WASHINGTON -- Democrats fervently hope Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle jumps into Nevada’s special congressional race -- and at least one Republican candidate thinks she will.
Angle was already running for the state’s 2nd Congressional District, to replace Rep. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) in 2012, but the GOP field was shaken last week when ethics-challenged Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) announced his resignation, effective May 3.
Observers initially thought Ensign's resignation would help the party get around the Angle problem: Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval would appoint Heller as Ensign's replacement, since Heller was already running to succeed Ensign in 2012. Then, state Chairman Mark Amodei and the party establishment would be able to pick a candidate for a special election to replace Heller. That candidate would not be Angle -- problem solved.
But things don’t seem to be working out so neatly for the GOP, with the rules about special elections open to interpretation, and lawsuits likely.
Angle seems to be considering an independent run in the special election, potentially splitting the ticket, and giving a Democrat a chance to win the seat for the rural, sprawling district for the first time.
“She might. Angle could certainly do it,” Kirk Lippold, a Republican candidate for Heller’s seat in the upcoming 2012 contest and a former Navy commander, told The Huffington Post.
“Sharron Angle has run and run and run, and lost and lost and lost,” Lippold said, arguing that Angle’s prime motivation is self-promotion. Lippoled said Angle has both the means in her national donor base and the will to buck the state GOP.
That would pit a party-sanctioned candidate and Angle against one Democratic candidate in the special election sometime during the summer.
Insider Republicans do not like that scenario.
“Democrats see this as a potential pick-up opportunity if the Republicans are divided,” said University of Nevada-Las Vegas political scientist David Damore. He explained that while Democrats have never won the district, they have been doing better around Reno in recent years, and in the portion of the district near Las Vegas. “It’s still a tough haul, though,” Damore said.
There’s another scenario Republicans like even less: the Democratic Secretary of State and Attorney General interpret the never-before-used special election law to mean there must be a contest open to all comers -- a free-for-all that could favor Angle.
In addition to Lippold and Angle, other Republicans eyeing the race include Amoedi himself, Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, and Reno state Sen. Gary Brower.
“She’s the worst thing for the Republicans,” said Damore. “She’s got money, she’s got name recognition, she’s got a following."
Damore added that a likely low turnout in the summer election would be another boost for Angle.
“Her people are going to come out,” he said.
A Democrat might still have a prayer in that scenario. If no candidate cracked 50 percent, the election would move to a run-off between the top two vote-getters.
Although Democrats are hoping to make the best of the odd circumstances, few observers think the gain would last.
“They’d hold [the seat] for all of 18 months,” said Lippold, predicting a Republican will win the district once the regular 2012 election came around. “This district is not going to be Democratic.”
Lippold also said he intended to run for the seat then, regardless of the special election result. “I am committed to 2012,” Lippold said, casting himself as the only serious conservative in the field.
Terry Hickman, the former president of the Nevada State Education Association who spent more than 12 years toiling in union and Democratic politics, echoed Lippold’s sentiments, saying visions of Democrats taking the seat were “a wish, a fantasy.”
Hickman suspects the 2012 national election will hurt the Democrats in northern Nevada, where President Obama is not popular.
“Which group is going to be energized? Which group is going to have the mojo?” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be the Obama team.”
And he sees a chance for the GOP to be saddled with Angle, permanently.
“Sharron Angle cannot get the love, as we say here, from the Republican Party leadership. But in her view, she doesn’t need it,” Hickman said. “So I am not convinced that when there is a primary she won’t win it.”
Angle's spokesman did not respond to several requests for comment.
However the potential special election plays out, there’s one thing each side agrees on: the contest will wind up in the courts before the voting is done.
“I can tell you the one thing people in Nevada know how to do is go to court,” Hickman said. “I can’t conceive that the people who wrote these laws ever contemplated this was a possibility. This is like having nothing in writing if the President dies.”
But Damore pointed to law passed in 2003 meant to clarify the situation. The GOP can thank the then-secretary of state for the current uncertainty: He never finished writing up the regulations.
“That was Dean Heller, and he didn’t do it,” Damore said. “There was no real implementation of that piece of legislation, so that’s why it’s so messy.”