The political scramble began in earnest Friday to fill the anticipated vacancy in Nevada's 2nd Congressional District should the governor appoint, as expected, incumbent Rep. Dean Heller to succeed U.S. Sen. John Ensign.
State Sen. Greg Brower, R-Reno, tossed his hat into the ring early in the day - setting up what could be a crowded field for an historic special election in Nevada that could either secure the seat for the GOP in 2012 or hand the Democrats their first district victory by default.
"This is one where, yes, there are more registered Republicans in CD2, but if the split is among four candidates, the Democrats win if the Democrats run a reasonable candidate," said Eric Herzik, political scientist at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki said he would decide by next week whether to enter the race. He earlier said he would decide after the legislative session ends. As lieutenant governor, he presides over the Senate. But given the rapid change of events, he said he "will be considering it in an expedited fashion."
Other Republicans who've already announced their intent to run next year include Sharron Angle, a tea party favorite who lost a U.S. Senate race last year to Democrat Harry Reid; and retired Navy Cmdr. Kirk Lippold. State GOP Chairman Mark Amodei, a former state senator, is also mulling the race.
"This could be a nightmare for the Republicans - a safe seat torn asunder by too many candidates," Herzik said.
Brower, a former state Assemblyman and U.S. attorney in Nevada, said he would file paperwork early next week to enter the race - either for a special election or next year's general election.
Ensign, a two-term Republican, announced his resignation Thursday effective May 3 in light of a Senate Ethics Committee investigation into his affair with a former staffer. He was accused of helping the woman's husband - a top former Ensign staffer - obtain lobbying work.
Ensign had already said he would not seek re-election next year. Heller quickly announced his candidacy and was endorsed almost immediately by Gov. Brian Sandoval, who will appoint Ensign's successor.
The governor tried to downplay assumptions.
"I take very seriously the importance of this appointment, so to speculate on potential candidates for appointment before then would be premature," Sandoval said in a statement.
Sandoval says he'll name Ensign's successor within two weeks - before Ensign's May 3 departure from Congress.
Democratic leadership in the state Senate and Assembly said they will introduce a resolution Monday calling for an "open and transparent" process in Senate selection.
They want the governor to release a timeline and include a window to allow anyone interested to apply, as well as public review of applicants.
Assemblyman Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, said Sandoval could spare taxpayers the cost of a special election by appointing a non-member of Congress to Ensign's seat.
""There's a lot of people in the state who could represent Nevada fantastically but wouldn't see that as a permanent job," said Segerblom, chairman of the Assembly Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections.
"This just does not seem like an appropriate time to take an existing congress person, forcing a special election and giving him the Senate seat," he said.
Ironically, the conservative Tea Party Express echoed Segerblom's sentiments in suggesting an interim Senate appointment, saying a special election would be "disruptive."
Sandoval spokeswoman Mary-Sarah Kinner said the governor "intends to act in accordance with established law as he carries out this important responsibility, just as Democratic and Republican governors have eight time in Nevada history."
Brower said he felt it important to act quickly after Ensign's surprise announcement.
A former Assemblyman and U.S. attorney in Nevada, Brower returned to politics in January when he was appointed by the Washoe County Commission to serve out the term of longtime state Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno, who retired after 38 years.
He said his focus would remain on the 2011 legislative session - not an upcoming campaign - and the budget battle that has Republicans and Democrats in a standoff.
"I'm in regular session mode now," he said. "That's my primary focus."
Nevada election law is vague when it comes to filling a vacant House seat. It says once a vacancy occurs, the governor within seven days must issue a proclamation and set a date for a special election. Voting must be on a Tuesday and take place no more than 180 days from when the proclamation is signed.
Since a House special election has never been held in Nevada, the secretary of state's office is researching how it would be conducted. State law says there is no primary, so presumably anyone who wants to run could do so.
Sandoval on Friday said he would name Ensign's replacement before May 3. Assuming he appoints Heller, the clock for a special session would begin once Heller takes his seat in the upper chamber.
Herzik said Brower would hardly be a favorite, particularly given his loss to Angle for his Assembly seat following reapportionment in 2001.
"He's the weakest of the candidates I can think of," Herzik said. "Republicans have a surplus of candidates. They all have enough strength, they can hurt each and maybe not chase the others out."