Since John Ensign’s recent announcement that he will leave the U.S. Senate on May 3, analysts have made two assumptions. First, that Gov. Brian Sandoval will appoint Republican Rep. Dean Heller to replace Ensign. Second, that the appointment would give Heller an edge in his expected 2012 Senate race against Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley.
The first assumption seems fair enough. But Heller’s ascension to the Senate may not be such a problem for Berkley after all. Here’s why.
• Conventional logic says that as a senator, Heller won’t have to vote on the hot-button bills than he would have faced in the more right-wing House. But chances are Majority Leader Harry Reid will bring up some of those hot-button bills in the Senate and force Heller and other Senate Republicans into deciding just how right wing they really are.
• If Speaker John Boehner proves unpopular with Democrats and independent centrists—or continues to compromise with Democrats on budgetary issues and irks the Tea Partiers—Berkley has plenty of material tying Heller to both Boehner (they claim to be bosom buddies) and the Tea Party, which Heller has been courting recently.
• Both Berkley and Heller can claim to be incumbents or non-incumbents. Both can say they’re seeking a chance to fix the problems in Washington by moving up to the Senate (or, in Heller’s case, continuing repair work he’s only just begun). Both, having been in office, can take credit if the economy improves or, if it doesn’t, shift blame—in Berkley’s case, to the more powerful Senate where Heller sits; in Heller’s case, to Democrats.
• How closely will Berkley tie Heller to Sandoval? By 2012, Sandoval will be known as the governor responsible for obliterating education and numerous programs that matter to voters. Or he’ll be the “no new taxes” advocate who folded in the end. Either way, he’s Heller’s pal, and Berkley will attack both of them.
Indeed, that is the safest bet. If there’s anyone who ranks with Reid as the Nevada politician you least want to get into a brawl with, it’s Berkley. Let the fun begin.