Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., announced a run for the Senate seat John Ensign is vacating, and Sharron Angle for the seat Heller is vacating. These are two separate-but-related facts—Heller wouldn’t have challenged a strong, popular, untainted Ensign, and his move made room for Angle to run for the House. But these matters are related in another, subtler way: which slot opened for Angle.
Once Angle lost her bid for Harry Reid’s job, speculation centered on what Angle planned to do next. Her travels suggested a presidential run actually might be on her mind. She said otherwise, but so did Ensign, who was visiting Iowa before his peccadilloes became known.
Heller had to be careful, having barely defeated Angle in a three-way primary in his first campaign for the House in 2006. That may help explain why as a congressman he has tacked so far to the right after a career as a legislator and secretary of state that stamped him as the kind of Republican with whom a Democrat could have a thoughtful conversation.
That also may help explain why Gov. Brian Sandoval and Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki endorsed Heller so quickly: to pre-empt Angle. How were they to know whether some other Republican with a bigger claim on their love and affection might challenge Heller? They couldn’t. Never mind that the three may well be great friends (Krolicki and Heller are especially close) and could be the Nevada GOP’s equivalent of the Three Musketeers.
Undoubtedly, Sandoval or Krolicki —or both—knew Angle might challenge Heller, and could beat him. Notwithstanding her incompetent general election campaign, she won the primary by appealing more strongly to the base. It also helped that she was the main Northerner in the race while two Southerners, Sue Lowden and Danny Tarkanian, split the Clark County vote.
But what if a similar situation loomed: Angle challenged Heller, and a Southern Nevada Republican jumped into the race against two Northerners? Also, Heller has to run on what he and other Republicans do or don’t do in Congress. That can be problematic, especially when Angle’s anti-government, Tea Party-style campaign could win an anti-government, Tea Party-style party’s primary—but not necessarily the general election. Keeping Angle out of the Senate race was crucial to Heller’s chances. Perhaps she saw the writing on the wall; perhaps she planned it this way all along.
If Angle wins the House seat, she would be one of four members from Nevada. If Nevada needed action in the House, and she proved as incapable of playing well with others in the House as she was in the Legislature, the governor, lieutenant governor and their fellow Nevadans presumably could rely on any combination of the state’s other three representatives, whether they include incumbents Shelley Berkley and Joe Heck, or a different set of players (Dina Titus? John Oceguera? Steven Horsford? Other potential Democrats or Republicans?). But even with a fourth in the delegation, Nevada will have limited power in a 435-member House.
But the Senate is another matter, as there are only 100 members and there are different procedures requiring a different skill set. In the House, Angle would create fewer problems. The only person she would embarass, Nevada Republicans can hope, would be herself.
Meanwhile, Jill Derby, who lost to Heller twice, is making noises in hopes that the third time is the charm. If she runs for his seat in the House, other interested Democrats might defer to her—just as Democrats mentioned as possible opponents for Heller have said they wouldn’t take on Berkley if, as seems likely, she runs for the Senate.
The question is whether Angle can be beaten in a rural, Republican district. The answer is that the district includes Reno, a city that over the years has shown signs that (this is more than often can be said of Las Vegas) it likes its university and community college, art museum and other institutions Angle dislikes. Clark County long since should have united against the rest of Nevada; Reno Democrats and moderate Republicans may have to do that to the rural counties and Tea Partiers. Otherwise, they could have Rep. Sharron Angle, and Southern Nevadans could justly say: Don’t blame us; let the rest of the state be embarrassed.
Michael Green is a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada and author of books and articles on Nevada politics.