A year ago most reporters were writing John Ensign’s political obituary. The Nevada senator had admitted to an affair with a longtime staffer and was under investigation by the feds for payments his parents made to the staffer’s husband to allegedly keep him quiet. Many in Nevada wondered why Ensign didn’t step aside and allow a less tainted Republican take his place. But, the feds and the Federal Election Commission then dropped their investigations and, it seemed, his path cleared to reelection to a third term in 2012. Or maybe not.
Ensign enters the campaign the most imperiled incumbent in the Senate – an irony given that Senate Majority Leader and fellow Nevadan Harry Reid enjoyed that uncomfortable hot seat the last time around. Hard to believe but Ensign’s facing an even steeper challenge than Reid. “I’d rather have Reid’s problems. I don’t know how Ensign fixes these problems,” says Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor at the Cook Political Report. “If [Ensign] is the nominee by some odd chance, Republicans have a huge issue in Nevada. He’d have to be running against an incredibly flawed Democrat to win. I’d say the odds are not in his favor.”
Republicans in the state seem to be waiting for Ensign to realize he’s unlikely to get reelected. His fundraising has dried up – he has a paltry $478,339 in the bank. That’s compared to Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, another vulnerable GOP incumbent, who’s got $7.1 million on hand. And waiting in the wings is GOP Rep. Dean Heller, a former long time Nevada secretary of state. Last cycle, Reid lived in fear that Heller might enter the race against him (and breathed a sigh of relief when his opponent ended up being Tea Party darling Sharron Angle). That fear has now been transferred to his Republican junior senator. “As long as Rep. Dean Heller runs in the GOP primary, I think Ensign will lose,” says Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “A sizeable majority of those in positions of authority in the GOP, national and state, want Ensign to give up the ghost.” Heller’s office did not respond to a query about his Senate aspirations.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee as a policy backs incumbents. That said, after jumping too early into last year’s primary season — with, amongst others, the endorsement of Florida Governor Charlie Crist who eventually lost the Sunshine State’s nomination to Marco Rubio – NRSC chair Senator John Cornyn has said he would not invest any money in primaries this cycle. Polls show Ensign losing to all likely Democratic candidates and Heller beating those same candidates. President Barack Obama won Nevada in 2008 with 55% of the vote and Rep. Shelley Berkley, a Nevada Democrat, could make a strong run for Ensign’s seat on the President’s coattails unless the GOP moves to either shore up Ensign or find a stronger replacement.
Ensign, though, is determined he can beat the odds. “Senator Ensign is putting his campaign team together, has begun actively fundraising, and fully plans on seeking reelection,” says spokeswoman Jennifer Cooper.
Nevada’s Republican Party has been hobbled by the scandals embroiling Ensign and former Gov. Jim Gibbons, whose wife divorced him after he had an affair and another woman accused him of sexual assault. Gibbons lost his primary last year. Though Nevada’s caucuses come right after Iowa and New Hampshire, few GOP 2012 potential presidential candidates have bothered to visit. Mitt Romney won the Mormon-heavy state in 2008 with more than 40% of the vote. The vacuum of party leadership makes organizing in a caucus state to beat Romney a bit of a white elephant. Few of these hopefuls would likely want to campaign with Ensign.
Ensign is still under investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee, which last week announced the appointment of a special counsel to help expedite the case. On Feb. 2 Jon Ralston of the Las Vegas Sun, Nevada’s top political analyst, reminded Ensign of his own words to then-embattled Idaho Republican Senator Larry Craig. “I can’t imagine him wanting to put his family through [a Senate ethics investigation] or the Senate through that, but we’ll see,” Ensign said at the time. Ralston was incredulous of Ensign’s “self-delusion.” “If Ensign truly cared about his family or the Senate or the Republican Party — as he suggested Craig should — he would not even be contemplating re-election, much less sending out fundraising letters Tuesday and meeting with his strategy team,” Ralston wrote. “Is he so narcissistic that he believes the country can’t live without him?” Ouch. Though, zombies can’t feel pain.