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The First Bellwether of the 2012 Cycle

Quick quiz!

What does the largest Congressional district in New York state have in common with largest Congressional district in Nevada?

Not a lot.

New York's 23rd Congressional district covers a gigantic expanse, running from the middle of the Empire State, just east of Syracuse, then north to Lake Ontario, kissing Quebec and then hugging the Vermont state line.

Nevada's 2nd Congressional district encompasses nearly every part of the state except the extreme southern corner and Las Vegas. It includes Reno, Carson City and what is believed to be Area 51. It features contiguous boundaries with Utah, Idaho, Oregon and California.

But like a wild special election for a House seat in New York 23 in the fall of 2009, a possible special election in Nevada 2 later this year could shape up as a world-class free-for-all that might serve as a political lodestar as to where the electorate is headed and the influence of the tea party in 2012.


It all starts with Sen. John Ensign (R-NV), who resigns his seat amid an ethics cloud next week.

After admitting to an affair with former campaign aide Cynthia Hampton, the wife of one of his top aides, Ensign announced he wouldn't stand for re-election in 2012. In recent weeks, Reps. Dean Heller (R-NV) and Shelley Berkley (D-NV) each declared their candidacies for Ensign's seat in 2012. But Ensign's abrupt resignation means that Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) will appoint someone to fulfill the rest of Ensign's term.

Signals from Nevada indicate that Sandoval is likely to appoint Heller to Ensign's seat, thus creating a vacancy in Nevada's 2nd Congressional District. Nevada law dictates that the state must hold the election within six months.

But here's where political intrigue comes in. And the reverberations could be felt throughout the country in 2012.

Once Dean Heller announced his candidacy for the 2012 Senate contest, former Nevada Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, one of the most-polarizing figures in American politics, jumped into the House contest. That's not surprising considering Angle gave Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) a scare last fall, nearly toppling the Senate's top Democrat in one of the hottest contests on the map.

To secure the GOP Senate nomination, the conservative Angle courted tea party loyalists and outmaneuvered Republicans Sue Lowden and Danny Tarkanian, the son of former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian.

Nevada 2 is the most-Republican House district in Nevada. Considering Angle's performance against a titan like Reid, she would be a serious force in a general House election in November, 2012. But a special election is a different story.

Nevada law is fuzzy as to how to fulfill the rest of Heller's term. It's clear there will be no primary. But how do the parties choose their candidates? One scenario could mean voters would have a full slate of Democrats and Republicans to select from on the ballot. The other option is that the state parties tap their respective nominees for the special election.

Would Nevada Republicans draft Sharron Angle? Democrats in Nevada and around the country sure hope so. Granted, Angle's ultra-conservative brand of politics makes her a darling of the tea party movement and a cash machine. Democrats would love to see Angle at the helm as they could portray the GOP as "extreme" and convert her into a poster child for the tea party movement.

But there are doubts that the Nevada GOP brass would tap Angle as their nominee. A number of Republican sources believe that Angle is too radioactive and far outside the mainstream. Plus, there's the theory that a more "traditional" Republican candidate like Lowden or Tarkanian would have defeated a enfeebled Reid amid last year's GOP tidal wave.

So what happens if Republicans choose someone else like former USS Cole Commander Kirk Lippold or state Sen. Greg Bower (R), two other candidates already running to succeed Heller in the House?

Angle could run as an independent or as a third party candidate. That presents two potential possibilities.

If the statewide GOP shuns Angle, the national tea party movement is likely to go ballistic. After all, Angle nearly felled Reid in a race of national consequence. A failure to pick Angle this time could ignite a firestorm. That blaze could illuminate ever-growing schism between the Republican establishment and the party's conservative wing which was essential to the GOP capturing control of the House last fall.

There are many tea party factions which are not impressed with the leadership of House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). They don't believe he secured enough spending cuts in the recent deal he brokered with President Obama and Reid to keep the government operating. Plus, leery of conservatives back home, 54 and 59 House Republicans already abandoned the House GOP leadership on two respective votes to cut spending and avoid government shutdowns in March and April. As a side note, Dean Heller voted no on both of those packages.

If Angle doesn't get the nod, she could run as an independent and infuriate the GOP hierarchy.

Either way, an Angle candidacy (to say nothing of an Angle victory) puts the tea party at center stage again.

Political analysts always use House special elections as barometers to gauge the political climate. There's a mid-May special election in New York to fill the seat vacated by disgraced former Rep. Chris Lee (R-NY). And suburban Los Angeles voters head to the polls in July to pick a successor to former Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) who resigned. But neither of those contests has the political cachet as a special election in Nevada 2.

Political observers will judge Sharron Angle's success or failure (and the decision of the Nevada Republican party as to who they select to run) in a potential special election as a bellwether. They will use the outcome of this race to scan where the country is politically aligned heading into 2012.

Depending on whether Nevada Republicans pick Angle or not, such a race will attach a political Richter Scale to the fissures between the "Republican party establishment" and the tea party. And if Angle runs and loses, what does that mean for the tea party in this cycle?

Then there is the "Scozzafava Factor," which takes us back to New York's 23rd Congressional District.

In 2009, Republican party county chairs in New York 23 chose Dede Scozzafava to carry the GOP flag in a special election to succeed former Rep. John McHugh (R-NY), now the president's Army Secretary.

The pick outraged conservatives who criticized Scozzafava's moderate leanings. Many conservative power brokers, such as Sarah Palin, backed Doug Hoffman over Scozzafava. This created a three-way race between Scozzafava, Hoffman and current Rep. Bill Owens (D-NY). In the end, Scozzafava withdrew in an effort to prevent Republicans from splitting their vote and awarding the seat to Owens. But Owens won anyway.

If the Nevada Republican establishment chooses someone other than Angle and she decides to run, the "Scozzafava Factor" could play significantly in this Nevada district which has historically elected Republicans to the House.

But there are other circumstances to watch for, too.

The special election would be in an important swing state like Nevada. For starters, the state picks up what could prove to be a crucial, additional electoral vote in the next presidential contest. Don't forget, many Nevadans are still smarting from the president's negative comments about Nevada, chastising people from visiting Las Vegas to "blow a bunch of cash." The foreclosure crisis is worse in Nevada than anywhere else. The state unemployment rate skyrocketed into the teens. Gaming revenues plummeted, wounding the state's brittle economy. Nevada 2 is a split district when it comes to voting for president. In 2008, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) defeated Mr. Obama there by a mere 89 votes.

Angle has an army of tea party forces behind her. She's a proven fundraiser. She's controversial. And tea party activists will watch closely to see what happens.

Of course, some in the tea party aren't enamored with Heller, either, despite his two no votes on critical spending bills in the House this year. Just late last week, the Tea Party Express advocated that Sandoval select a placeholder "and not appoint Heller" for the remainder of Ensign's term.

Just Monday, the Nevada Assembly okayed a resolution asking Sandoval to have "an open, fair and transparent" process in choosing an Ensign successor.

The bottom line is that several things have to happen in Nevada before there is even a special election. But if Sandoval does appoint Heller to the Senate, that creates an open House seat. And Sandoval's decision will spit out a ball that will ricochet around the country's political pinball machine and introduce the first bona fide bellwether election of the 2012 cycle.