Ensign Exit Eases GOP’s Nevada Woes

Posted March 7, 2011 at 6:33pm

As Nevada Sen. John Ensign stood alongside his family in Las Vegas on Monday to announce his retirement, Rep. Dean Heller was in Reno raising money for what insiders believe will be a run for Senate next year.

It was a fitting end to the GOP primary that never was. A sense of relief settled over Nevada Republicans as Ensign announced the decision that many worried would not come until much later in the race, if at all.

The scandal-plagued Republican’s exit is now expected to accelerate the action in both parties, and it clears the way for Heller, who is all but in.

“Most people in Nevada speculate that he will get in the race and will be a clear favorite,” GOP strategist Robert Uithoven said. “We won’t see a primary like we saw in 2010, with 15 people running to take on Harry Reid.”

On the Democratic side, the attention turns to Rep. Shelley Berkley, to whom other potential candidates may give the right of first refusal. Berkley is in her seventh term representing Las Vegas and the strongly Democratic 1st district.

“What it does immediately is accelerate the pace by which the Democrats have to sort out who is going to run,” Nevada Democratic consultant Dan Hart said of Ensign’s retirement. “I think it puts pressure on Congresswoman Berkley to make a decision.”

Some state insiders say Ensign’s decision to opt out so early could influence Berkley’s decision — possibly keeping her out of the race that now looks more difficult without a contested Republican primary between Ensign and Heller.

Hart said the other Democrats considering running, including Secretary of State Ross Miller, Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and Treasurer Kate Marshall, “need to start taking measures” toward running if Berkley is going to bow out.

“Whether it’s setting up an exploratory committee or a certain kind of campaigning or visiting with local leaders — you’re going to see an acceleration of that on the Democratic side,” Hart said.

Reached by phone Monday, Marshall said not to expect an announcement from her any time soon, but that running is something she will consider in the months ahead.

“We are in the middle of a legislative session, which has some very large issues in front of it, and I’m working quite hard on a couple bills I have regarding economic development,” Marshall told Roll Call. “So I need to focus on those right now. Also, I think there are a lot of balls in the air that need to be addressed first, like our budget hole.”

Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, met with the potential candidates on the ground in the Silver State last month. But he was also there in an effort to keep intact the machine that helped propel Reid to victory last year.

Last year’s missed opportunity to unseat Reid, one of the country’s most vulnerable incumbents, was at the heart of Nevada Republicans’ uneasiness with an expensive and perhaps nasty primary between Ensign and Heller.

Even worse was the possibility of Ensign winning and putting the GOP’s hold on one of the state’s two Senate seats in jeopardy.

“The thought of losing our one Republican Senate seat is a horrible thought for those of us who care about our country and our party and our state,” former Gov. Bob List (R) told Roll Call just before Ensign announced his retirement. “There is certainly a strong feeling that there was a missed opportunity last year, that we didn’t have the right candidate on the ballot in November. And we can’t afford to do that again.”

With that, the looming wildcard in the Senate discussion is Sharron Angle. The Las Vegas Review-Journal caught up last weekend with the former Assemblywoman who lost by 5 points last year to Reid even though his days had seemed numbered.

Angle said she was not sure what office she will run for next year — Ensign’s Senate seat, Heller’s House seat or a state legislative seat. A Heller Senate bid would open up his 2nd district seat, which Angle ran for and lost to him in a 2006 primary.

Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki is another Republican to watch. A press release from his political consultant on Monday stated that Krolicki will meet with his family in the coming days to “consider opportunities to best serve the people of Nevada.”

Krolicki has long been considered a potential Senate candidate, but insiders believe he may be more likely to run for Heller’s open seat.

If Heller runs, there will be at least two open-seat opportunities in Nevada since the state gains a seat in redistricting. It’s unclear how the lines will be drawn, but the population gains have largely been in Southern Nevada.

In a statement from the DSCC, Cecil called the Senate seat “ripe for a Democratic pickup” and said “it remains high on our target list.”

Roll Call Politics rates this race a Tossup.

Along with recruiting a strong candidate to the race, Democrats are banking on the turnout operation put in place over the past two election cycles by Reid and President Barack Obama, who is expected to campaign heavily in the state once again.

But in the wake of Ensign’s retirement, Republicans believe they have avoided what would likely have been a brutal primary given fallout from the affair that he had with Cynthia Hampton and the resulting Senate Ethics Committee investigation into his handling of the scandal.

Ensign’s fundraising had drastically fallen off since announcing the affair in June 2009, and GOP sources indicated he had not received much support at recent fundraisers held in Washington, D.C.

Ensign admitted as much at his press conference Monday, telling supporters, “There are consequences to sin.”

Ensign said an “ugly” campaign could “cause a great deal more pain than has already been felt as a result of my actions.” Ensign added that he would rather focus on his work in the Senate than deal “with the distractions stemming from a re-election bid.”

Former Nevada GOP Executive Director Dan Burdish said prior to Ensign’s announcement that “some people are extremely upset with John and it has nothing to do with having an extramarital affair; it’s that he slept with his best friend’s wife.”

Also weighing on Ensign was growing evidence that he would not be viable against Heller, who released a poll last month showing him leading Ensign by 15 points in a primary matchup.

“I think everyone is kind of relieved in Nevada that this won’t be hanging out there any more,” Uithoven said.