The Big Scrum for the House

Secretary of State Ross Miller may be a closet rugby fan. Witness his decision to open the special House election to all candidates, regardless of party. A rugby scrum is less violent.

On May 3, Sen. John Ensign resigned, and Rep. Dean Heller replaced him, prompting both Nevada’s first special election for the House and the awareness that our constitution and laws on how to go about it are opaque. So, Miller read the law guiding the Sept. 13 vote as allowing a wide-open ballot.  Republicans objected as predictably as Democrats would have if the shoe had been on the other foot.

Ultimately, this election will tell us who represents District 2, comprising mostly outlying parts of Clark County and the rest of Nevada, for the next year—and a few other things:

• Whether Brian Sandoval’s attempt to control his party is getting anywhere.


Sandoval may not know it, but this is the one time he has followed in the footsteps of Nevada’s greatest governor, Grant Sawyer. Unlike Sandoval, Sawyer didn’t seek to destroy the state or gut education in the pursuit of the vice-presidency. But he believed party power—in Sawyer’s case, Democratic—needed to rest with or emanate from the governor. Not that he succeeded:  During his governorship from 1959 through 1966, the state’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Alan Bible and Howard Cannon, wrangled with him, Sawyer felt differently once he was out of office, and no one questions that Sen. Harry Reid dominates the party today.

But Republicans have long lacked strong party leadership from their elected leaders.  From the governor’s office, Kenny Guinn never really grabbed the reins and Jim Gibbons was too busy grabbing women—as was Ensign, it turned out. Sandoval has displayed his intent by pounding on legislative Republicans to follow him and his policies over a cliff and by coming out so quickly for Heller when he declared his Senate candidacy. The goal was to help his friend and to keep Sharron Angle from challenging him. It worked: She declared for the House, where Sandoval could hope any number of party establishment candidates might dispose of her.

So far, the declared Republicans include Angle, former USS Cole commander Kirk Lippold and state Sen. Greg Brower, appointed to finish Bill Raggio’s term and now trying to join Sandoval on the list of Republicans who never finish the job they were appointed to. Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki backed out and former state Sen. Mark Amodei reportedly is thinking about it.

• Whether Angle remains the GOP base’s darling.

Angle has been raising money for a campaign against, as she puts it, Democrats and “left-wing” Republicans—all two of them, presumably. She’s also trying to retire debt from her campaign against Reid. But she cruised in last year’s Senate primary, and not merely because her opponents imploded. Republican talk of suing to avert what Miller calls a “ballot royale” is due partly to fears that a Democrat could slip through, but also, no doubt, over fears that Angle could slip through. 

But if Republicans get their way and the party apparatus gets to decide who runs, state and local central committees can go in any direction: If Angle retains her popularity with the right, which makes its presence most keenly felt in any Republican primary or grassroots effort, the result could be the same either way, and it would be a blow to Sandoval and the party elite.

• Whether Democrats can be better organized than Republicans.

Despite Will Rogers’ famous dictum—“I don’t belong to an organized political party; I’m a Democrat”—Nevada’s party has been more organized than the GOP in recent years. Two former higher education regents, Democrats Jill Derby (who lost twice to Heller) and Nancy Price (who lost once), appear to be running. State Treasurer Kate Marshall has announced. Derby’s candidacies were rooted in the idea that a rural Democrat had the best chance. The bulk of the voters, though, are in Reno, where Marshall lives. Both sides will try to keep out troublesome candidates, but the biggest troublemaker of all is Angle, and she’s famous for not listening.