What Happens in Nevada Doesn’t Seem to Stay in Nevada

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Or, in Senator Ensign’s case, what happens in Washington and is sent back home to Nevada. Both Senators from the Silver State are increasingly deep political doo-doo, though for vastly different reasons. And one’s scandal may end up helping the other.

As Glenn Thrush noted last week, rarely does a single political story sway the fates of a politician, but the New York Times story on John Ensign by Eric Lichtblau and Eric Lipton last Friday is one of those pieces. Ensign’s affair, and more importantly, the cover up, raises all kinds of legal and ethical questions not just for the Senator and his staff but for several key G.O.P. fundraisers in Nevada. Depending on the breadth of the scandal and the timing of the investigations, it could hobble the Nevada Republican Party just as it gears up to take down Harry Reid. As David Chalian and Rick Klein noted on today’s Top Line on ABC, before his scandal Ensign had been acting as de facto head of a state party already in the mud. Nevada Governor Jim Gibbons, a Republican, has been tainted by a series of scandals between allegedly groping waitresses, an affair and a messy divorce that has aired all kinds of conflicts of interest. Even if Ensign – and his own leadership is refusing to support him – were to step down a Gibbons appointee would be contaminated from the get-go and would likely make the situation worse.

Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, has got problems of his own. He’s about as popular as George W. Bush was on his last day of office – hovering just above 30%. Not exactly the best time to put your name and face to massive, controversial health care legislation (remember Tom Daschle’s loss when he was majority leader to John Thune?).  Reid has raised a ton of money for his reelect — and has set a daunting goal of $25 million for the cycle — but last week got the bad news that he’s facing a serious candidate, former GOP State Chairwoman Sue Lowden. Lowden’s a much bigger threat than Reid’s other two challengers – a former Miss America runner up and the son of a cheating football basketball coach (only in Nevada, right?) – both of whom who are out polling Reid. Lowden, though, faces the ball and chain of her state party: already Dems are questioning her close ties to Ensign and challenging her to disavow him.

Like many senators from opposite parties but representing the same state, Reid and Ensign have a mutual non-aggression pact. Which is why you don’t see Reid calling for a Senate Ethics Panel investigation of Ensign (it was Barbara Boxer who confirmed the investigation yesterday on CNN’s “State of the Union”). And why you don’t see Ensign out there slamming Reid every day on bailouts, health care, global warming, stimulus, financial reg reform, etc. But, in the end, Ensign’s doo-doo is much deeper than Reid’s and — between him and Gibbons — could end up drowning Lowden and any credible opposition in it.