Throwing Nevada's special House race wide open, the state's election arbiter announced ground rules Monday that would allow any interested candidate to pursue the congressional seat — a tentative victory for Democrats.
Democrats wanted a crowded field, which could splinter the Republican vote in a district where the GOP holds a modest registration advantage. Republicans wished to narrow the competition and place the nominating process in the hands of party insiders, who signaled their intention to pass over Sharron Angle, a "tea party" favorite who has already started running.
Angle alienated many in Nevada's Republican establishment by waging a haphazard and unsuccessful bid last year to oust Democrat Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader.
"This interpretation allows open ballot access, freedom for all to run and ultimately it lets the people decide," Secretary of State Ross Miller said at a Carson City news conference. "That structure is as American as apple pie."
The Sept. 13 vote will fill a vacancy created by Rep. Dean Heller's appointment to the U.S. Senate. Heller is replacing Sen. John Ensign, a fellow Republican, who planned to step down Tuesday amid an ethics probe into corruption charges arising from his extramarital affair with a former aide.
The Democratic secretary of state said partisanship had no bearing on his decision. The law "is very clear," Miller said, though he acknowledged the probability of a legal fight that could go to the state Supreme Court.
In fact, Republicans hinted as much. "This blatantly partisan ruling from Harry Reid's political machine is only the beginning of what will surely be a long and drawn-out process," said Tyler Q. Houlton, a GOP spokesman in Washington.
Nevada has not held a special House race in its 146-year history and the rules — apart from barring a primary to pick the nominees — were open to interpretation.
"If Miller's ruling stands, Democrats have an excellent chance to steal this seat," said David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. "The chances of Democrats clearing their field for one candidate are very high, but the same may be impossible for Republicans."
Democrats need 25 House seats to take back the chamber after losing control in 2010.
But even if they win in September, their success could be short-lived. The boundaries of the sprawling district, which takes in most of the state, are being redrawn and the winner will have to run under the new configuration next year.
"Of course the winner will declare that the election result is a sign of things to come. The loser will say it doesn't matter at all," said Nathan Gonzales, an election handicapper with the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "The reality is that this special election will be a poor predictor of what happens in November of 2012. ... The circumstances are just so atypical."
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.