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Cathleen Allison, Associated Press
Former Republican state senator Mark Amodei takes a phone call from the National Republican Committee chairman after taking the lead in Nevada's special election to fill a U.S. House seat, during an election night event in Reno, Nev., Tuesday Sept. 13, 2011.

LAS VEGAS — Republican former state senator Mark Amodei won Nevada's heavily GOP 2nd Congressional District in a special election Tuesday night, easily trouncing Democrat Kate Marshall in this economically-ravaged state where President Barack Obama's popularity has sagged.

Amodei entered Election Day as the candidate to take down, with early voting and registration numbers alike heavily favoring the GOP. History was also on his side. The district made up of rural, conservative voters has never elected a Democrat.

"I'm looking forward to going back and getting to work right away ... and getting that message delivered and turning that tide," Amodei said during a victory speech before more than 250 supporters at a Reno casino.

The candidates were competing to replace Republican Dean Heller, who was promoted from the House to the Senate in May after former Republican Sen. John Ensign resigned over a sex scandal with a former staffer.

Republicans blamed Obama for Marshall's loss, a claim that could come up frequently in advance of next year's presidential election despite the district's Republican leanings.

"Even in the home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, voters have turned on the president and his congressional allies," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement. "Not only are the president's policies not working, but his non-stop campaigning is no longer winning over voters."

GOP Chairwoman Amy Tarkankain announced at Amodei's victory party that his win "is the first step telling President Obama he's done."

Nevada's worst-in-the-nation economy likely did little to help Marshall's campaign. Angry voters steamed with politics in general might have also depressed turnout and further hurt her cause.

The candidates both sought to appeal to centrist voters, but their differences were stark. Amodei, a former state GOP chairman, pledged to support a balanced budget amendment in Congress and signed an anti-tax pledge, while Marshall, the state treasurer, was critical of Obama but still supportive of his federal health care overhaul.

Those ties to Washington Democrats, however limited or underplayed by her side, made Marshall a difficult sell in rural Nevada. The sprawling congressional district covers all of northern Nevada and a slice of Clark County near Las Vegas.

Voters Scott and Jean Foster described themselves as conservative Republicans, and blamed Obama and Democratic policies for failing to get the country's economy on track. Both are unemployed. Nevada has the highest jobless rate in the nation.

"Hopefully next year we can turn it around," Scott Foster said after voting at the Fish Springs Volunteer Fire Department in rural Douglas County Tuesday afternoon. A mathematician with degrees from MIT and Stanford, he said he's been unemployed for two years.

Johnny Gummert, a security investigator in Sparks, said he voted for Amodei largely because of his opposition to Obama administration policies.

"I want to get back to the way it used to be, when people would do what they told you they were going to do," Gummert said.

Democratic voters were also confident that Obama's sliding popularity had influenced the contest.

Wes Hoskins, 31, who works in Reno for the conservation group Friends of the Wilderness, said he was concerned that Obama's unpopularity would limit turnout.

Hoskins, who voted for Marshall, said he's a "lukewarm Obama supporter" but that he doesn't blame the administration for the lingering sour economy.

"A lot of what is going on, no administration could help," Hoskins said.

Both candidates made last-minute pitches Tuesday, with Amodei appearing at a GOP women's luncheon and Marshall making a last-minute appeal to supporters in an email.

"If Democrats vote, Democrats win," she wrote.

The House district has long been regarded as the GOP's lone safety post in Nevada. The state's other congressional districts are urban and largely Democratic.

The special election was brief but heated. Marshall slammed Amodei for supporting tax increases as a state lawmaker and sought to portray him as a foe of Medicare in a series of TV attacks. Amodei, meanwhile, often linked Marshall to Obama and other Washington Democrats.

The race was Nevada's first House special election race, and the initial uncertainty surrounding the rules of the race gave Democrats hope that they could make history by taking the traditionally GOP seat.

The state's chief election officer originally ruled that the race would be a free-for-all, and at one point, more than 30 candidates were expected to enter the open contest. The Nevada Supreme Court ultimately said that major political parties should choose their candidate.

Also on the ballot were Tim Fasano, an Independent American Party candidate, and Helmuth Lehmann, an independent businessman who gathered signatures to get on the ballot.

The contest attracted political heavyweights early on, with former President Bill Clinton and Reid pushing for Marshall as House Speaker John Boehner and Nevada's Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval rallied for Amodei.

But national Democrats seemed to eventually give up on the campaign, directing zero dollars toward lifting Marshall, even as outside Republicans spent more than $1 million on TV attacks that tied Marshall to Obama.

Robby Mook, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, downplayed the lack of financial support Tuesday afternoon as the polls were about to close.

"We think she's done an outstanding job," he said. "She's really run a flawless campaign."

Amodei will serve the remainder of Heller's term and will have to seek re-election in 2012 to keep the seat.

Associated Press writer Scott Sonner in Reno contributed to this report. Sonner and Chereb reported from Reno.