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Posted at 2:33 PM ET, 03/ 8/2011

What will Sharron Angle do?

By Chris Cillizza and Rachel Weiner

Former Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle. AP Photo.


That's short for "What will Sharron Angle do" and it's the question on the minds of almost every political operative in Nevada in the wake of Sen. John Ensign's (R) retirement announcement on Monday.

Angle, in case you have been on another planet for the last year, was a tea party darling who came out of nowhere -- literally -- to win the Republican Senate nomination in 2010. She went on to lose to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) in the fall election after a campaign marred by her rhetorical stumbles and avoidance of the media.

That race left many Republican strategists shaking their heads at the missed opportunity but established Angle as a major force within the tea party movement nationally. That grassroots support coupled with her demonstrated fundraising ability -- Angle collected $14 million in a single three-month period of 2010 -- make her a political force to contend with in the state.

But, assuming Angle wants back into the political mix, what office might she run for in 2012?

Frank Ricotta, the chairman of the Clark Country Republican Party, said Angle had yet to make up her mind. "I don't think shes decided on what direction to take, that's what she's kind of indicated to me," he said. "Everyone is just waiting to see what she does."

Angle seems to have two options: run for the Senate or the 2nd congressional district.

The Senate seat is, obviously, now open. But with 2nd district Rep. Dean Heller (R) almost certain to run for the Ensign vacancy, his congressional seat will also likely come open, offering Angle another avenue to get to Washington.

"You could go broke betting on Angle logic," said Jon Ralston, the state's preeminent political reporter. "If anyone sane is advising her, she should announce for Heller's seat the day after he declares for the Senate."

Angle's political team -- such as they are -- have been relatively tight-lipped about her plans and did not return emails from the Fix seeking comment for this story.

One Nevada Republican told The Fix that Angle was planning to run before Ensign resigned, feeling that she was called to do so: "She doesn't see Dean Heller as a conservative." That strongly suggests that she will run for Senate, but "her fundraising abilities locally are almost zero. Nobody in Nevada would support her candidacy."

John Yob, an adviser to Angle in 2010, did tell Politico's Ben Smith that "she will be a tremendously strong candidate for whichever office she chooses to run for."

On paper, the open 2nd district -- assuming, as nearly everyone does, that Heller will run for Senate -- is the far easier path.

Angle already ran for the massive rural Nevada district once before -- and nearly won it.

In 2006, then Rep. Jim Gibbons (R) left the 2nd to run for governor. Heller, who had spent more than a decade as Secretary of State, announced for the seat and quickly garnered the majority of establishment support and money.

But Angle, demonstrating the grassroots power that catapulted her to a victory in a Senate primary four years later, made a serious run at Heller -- falling short by just 421 votes.

While the vast majority of Angle's fundraising in that race came via her endorsement by the powerful Club for Growth, she would have little trouble raising cash from her vast list built during the 2010 campaign should she decide to run for the House seat in 2012.

An overwhelming cash edge coupled with Angle's near universal name identification would make her a very strong contender in a Republican primary for the 2nd.

And, if Angle did manage to win the GOP primary, she would be a solid favorite in the general election. While President Obama narrowly lost the 2nd in 2008, it has been held by a Republican Member of Congress since 1982.

While a run for the House seems to give Angle a better chance of winning, a second Senate bid isn't an impossible race -- particularly given Angle's demonstrated financial might.

"Of course Angle is going to look at it," said one Republican consultant who works frequently in the state. "Open Senate seats don't come along every day."

But, a direct comparison between how Angle won the 2010 GOP nod and what a 2012 race might look like breaks down for a number of reasons.

First, Angle was running against a decidedly lackluster Republican field in 2010. Businessman Danny Tarkanian had run for several previous offices unsuccessfully and one-time frontrunner Sue Lowden watched her campaign implode over her comments about a health care system built around chicken bartering. (Yes, you read that right. Chicken bartering.)

That wouldn't be the case in 2012. Heller is a proven vote-getter in the state, having held statewide office for 12 years before being elected to Congress in 2006. A recent poll conducted for Heller showed him at 39 percent to Ensign's 23 percent, Tarkanian's 17 percent and Angle's 14 percent.

Second, Angle was a relatively unknown commodity to most Nevada voters when she ran in 2010. (She had served in the state Assembly and, as we mentioned above, run unsuccessfully for House in 2006.)

By the end of that campaign, however, Angle's unfavorable numbers were sky high among Democrats and Independents and not all that great even among Republicans.
Given that, Angle could well wind up being viewed as damaged goods for Republican voters looking to keep the Senate seat in the party's hands.

Democrats are, of course, rooting for an Angle Senate candidacy under the belief that it would make whomever they nominate a favorite to pick up Ensign's seat. Among the names mentioned on the Democratic side include Rep. Shelley Berkley, state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, and Secretary of State Ross Miller .Businessman Byron Georgiou has already entered the race.

Whatever race Angle chooses -- or if she chooses to stay out of the process entirely -- it will be not just big news in Nevada but nationally.

And no matter what office she runs for, Angle will force her opponents to calculate carefully how they want to approach her.

By Chris Cillizza and Rachel Weiner  | March 8, 2011; 2:33 PM ET
Categories:  House, Senate  
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