CARSON CITY, Nev. — U.S. Rep. Dean Heller will enter next year's U.S. Senate race from the perch of incumbency after Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval on Wednesday named Heller to succeed John Ensign next month.
Heller's appointment was anticipated and sets up a political scramble on how his House seat will be filled. State law says a special election must be held within 180 days of a vacancy.
Ensign, 53, has been dogged by an ethics investigation after acknowledging in 2009 to having an extramarital affair with a former staffer. The Senate Ethics Committee was investigating whether he tried to illegally cover it up.
First elected in 2000, Ensign in March said he would not seek re-election in 2012. Last week he abruptly announced his resignation effective May 3.
Heller last month said he would run for Ensign's seat next year, and Sandoval quickly endorsed him.
In a statement Wednesday, Sandoval said Heller "is an experienced representative who is ready for the responsibilities of this office, and who will work hard, not just for Nevada, but for the entire nation."
"A fiscal conservative who believes in limited government, Dean will fight to keep taxes low and balance the federal budget," Sandoval said. "He understands that the federal government spends too much money and places too many regulatory burdens on small business."
Heller said he was "deeply humbled," by the appointment.
"There is a lot of hard work ahead to get our state and nation moving in the right direction," he said in a statement. "There is no question that our nation needs to change the way we do business if we are going to get our economy back on track and get Nevadans working again."
The appointment gives Heller, just elected to his third term in Nevada's 2nd Congressional District, the appearance of incumbency in 2012. Rep. Shelley Berkley, a seven-term Democrat from Las Vegas, also announced her candidacy for the Senate seat next year. Both have raised about $1.5 million for the race, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, noted the 2012 contest in a statement congratulating Heller's early appointment.
In the months ahead, Cornyn said, "Nevada will see firsthand why Dean Heller is the right leader, at the right time, to continue serving them in the U.S. Senate." Cornyn is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee that works to get Republican senators elected.
History, however, may not be on Heller's side. No appointed U.S. senator from Nevada has ever been elected to a full six-year term, said Guy Rocha, a Nevada historian and former state archivist.
Since 1914, three out of four appointed senators either lost in the next primary or in the general election, Rocha said. The fourth, Democrat Charles Henderson, was appointed in January 1918 and was elected that November to finish an unexpired term, but lost his re-election bid two years later.
The state Democratic Party criticized Sandoval's appointment as "backroom deal."
"No matter how hard the Republican establishment tries, the election for Nevada's next senator will be decided at the ballot box next year, not in a smoke filled room," the Party said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., welcomed Heller to the upper chamber.
"As his responsibilities shift to representing all Nevadans, rather than a single district of our state, I am confident he will work with me and members of both parties to address the serious challenges facing Nevada and nation," Reid said.
Sandoval said he was working with the secretary of state's office to determine how a special election would be conducted. Nevada has never had to fill a House vacancy, and state laws are vague.
Once a House vacancy occurs, the governor has seven days to set the date for a special election, which must be held within six months.
But there are questions over whether candidates would be chosen by political party central committees, or if it would be open to anyone interested in running.
Ironically, Heller apparently contributed to the uncertainty of filling his vacancy.
Legislators in 2003 passed a bill providing for a special election in House vacancies and directed the secretary of state to adopt regulations on how the process would be conducted. Heller was secretary of state at the time, and there's no indication regulations were ever adopted, a spokeswoman in the office said.
State Sen. Greg Brower, R-Reno, indicated this week he is interested in succeeding Heller. Others include tea party favorite Sharron Angle and former Navy Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, who already announced their intent to run next fall.
State GOP chairman Mark Amodei and Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki also are considering entering the race.
On Wednesday, Democrat Jill Derby, who twice ran against Heller in the sprawling congressional district, said she would run in the special election.
"It does look like there could be an opportunity for a strong Democratic candidate to take the seat," Derby told The Associated Press. "I think I'm best positioned to capture this seat in a special election."
The district is mostly rural and heavily Republican, though Washoe County is fairly evenly split. Heller beat Derby, 50 percent to 45 percent in 2006; and 52 percent to 41 percent in 2008.
Former regent Nancy Price, another Democrat, told a newspaper she would also enter the race. Price ran against Heller last fall, though she did not actively campaign.
Democratic state Treasurer Kate Marshall also reportedly is considering running for the seat.
Associated Press writer Cristina Silva in Las Vegas contributed to this report.