The race for a U.S. Senate seat is on

Embattled Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., has finally decided to step down. “It is with tremendous sadness that I officially hand over the Senate seat that I have held for 11 years,” said Ensign in a prepared statement. “The turbulence of these last few years is greatly surpassed by the incredible privilege that I feel to have been entrusted to serve the people of Nevada. I can honestly say that being a United States Senator has been the honor of my life.”

Honor indeed. I do not intend to use up words recounting the circus sideshow that has been the last several years of the senator’s career, but suffice it to say he is not ending his career with the admiration and dignity befitting a U.S. senator. He is stepping down in shame, and it is truly unfortunate to see his storied career end like this.

Now to the subject of his replacement. On this subject Nevada law is very clear. NRS 304.030 tells us that Gov. Brian Sandoval may appoint some qualified person to fill the vacancy, who shall hold office until the next general election and until his or her successor shall be elected and seated.

The chattering class in Nevada firmly believes that Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev, will be the appointee. Congressman Heller has already announced his intentions to run for this office, and there is no doubt that incumbency would prove a measurable boost to his candidacy through power, connections, and most importantly, fundraising. Sandoval is the de-facto head of the Republican Party in Nevada, and this would be a boon at a time when this seat is viewed as incredibly competitive.

A win-win, right? Not necessarily, for the procedures to fill the newly vacant Congressional seat are a whole different story. NRS 304.230 states that “in the event of a vacancy in the office of Representative in Congress, the Governor shall, within 7 days after the event giving rise to the vacancy, issue an election proclamation calling for a special election to fill the vacancy.”

Yikes. A special election with no primary election, meaning anyone will be free to run. Former Commander of the USS Cole Kirk Lippold and She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named have already declared their intentions, and with no primary to thin the herds, this race could get real crowded, real quick. Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki has declined to announce his intentions until after the legislative session ends, and Mark Amodei is still mum on his plans, as well. Both are expected to run.

The Democrats, still giddy over the victory in Reid’s 2010 Senate race, are holding more cards than are immediately apparent. Regardless of whether Heller gets the appointment, Berkley is a fierce campaigner, and Heller’s year or so of incumbency would certainly not be insurmountable. Shelley Berkley can win this seat regardless of incumbency, and she knows it.

A congressional special election could be Christmas in the summertime for them as well. She-Who- Must-Not-Be-Named always benefits from crowded, low-turnout races, but her performance against Democrats is dismal. A multi-candidate field, a low-turnout election and a reasonable, moderate Democrat like Debbie Smith in the race would likely lead to a Republican loss.

Sandoval is in a much more delicate position than meets the eye. He knows the consequences of opening up Heller’s seat. For someone who most certainly has aspirations beyond the governor’s mansion, he’s not too keen on making an enemy out of John Boehner for potentially giving away a reliably Republican vote. Plus, Illinois taught us a few lessons about what happens when one plays fast and loose with a vacant Senate seat. Sandoval will not make that mistake. He knows what could happen if he makes the wrong decision. There is a lot riding on this appointment.

I guess you could say this Senate seat is fucking golden.