LAS VEGAS - U.S. Rep. Dean Heller announced a U.S. Senate run Tuesday after months of alluding to it and a week after fellow Republican John Ensign said he would not seek a third term as Nevada's junior senator.
Heller said he had been preparing for an ugly primary fight against Ensign, who dropped out because he said he wanted to protect his family from attacks involving an extramarital affair.
"It's the worst kept secret in Nevada," Heller said of his senatorial ambitions. "But it's official now."
Heller is the first major candidate to enter the race.
Ensign's retirement means Heller will likely face a smoother primary, if he draws any credible challengers at all. Potential rivals include GOP and tea party favorite Sharron Angle, who lost her bid against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid last year, and U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, a Las Vegas Democrat.
Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval endorsed Heller hours after the three-term congressman announced his Senate campaign.
"He has proven to be a tireless advocate for new job creation, smaller government and honest, ethical public service," Sandoval said.
Republicans hope to bypass a competitive primary to improve the GOP's chances of adding a new conservative voice to the Senate, where Democrats retain the majority. Party leaders also want to avoid the kind of ugly primary battle that made Angle the GOP Senate nominee in 2010 over establishment candidate Sue Lowden, a former chairwoman of the Nevada Republican Party.
Angle's loss was considered a failed opportunity by many Republicans who had hoped to give Reid the boot in an electoral year that favored the GOP.
"We've seen what a chaotic Republican primary leads to - Democratic victory," said Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, who had been considering a Senate bid before he endorsed Heller.
Heller's staff released an internal poll last month that claimed he would trump any candidate in a primary election tussle for the Senate. Heller said the survey was merely a snapshot in time, not a guarantee that his Senate bid would be a cakewalk.
"Twenty months is a long campaign and a lot can change," he said.
Still, Heller acknowledged, "I wouldn't get in this race if I didn't think I could win."
Ensign was once considered a potential 2012 presidential contender, or at the very least, a sure lock for re-election. That was before he announced last year that he had an extramarital affair with a campaign staffer who was also his best friend's wife.
Ensign's fall was a ripe opportunity for Heller, a former Nevada secretary of state who was easily re-elected in his rural Republican district in 2008 and 2010.
Senate Democrats were ready to pounce within minutes of Heller's announcement. They singled out his recent votes to save federal dollars by eliminating job-training centers and to revive Nevada's nuclear waste program at Yucca Mountain.
"Congressman Heller's decision to cut jobs in Nevada may make sense to the Republican establishment in Washington, but it is not Nevada common sense," Democratic Senatorial Campaign spokesman Matt Canter said in a written statement.
Heller has been critical of the Yucca Mountain project, which has been slammed by most Nevada politicians and Democratic leaders in Washington, but he also has a history of voting with his party.
Fueled by expectations that Heller would lobby to replace Ensign, Democrats have been preparing their attack for weeks. Soon after Ensign's announcement that he wouldn't run, Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, assessed Heller's chances.
"Though Heller is perceived as a formidable candidate, a close examination of his Nevada vote performance reveals his support is a mile wide and an inch deep," Cecil told reporters last week.
Nevada general elections can be hard fought, with GOP candidates forced to appeal to a conservative, tea party-like crowd of primary voters before embracing the state's divided electorate statewide.
"I think I have positioned myself well for a primary," Heller said.
Berkley recently said she would not be rushed into a decision, but Heller's announcement will likely pressure her to make up her mind.
"It comes as no surprise and it doesn't change my thinking," she said Tuesday. "I have said from the outset that my plans do not depend on whose name appears on the ballot."
Other Democrats, including Secretary of State Ross Miller and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, have been waiting for Berkley to take action or bow out so they can test their national ambitions.
Democratic lawyer Byron Georgiou recently entered the Senate campaign, but he does not share the same high profile as Berkley, Miller, Masto or Heller.
Angle has been coy about her intentions as she travels the nation, visiting early primary states New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina in what could be a fundraising tour. She did not respond to a request for comment.
Angle and Heller faced off in 2006 in an open primary for his northern Nevada congressional seat. He won by nearly 500 votes.
It's unclear whether Heller would be able to woo Angle's tea party base.
Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, a national conservative group that has helped Angle in the past, would not immediately support a plan to give Heller the Republican nomination.
"We are interested in learning what she wants to do," Chocola said.
Heller announced his campaign in an e-mail to supporters titled "Why I'm Running," saying he wants to curb government spending and heal Nevada's troubled economy. The Silver State has the highest unemployment rate in the nation at 14.2 percent.
Heller also slammed President Barack Obama and "his beltway allies."
"We cannot ignore our nation's very serious fiscal problems and continue to allow Obama's big government job killing agenda to continue," Heller said in the e-mail.
Heller's Senate race also paves the way for Nevada's most competitive congressional election ever.
Record growth earned Nevada a fourth congressional seat in 2012. If Heller and Berkley both aim for the Senate, there could be three open House seats. Rep. Joe Heck, a newly elected Republican, is expected to seek a second term.
Krolicki said he is now weighing a congressional run. Angle and others could also be drawn to the House races.