By Jennifer Dobner
RENO, Nevada (Reuters) - Nevada Republican Dean Heller narrowly held on to his U.S. Senate seat on Tuesday in a closely watched race against Democratic Congresswoman Shelley Berkley, who became the target of a U.S. House of Representatives ethics probe earlier this year.
Heller, 52, himself a former House member, was appointed last April by Nevada's governor to fill out the nearly two years then remaining in the Senate term of fellow Republican John Ensign, who resigned following a sex scandal.
A Carson City native, Heller is both well-known and well-liked in northern Nevada and among Tea Party activists across the state. Final returns showed him fending off Berkley's challenge by a thin 1 percent margin, or 12,100 votes.
In a statement, Heller thanked his supporters and said he looked forward to returning to the nation's capital.
"We need to put a stop to out-of-control spending in Washington," he said. "Washington must stop rewarding bad decisions with bailouts, and we must pass policies that encourage entrepreneurship and allow the middle class to thrive."
In a concession statement, Berkley wished Heller well, adding, "He's got an enormous task ahead of him."
Berkley, 61, a seven-term congresswoman from Las Vegas, had been expected to easily carry the downstate vote, but struggled in northern Nevada where she is less well-known. She managed to carry only southern Nevada's Clark County, which includes Las Vegas.
Polling data since early September had consistently shown Berkley trailing Heller, a former three-term congressman. She failed to catch up to her opponent, despite help from a powerful Democratic ground network built by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and enhanced by President Barack Obama's campaign infrastructure.
Berkley's campaign was likely hampered by a House Ethics Committee investigation over efforts to preserve Medicare payments for a Las Vegas kidney transplant center that benefited her husband, a physician who owns a string of dialysis facilities. She has denied any wrongdoing.
Democrats hold a 90,000 registered-voter lead over Republicans in Nevada statewide. But Nevada also has more than 100,000 registered independents, according to University of Nevada Las Vegas political science professor David Damore.
(Additional reporting by Timothy Pratt; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Vicki Allen)