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Ensign’s Retirement May Actually Help the G.O.P.

Some retirement announcements are devastating news for a political party. When Byron Dorgan, the Democratic Senator from North Dakota, stated early last year that he would not seek re-election, Democrats went from having a seat that they were favored to retain to one that they would almost certainly lose — which they did by 51 points last November.

There are rare occasions, however, on which a candidate can do his party a favor by dropping out of the running. For instance: Republicans may have been the beneficiaries today when the embattled Senator John Ensign of Nevada announced that he wouldn’t seek another term.

With an approval rating below 40 percent, Mr. Ensign probably would not have escaped a primary challenge, let alone gotten re-elected. Nor, in all likelihood, would he have won the primary; instead, polls suggested that another candidate, U.S. Rep. Dean Heller, was the favorite.

Still, there was always the chance that something could go wrong, especially if multiple candidates entered the race — and things certainly went wrong for Republicans in 2010, when the unpopular Sharron Angle became their Senate candidate in Nevada.  And primaries can be expensive, both in terms of the monetary expenditure required and the need to appeal to one’s partisan base rather than to swing voters.

Mr. Heller could conceivably receive a primary challenge as well from Ms. Angle or another candidate. But his favorability rating among Republican voters is quite strong, and he has a fairly conservative voting record, making a Tea Party challenge less likely. In addition, many Republicans expressed buyer’s remorse after nominating Ms. Angle in 2010, so electability is liable to be the order of the day.

If Mr. Heller is the Republican nominee, he is likely to be a strong general election candidate. He is well-known to Nevadans, having been their Secretary of State for 12 years before entering Congress. He avoided voting for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. And a recent Public Policy Polling survey suggests that about twice as many Nevadans have a favorable impression of Mr. Heller as an unfavorable one.

Mr. Heller, moreover, won election by 5 percentage points in 2006 and re-election by 10 points in 2008, two years that were otherwise tough for Republicans. Although his district — which comprises essentially all of Nevada outside the Las Vegas metro area (as well as a few Las Vegas exurbs) — has traditionally been Republican-leaning, it has become much less so over time. In 2000, George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in the district by 20 percentage points. But Barack Obama and John McCain each received 49 percent of the vote there in 2008.

The increasing Democratic tilt of Nevada, of course, is also why Mr. Heller is no shoo-in. The state has increased the share of the vote it gave to the Democratic presidential candidate in each of the past seven elections, and by 2008 had become slightly more Democratic-leaning than the country as a whole.

Still, this advantage is fairly marginal for Democrats. Although they can be pleased with having elected Senator Reid in 2010, his son Rory lost the gubernatorial election by 12 percentage points. And U.S. Rep. Dina Titus narrowly lost her re-election bid to Republican Joe Heck in Nevada’s 3rd congressional district.

The prospective Democratic candidates, like U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley and Secretary of State Ross Miller, are not necessarily weak. But Mr. Heller is a strong candidate who became a little stronger today, and that is enough to make him a slight favorite.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.