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Ensign Affair Complicates Recruiting Efforts Against Reid

Senate GOP Policy Committee Chairman John Ensign’s (Nev.) announcement Tuesday evening that he had an extramarital affair with a former staffer is already causing political shock waves in the Silver State that could be felt in 2010 and beyond.

For a rising star that had been viewed as a possible 2012 presidential contender, the affair may put an early end to those ambitions.

But both Democratic and Republican insiders also said the scandal involving one of the highest profile Republicans in Nevada is also a blow to GOP efforts to knock off Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) next year.

“It’s a serious distraction in the short term particularly in the recruiting efforts— against Reid, one Republican strategist said Wednesday.

Over the past six months, national Republicans have insisted that Reid will be a top target in 2010, and early polling numbers have shown him to be vulnerable back home.

But despite those continued claims, Republicans have yet to recruit a top-tier challenger to the Majority Leader. And Democrats have been happy to point out that each week that has gone by has allowed Reid to use his vast influence on Capitol Hill to solidify his position in Nevada and fill his campaign coffers without having to skirmish with an opponent.

Rep. Dean Heller (R) has been viewed as the most credible potential challenger, and he has been the subject of most of the Republican chatter about the race. But it’s unclear whether the second-term Congressman, who just earned a spot on the coveted Ways and Means Committee, has any interest in the job, and he’s made no signals that he is preparing to run.

If Heller had been close to making any moves toward a Senate bid, Ensign’s revelation this week would certainly put that on hold.

“It pushes back any decisions folks might be making about jumping into this race for an undetermined period of time because folks are assessing the extent of the damage,— the GOP strategist said.

Ensign’s affair also casts doubt on the future of his recent effort to organize Nevada Republican voters for the 2010 elections.

Earlier this year, Ensign, who chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee during the 2008 cycle, helped create the Republican Renewal Project to raise money for GOP voter registration and outreach, including a focus on new voters, independents and Hispanics in Nevada.

A spokesman for the group couldn’t be reached Wednesday morning.

Democrats say the Ensign scandal couldn’t come at a worse time for a state Republican Party that is already reeling from President Barack Obama’s 2008 victory in the state and last year’s defeat of three-term Rep. John Porter (R-Nev.), who had been viewed as a top potential Senate candidate.

“It’s a major distraction for him and the Republican Party, and as long as this remains a distraction for Republicans in Nevada, it’s only going to further disorganize their already disorganized efforts to unseat Reid,— said Andres Ramirez, a former Reid staffer who works in Washington, D.C., for the New Democrat Network.

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