been testing the waters for a potential bid for Ensign’s seat. Berkley may be too left-leaning for northern and rural Nevada to win statewide office, but she has noted that about 70 percent of the state’s 2.8 million population lives in her stronghold of Southern Nevada.
Although Democrats often avoid competitive primaries, with Reid frequently maintaining party discipline behind the scenes, most observers expect challengers to Berkley if she runs.
“Shelley’s going to try to scare other people out of the race,” including by raising lots of money, said Dan Hart, a Democratic strategist. “We’re talking a big prize here, so I suspect you’ll see others in the race; but the further down the campaign trail she gets, the harder it will be to catch up.”
The Senate race could cost $10 million or more for a candidate, which is still less than half of what Reid and Angle each ended up spending in the most expensive political contest in Nevada history.
Other potential Democratic challengers for Ensign’s seat include Secretary of State Ross Miller, State Treasurer Kate Marshall and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, with Miller perhaps the strongest contender. Both Miller and Masto got more votes than Harry Reid on Tuesday — 374,085, 372,010, and 361,655, respectively — and both got 53 percent of the vote with Reid taking 50 percent.
Called the “golden boy” of the Democratic Party, Miller is thought to want to follow in the footsteps of his father, former Gov. Bob Miller, but a Senate run could raise his profile and expand his donor base.
“Both Miller and Krolicki would be considered favorites for whatever they ran for, and they would give up nothing to do it because they would be in their midterms,” said GOP consultant Ryan Erwin. “Everything is flexible in politics,” he added, noting the shifting electoral playing field of 2012.
Once the official U.S. Census numbers are released on Dec. 31, Nevada should get the official word on whether it will get a fourth congressional seat as expected. Then the Democrat-led Nevada Legislature will redraw all four districts as part of a bill the Republican governor must sign. It’s a complicated process in which the congressional delegation also will weigh in to protect their turf.
For now, there is one safe Democratic district — Berkley’s 1st Congressional District — one safe GOP district — Heller’s 2nd Congressional District — and one swing 3rd Congressional District. On Tuesday, Republican Joe Heck barely won the 3rd District, beating Democratic incumbent Dina Titus, a freshman swept into office with President Barack Obama in 2008.
A compromise might redraw the 3rd District so it’s safer for the sitting Republican while creating a new 4th Congressional District that is friendly for Democrats, leaving a 2-2 equal party balance of seats.
But nothing is certain, and redistricting at both the federal and state levels could throw the Legislature into special-session overtime beyond its scheduled 120 days every two years.
If Berkley and Heller both seek Ensign’s Senate seat, it will be open season on their posts, and every congressional district could be competitive, including the new one and Heck’s redrawn 3rd District.
The list of Nevada politicians eyeing congressional seats is long and likely growing. It includes:
■ Titus, who is returning to teach at UNLV for now but may not be through with politics. She could seek Berkley’s seat if her former colleague runs for the Senate, or she could make a run for the newly drawn 4th Congressional District, presuming it would be Democrat friendly. A 3rd District rematch with Heck is possible but unlikely, unless she thinks she can count again on another winning ride on Obama’s shorter coattails.
■ Angle, a former Reno assemblywoman, could be a fairly safe bet to win Heller’s seat after nearly knocking him out of the GOP primary in 2006. She also could make a run at the state Senate seat of Sen. Bill Raggio, who is termed out and who nearly lost to Angle in the GOP primary in 2008.
■ Rory Reid, the Clark County Commission chairman who lost to Sandoval.
■ Steve Sisolak, a Democratic member of the Clark County Commission.
■ Nevada Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-North Las Vegas.
■ Nevada Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas.
■ Former Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas.
■ State Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, a conservative who just won re-election. She could seek the new congressional seat, depending on how it is drawn, or even Heck’s 3rd District post, especially if he decides to try to move up by bidding for Ensign’s seat, too.
■ Tarkanian, who might consider a House seat if he doesn’t run for Ensign’s Senate seat.
■ Mark Amodei, a former state senator from Carson City and now head of the Nevada Republican Party. He may look at running for Ensign’s seat, but didn’t catch on when he sought Reid’s post.
Amodei isn’t talking about his political plans, but he is starting to huddle with Sandoval, Heller and Heck to rebuild the state Republican Party. The GOP has suffered from a lack of leadership and divisions between moderates and its growing conservative wing, including Tea Party types.
The Senate seat and the 2012 White House race could hinge on their success or failure.
“Republicans will have to seriously consider doing what Reid has done with the Democratic Party,” Amodei said, which was to build it into an aggressive get-out-the-vote machine that helped elect Obama and delivered a hard-fought victory to the unpopular Reid.
“We’ve been out in the wilderness without a coat on and with holes in our shoes,” Amodei said. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in the next couple of years.”
Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919.