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Dean Heller appointed to John Ensign's Senate seat

Dean Heller
Republican Rep. Dean Heller

Nevada Republican Governor Brian Sandoval said Wednesday that he plans to appoint Rep. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) to the Senate seat currently held by Republican John Ensign.

Ensign is resigning effective May 3 amid a Senate Ethics Committee investigationinto his affair with former campaign aide Cindy Hampton and subsequent dealings with the Hampton family.

Heller will serve out the remainder of Ensign's term, which concludes at the end of next year. He has already announced plans to run for a full Senate term in 2012, with Sandoval endorsing his candidacy.

"Dean Heller is a compassionate man of deep personal integrity, with a down-to-earth approach to public service," Sandoval said in a statement. "I have no doubt Dean will serve Nevada in the Senate for many years, and I look forward to working with him on behalf of the state we both love so much."

"A fiscal conservative who believes in limited government, Dean will fight to keep taxes low and balance the federal budget," Sandoval added. "He understands that the federal government spends too much money and places too many regulatory burdens on small business."

The appointment is expected to give Heller an incumbency advantage in next year's Senate race, which has been targeted by Democrats as one of their few good pickup opportunities as they try to maintain control of the Senate. There are currently 53 senators who caucus with the Democratic Party, giving the party a three-seat majority. While Democrats have 23 Senate seats to defend in 2012, Republicans must only defend 10.

In a statement following the announcement, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), Chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said, "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."

There will now be a special election to fill Heller's congressional seat, which under state law must take place within 180 days of the seat becoming vacant. It is not clear how the candidates will be chosen; they could be selected by the parties, or the election could be open to all interested candidates. In his statement, Sandoval said that "I pledge to work closely with Secretary of State Ross Miller on the timing of the upcoming transition and resulting special election. I have asked Secretary Miller to provide me with information on the rules for conducting this election at his earliest convenience."

Tea Party-linked Republican Sharron Angle, who lost an acrimonious Senate race last year to Harry Reid, has announced her candidacy for the Heller seat for the 2012 election. If it is open, she will likely seek the seat in the special election. But if the parties select their candidates, it's likely that the Nevada GOP will not choose the controversial Angle, who lost to Reid despite the Senate majority leader's political vulnerability. If she is passed over she could elect to run as an independent, potentially offering an opening to the Democratic candidate in the GOP-leaning district, though she says she will remain a Republican.

In a statement, Reid welcomed Heller to the Senate.

"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," said Reid.

A socially-conservative onetime rising star, Ensign has been under an ethics investigation in connection with his alleged efforts to help Cindy Hampton's husband, Doug Hampton, find a new job in the wake of the affair. Doug Hampton had been Ensign's chief of staff. The ethics committee was also believed to be examining a $96,000 payment by Ensign's parents to the Hampton family.

Ensign has admitted that he helped Doug Hampton obtain lobbying work with a Nevada company following revelations of the affair. His efforts were investigated as a potential violation of federal criminal law, which bans former Senate aides from Senate lobbying for one year. The 52-year-old Nevada Republican was reportedly supposed to testify about the case on May 4 - the day after his resignation takes effect.