LAS VEGAS -- A rural northern Nevada district did what it has always done and sent a Republican to Congress Tuesday, but that didn't stop the GOP from heralding the predictable finish as a victory against President Barack Obama.
Former state Sen. Mark Amodei emerged as the winner of Nevada's 2nd Congressional District special election, easily sweeping past Democrat Kate Marshall in this economically-wounded state where Obama's popularity is sinking.
Amodei took 58 percent of the vote to Marshall's 36 percent after campaigning to stand up to Obama and other Washington Democrats. History was on his side. The district made up of conservative voters has never elected a Democrat and Republicans had a 32,000-vote registration edge heading into Election Day.
"The voters of Nevada sent a message," Amodei told supporters gathered at a Reno casino Tuesday. "That message unmistakably is, it's time to start a change."
Amodei said he would travel to Washington, D.C., Wednesday and hoped to be sworn in Thursday.
The candidates were competing to replace Republican Dean Heller, who was promoted from the House to the Senate in May after former Republican Sen. John Ensign resigned over a sex scandal with a former staffer. Amodei will serve the remainder of Heller's term and will have to seek re-election in 2012 to keep the seat.
Republicans blamed Obama for Marshall's loss, a claim that will likely resurface in advance of next year's presidential election, and compared Nevada's unsurprising election to an Election Day upset in New York. In a special election there, a heavily Democratic district also elected a Republican to the House.
"For months, Republicans across the country have been advocating market-based pro-growth, pro-jobs solutions," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement. "Tonight, Nevada voters gave their stamp of approval to those solutions by sending Mark Amodei to Washington."
GOP Chairwoman Amy Tarkanian announced at Amodei's victory party that his win "is the first step telling President Obama he's done."
Marshall faced many hurdles, including Nevada's worst-in-the-nation economy. Angry voters steamed with politics in general might have also depressed turnout and further hurt her cause. Barely 33 percent of the district's voters cast a ballot.
The candidates both targeted moderate voters, but their differences were stark. Amodei, a former state GOP chairman, pledged to support a balanced budget amendment in Congress and signed an anti-tax pledge, while Marshall, the state treasurer, was critical of Obama but still supportive of a national health care overhaul.
Republican voters Scott and Jean Foster blamed Obama and Democratic policies for failing to get the country's economy on track. Both are unemployed. Nevada has the highest jobless rate in the nation at 12.9 percent.
"Hopefully next year we can turn it around," Scott Foster said after voting at the Fish Springs Volunteer Fire Department in rural Douglas County Tuesday afternoon. A mathematician with degrees from MIT and Stanford, he said he's been unemployed for two years.
Democrat Wes Hoskins, 31, who works in Reno for the conservation group Friends of the Wilderness, predicted that Obama's unpopularity would limit turnout. Hoskins, who voted for Marshall, said he's a "lukewarm Obama supporter" but that he didn't blame the administration for the lingering sour economy.
"A lot of what is going on, no administration could help," Hoskins said.
The special election was brief but heated. Marshall slammed Amodei for supporting tax increases as a state lawmaker and sought to portray him as a foe to Medicare in a series of TV attacks. Amodei, meanwhile, often linked Marshall to Obama and other Washington Democrats.
The contest was Nevada's first House special election race, and the initial uncertainty surrounding the rules of the race gave Democrats hope that they could make history by taking the traditionally GOP seat.
The state's chief election officer originally ruled that the race would be a free-for-all, and at one point, more than 30 candidates were expected to enter the open contest. The Nevada Supreme Court ultimately ruled that major political parties would choose their candidate.
The contest attracted political heavyweights early on, with former President Bill Clinton and Reid pushing for Marshall as House Speaker John Boehner and Nevada's Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval rallied for Amodei.
But national Democrats seemed to quickly abandon the campaign, declining to financially lift Marshall even as outside Republicans spent more than $1 million on TV attacks linking Marshall to Obama.
Robby Mook, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, downplayed the lack of financial support Tuesday afternoon as the polls were about to close.
"We think she's done an outstanding job," he said. "She's really run a flawless campaign."