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Heller’s in Senate race, where’s the Democrat?

To absolutely no one’s surprise, on Tuesday Rep. Dean Heller jumped into the race to replace retiring Sen. John Ensign.

Perhaps the only thing unanticipated was his method, an e-mail to supporters rather than a news conference with a backdrop of multi-ethnic, multi-gender supporters cheering and smiling for the cameras. But given Heller’s candidacy was inevitable, especially after Ensign’s brusque exit from the field March 7, there was little drama to be had in a traditional announcement.

Heller was the front-runner before he officially got in, and staking out the territory was one way to let other candidates know he was committed to the race. If Heller gets his fondest wish, he’ll have no significant primary opposition, and he’ll be able to do the thing he knows will be necessary for him to win: Introduce himself to the voters of Clark County.

Although Heller represents 90 percent of Nevada geographically, that last 10 percent is key: According to the census, 72 percent of all Nevada voters live in Clark County, and only a few of those are inside Heller’s sprawling, nearly statewide congressional district. To win, Heller needs to win those voters over, knowing all the while Southern Nevada is the home base for one of his most formidable potential rivals, Rep. Shelley Berkley.

“I have a lot of work to do in Clark County,” Heller acknowledged after sending his e-mailed announcement Tuesday. One Democratic wag underscored the congressman’s dilemma by joking that he was going to send Heller a map of Southern Nevada.

But that’s not Heller’s only worry. While establishment types who have eyed the Senate seat in the past will defer to the congressman — Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, for example, endorsed Heller almost immediately, as did Gov. Brian Sandvoal — not everyone will. Which brings us to Sharron Angle.

Angle ran against Heller in 2006, and almost won the election by deriding him as a faux conservative. Heller has worked hard since to burnish his conservative bona fides, voting for example against the bailout, a fact he highlighted in his announcement news release.

And while Heller has declined to join the Rep. Michelle Bachmann-led House Tea Party caucus, there’s little doubt he’s sympathetic to its goals.

For Angle, however, that may not be good enough. She’s shown a tendency upset the Republican Party’s apple cart, with runs against Heller for Congress in 2006, then-state Sen. Bill Raggio in 2008 and would-be anointed U.S. Senate hopeful Sue Lowden in 2010, a race Angle finally won. The fact she just lost a Senate race — against a candidate considered one of the most vulnerable in the country — isn’t likely to give Angle much pause.

Then again, Angle just may want to win a general election at some point, and a run at Heller’s soon-to-be-vacant congressional seat offers her a much better shot at victory than a run against Heller in a Senate primary. It would, however, disprove the notion of Angle as a master fundraiser. Without Harry Reid as a foil, her fortunes in dialing-for-dollars will dim considerably.

And then there’s Heller’s opponent. (No, not lawyer and financial crimes investigator Byron Georgiou, who is the only Democrat to have actually filed for the office.) Berkley was as immovable about her decision on Tuesday after Heller’s announcement as she was on March 7 after Ensign’s. And while everyone expected Heller to do what he did, it still increases the pressure on the Democrats’ No. 1 choice to make a decision and commit to the race.

Other Democratic candidates — and national politicos — will wait for Berkley to decide, but they won’t wait forever.


Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. His column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 387-5276 or at ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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