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Nevada Governor Appoints Dean Heller to Fill Ensign Seat

Updated: 4:18 p.m.

Citing Nevada’s need for “an experienced voice in Washington, D.C.,” Gov. Brian Sandoval announced Wednesday that he will appoint Rep. Dean Heller to fill the vacancy of retiring Sen. John Ensign, whose resignation becomes official May 3.

“Dean 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,” Sandoval said in a statement.

“Just as Senator John Ensign fought for states’ rights and sound economic policies, Dean will speak out for the concerns of everyday Nevadans,” he said. “I am confident he will help get Nevada working again.”

Most political observers expected Sandoval to choose Heller, who was already running for the seat. He will likely face Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) in a general election matchup next year.

Appointing Heller, however, creates another vacancy in the state’s Congressional delegation, and the rules for filling that hole are not yet defined.

Secretary of State Ross Miller is currently poring over the state law, while both parties have offered legal opinions on what the statute states.

Democrats say it should be a free-for-all election, with unlimited candidates from any party. Republicans have said the law gives the power of nominating candidates to the parties’ central committees.

“I have asked Secretary Miller to provide me with information on the rules for conducting this election at his earliest convenience,” Sandoval said in the statement.

Heller said in a statement he is “deeply humbled.”

“As I have stated before, it is time for government to be accountable to the American people and make decisions that lead the way for greater prosperity and fulfill our promises to future generations. Serving in the United States Senate will provide Nevada a stronger voice and greater opportunities to influence the policies that matter most to our great state,” he said.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) did not hide his excitement about the appointment and the party’s chances of keeping the seat. In a statement he called Heller a “common-sense, fiscally-responsible” leader. 

“Dean’s Democratic opponents have embraced Harry Reid’s failed, big government policies, and if elected they will continue to steer our country on a downward path of fewer jobs, more spending and a record debt,” Cornyn added. “Next year’s election is critical, and in the months ahead, voters throughout Nevada will see firsthand why Dean Heller is the right leader, at the right time, to continue serving them in the U.S. Senate.”

Meanwhile, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee argued that Heller’s appointment does not necessarily give him a leg up on the 2012 race.

“As the unelected Senator, Dean Heller will now be forced to explain to all Nevadans why he is working in Washington to end Medicare and cut loans for small businesses that create clean energy jobs in Nevada,” DSCC spokesman Matt Canter said. “Becoming the unelected Senator will come with a level of heightened scrutiny that will hurt him in the general election.”

For his part, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) welcomed Heller.

“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 the nation,” Reid said in a statement.