LAS VEGAS (AP) - Nevada's Republican Party sued the state Thursday over the rules of a September special election to replace Rep. Dean Heller in a legal challenge that could divide GOP leaders and prolong the Silver State's reduced representation in the U.S. House.
The lawsuit filed in state district court claims the open contest that allows for an unlimited number of contenders violates the traditional practice of allowing political parties to choose their general election candidates.
The unprecedented contest has been clouded in uncertainty because it is the state's first House special election and state statute prohibits the traditional primary process.
Secretary of State Ross Miller, a Democrat, announced Monday that the winner should be decided by voters, not party insiders. He declined to comment on the lawsuit, but has said that partisan politics did not influence his decision to host a free-for-all contest. Under Miller's interpretation of the law, the candidate with the most votes on Sept. 13 wins.
A lawsuit challenging the contest rules was widely expected regardless of Miller's ruling given the high stakes of the contest and vague language of the special election law.
Republicans argue that party members must select their favored candidate to ensure GOP votes aren't splintered in the September special election. The northern Nevada district is a Republican-majority district.
"We have to do something that approaches a primary so that we don't have a ballot that doesn't make any sense," said Heidi Smith, a GOP national committeewoman from Reno. "If you've got 20 people signing up, and that's a minimum, what are you going to have then? A ballot where nobody knows who anybody is?"
The lawsuit claims state law requires a nomination process for each party. State Republicans have scheduled a June meeting to vote on their nominee. State GOP chairman Mark Amodei is expected to seek the seat and is an early favorite among some party leaders.
Smith said an internal vote would equally benefit Democrats, who could also nominate their strongest candidate to the ballot.
The September election will fill the vacancy created by Heller, a Republican who will be sworn in as a U.S. senator on Monday. He was appointed to replace Republican Sen. John Ensign, who resigned Tuesday after admitting to an extramarital affair that spawned an ethics investigation.
The special election winner will serve through the remainder of Heller's 16-month term, but a dragged out court battle could further push the special election closer to the 2012 primary and leave Nevada with only two representatives in the House as national leaders debate important policy.
"That's a huge risk depending on what the court does," said Fred Lokken, a political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno. "We are in a no-win situation now."
The lawsuit could also scare off some would-be candidates because the rules of the election will likely not be settled before the filing deadline of May 25.
Nevada Treasurer Kate Marshall and former House candidates Jill Derby and Nancy Price are among the Democrats expected to seek the House job. Republicans Sharron Angle, state Sen. Greg Brower and former USS Cole Commander Kirk Lippold also want the seat.
The lawsuit poses somewhat of a loyalty test for the lesser-known GOP candidates vying for the post. If they support their party, they will likely get shut out of the race if the legal challenge prevails. If they lobby for an open contest, they risk alienating some of the state's most powerful Republicans.
Brower, who was appointed to the Senate in January to fill a vacancy, said he will compete regardless of what the court decides, but has declined to comment on the party's stance.
Lippold and Angle, however, have slammed GOP leaders for conspiring to block them from the contest. Neither is a GOP favorite. Party leaders are still angry that Angle lost to Reid, while Lippold is not well known throughout Nevada.
He said state Republicans did not contact him about the lawsuit or to ask him to bow out.
"I think the most important thing is that the people of Nevada have a say in who their elected representative is," he said.
Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki said he supports the lawsuit because political parties are part of the electoral process. Krolicki announced Thursday he would not enter the special election.
"Voters rely on parties to vet candidates and put their best choice forward," he said. ---