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The Electoral Implications of Ensign’s Resignation

Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada is expected to appoint Dean Heller, currently the Republican incumbent in the state’s Second Congressional District, to replace Senator John Ensign, who is resigning.

Mr. Heller was already expected to run for Senate next year, as Mr. Ensign had previously announced his intentions to retire at the end of his term. I noted last month that Mr. Heller is an above-average candidate and should be considered a slight favorite in this race:

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.

Nothing about today changes that appreciably. Mr. Heller is a modest favorite in the race, just as he was before.

Some of the people in my Twitter feed have come to the conclusion that getting a head start on the race will provide Mr. Heller with an extra advantage, as though he were suddenly tantamount to an incumbent. Although the incumbency advantage is stronger in some years than others, it usually worth the equivalent of about seven points on election day, controlling for other factors.

There’s not much evidence, however, that the incumbency advantage applies to an appointed rather than elected senator. Instead, appointed senators who run for re-election win it only about half the time (counting defeats in both the primary and general election) — much lower than the 88 percent re-election rate for normal incumbents. Essentially, these elections still follow the dynamics of an open-seat race.

One slight advantage is that Republicans in the Senate, where Mr. Heller will now bide his time, probably won’t have to take as many potentially risky votes as those in the House, where they are pushed more by the Tea Party caucus — although Mr. Heller has already voted for Paul Ryan’s budget, which Democrats will try to turn into a liability.

Mr. Heller’s appointment would also create a vacancy in the Second Congressional District, with a special election to be held within 180 days. Nevada officials are — I wish I were making this up — not yet fully certain about how to interpret their own special elections law, so exactly what procedures this will follow is unclear.

In theory — especially if we get a normal, two-candidate election — this could be a pretty interesting test case for Democrats. Although the district, which covers essentially the whole of Nevada outside of Las Vegas, has long been Republican-leaning, it has become considerably 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.

Although the district is probably still more Republican-leaning than the country as a whole — it voted for Sharron Angle last year rather than Harry Reid — it is probably not so by more than a couple of percentage points. While the district won’t exist next year in its present form — Nevada is getting a new seat in Congress in 2012, and the existing districts will have their lines re-drawn significantly — it is an example of the sort of district that Democrats would need to win if they are going to take back the House.

The reason is that, to get back to par next year in the House, Democrats would have to win some combination of open seats and those with Republican incumbents. Incumbent seats are the tougher of those two to win, so the minority party has to overperform slightly in districts like these when there is an open race instead.

With that said, since the election is mostly a beauty contest — one additional vote in the House wouldn’t help Democrats appreciably given the size of the Republican majority — the perception may matter as much as the reality. Given the district’s Republican heritage, Democrats would get a morale boost if they were able to win it.

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