Rep. Dean Heller, Nevada Republican, is jumping to the Senate, as Gov. Brian Sandoval on Wednesday named him to replace the retiring Sen. John Ensign, a move that had been widely anticipated.
The appointment is expected to help the GOP hang on to the Senate seat by giving Mr. Heller a leg up on any Democratic challengers next year.
Mr. Heller announced his candidacy last month for Mr. Ensign’s seat after the two-term Republican senator said he wasn’t running for re-election in 2012.
But when Mr. Ensign announced last week that he would step down, effective next Tuesday, because of an ongoing ethics investigation, Mr. Sandoval was tasked with picking a replacement to serve the senator’s remaining 20 months in office.
The governor said he chose Mr. Heller, a House member since 2007, because “the people of Nevada deserve a new senator who can begin work immediately.”
“Too many important issues face our state and our nation to name a caretaker to this important position,” Mr. Sandoval said. “Nevada needs an experienced voice in Washington.”
Mr. Sandoval, a Republican, last month endorsed Mr. Heller’s Senate bid.
Mr. Heller, in response to his appointment, said serving in the Senate “will provide Nevada a stronger voice and greater opportunities to influence the policies that matter most to our great state.”
Mr. Heller’s move to the Senate triggers a scramble for his House seat, which has attracted significant interest from members of both parties, including Republican Sharron Angle, who lost a Senate challenge last year to Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat.
The process for filling Mr. Heller’s seat is uncertain, as state laws on holding a special election are vague. The governor and Secretary of State Ross Miller still were researching procedures Wednesday.
Mr. Ensign’s Senate exit stems from his 2009 admission of an extramarital affair with a former member of his campaign staff. He also is accused of helping the woman’s husband, a former top Ensign aide, set up as a lobbyist after he found out about the affair.
Federal law bars former Senate aides from lobbying in the Senate for a year after they leave their congressional jobs.
Mr. Ensign’s resignation is expected to wind down the Senate Select Committee on Ethics’ investigation into the matter, though the panel may release more findings later.
Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, and Vice Chairman Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican, said in a joint statement last week that Mr. Ensign “has made the appropriate decision.”
The Justice Department had dropped a criminal investigation into the matter, Mr. Ensign’s legal staff said last year. The Federal Election Commission also halted its investigation.
Mr. Ensign has insisted he did nothing illegal.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Mr. Heller will have an “immediate impact as an advocate for the people of Nevada.”
Mr. Reid also said he welcomes Mr. Heller to the chamber.
“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,” Mr. Reid said.