- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Nevada Rep. Dean Heller said Tuesday he will run for the Senate seat held by fellow Republican John Ensign, who said last week he won’t seek a third term in 2012.

The announcement by the three-term House member ends months of speculation that he would seek Mr. Ensign’s seat after the senator’s career tumbled amid an ongoing ethics investigation.

In an e-mail to supporters Tuesday announcing his candidacy, Mr. Heller accused the Obama administration and “his Beltway allies” of “proposing record spending that will add to America’s job-killing debt.”

“We cannot allow this to happen,” he wrote. “We can change the course we are on by taking action today … . This is a crossroad that will not only change Nevada, but significantly change the direction of our nation for years to come.”

Mr. Heller, 50, long had been considered the GOP’s leading candidate should Mr. Ensign step down.

He has strong statewide name recognition, having served as Nevada’s secretary of state for 12 years prior to winning his House seat in 2006. And the lawmaker, who won re-election in November by almost 31 percentage points, has significant campaign cash reserves in place.

Yet despite his strengths, Mr. Heller is in for a tough battle for the seat, said Jennifer E. Duffy, who covers Senate races for the Cook Political Report.

“This is going to be a competitive race,” she said. “Republicans are fortunate that they right now have a really strong candidate.”

Statewide races in Nevada also can be somewhat unpredictable, highlighted by last year’s surprise GOP Senate primary victory by tea party favorite Sharron Angle. Mrs. Angle lost in November to Democratic Sen. Harry Reid.

Mrs. Angle also has been mentioned as potential candidate for the Ensign seat, though Ms. Duffy speculates she now may run for Mr. Heller’s House seat.

On the Democratic side, Rep. Shelley Berkley, who represents the Las Vegas area, is thought to be seriously considering a run for the Senate seat.

“It seems right now Shelley Berkley has the right of first refusal,” Ms. Duffy said.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the fundraising arm for Senate Democrats, wasted little time attacking Mr. Heller. In a video posted Tuesday on YouTube, the DSCC blasted the lawmaker for his support of proposed House Republican budget cuts, saying they would cost Nevada thousands of jobs.

Mr. Ensign, who has been mired in an ethics investigation stemming from a sex and lobbying scandal for almost two years, said he was stepping down in order to shelter his family from the scrutiny another campaign would bring.

Mr. Ensign, 52, admitted in 2009 to having an extramarital affair with a member of his campaign staff at the time. The senator also is accused of helping the aide’s husband 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. The Senate’s ethics panel is investigating the matter.

The Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission previously dropped inquiries into the matter.

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