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July 6, 2015

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Justice Department clears John Ensign, but how will voters react?

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Associated Press File

Sen. John Ensign’s office announced Wednesday that he is no longer the target of a Department of Justice investigation.

U.S. Sen. John Ensign got a partial reprieve from his legal woes Wednesday with the news that the Justice Department will no longer be breathing down his neck — but the question remains whether dodging a reckoning for his past dalliances will be enough to salvage his political future.

Two years ago, Ensign’s name was being tossed around as a potential 2012 presidential contender; but since summer 2009, even staging a simple re-election campaign has seemed like an impossible dream.

That’s when news emerged about Ensign’s extramarital affair with campaign staffer Cynthia Hampton and his apparent attempts to cover it up — the senator had helped find work for her husband, Doug Hampton (a former staffer), and his parents had given $96,000 in gifts to the Hampton family.

Ensign has since been the target of dueling political death rays — investigations by the Justice Department and the Senate Ethics Committee over improper use of influence and funds.

Though the committee’s investigation is still ongoing, Justice’s withdrawal Wednesday suggests that things may not be quite as bad for the senator as they seemed — meaning it’s time for Ensign to start charting a path toward a 2012 strategy.

But the odds may still be against him.

Ensign said last month that he intends to run for re-election to a third term, though he admits he’s expecting a challenging campaign.

Even if he steers clear of indictments from fellow senators, Ensign still faces the judgment of voters for whom the story of his scandal may stick more closely than charges — and could make him susceptible to campaign challenges.

“The most gripping investigation he’ll experience will be a re-election campaign where an opponent can revisit all of these issues in a lot of different ways,” said Dan Hart, a Democratic political consultant.

Viewing Ensign as a weakened candidate, Republican leaders in the state have openly speculated about a primary challenge, and Democrats such as U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley are exploring bids to unseat him.

Wednesday’s announcement will have political opponents in both parties re-evaluating getting into the race.

“Anyone considering primarying John Ensign, or hoping he wouldn’t run, both of those take a bit of a blow,” said Ryan Erwin, a Republican political consultant. “There’s no way to look at this other than ... very positive ... for John Ensign.”

There was no equivocation in the report Ensign’s lawyers were given from the Justice Department.

“The Department of Justice has informed us that Sen. Ensign is no longer a target of its investigation and that it has no plans to bring any charges against him on this matter,” the lawyers said in a statement.

It’s the second legal bullet Ensign has dodged in the past month. The Federal Election Commission in November decided against pursuing a campaign finance complaint against him.

That leaves only a Senate Ethics Committee investigation. On Tuesday, Sen. Barbara Boxer, the committee’s chairwoman, said she would not comment on its progress.

An Ensign spokeswoman said Wednesday the news indicates that “truth in this matter is finally coming to light.”

“He has long stated that he acted in accordance with the law,” spokeswoman Jennifer Cooper said. “It is the senator’s hope that the Ethics Committee soon follows suit.”

For his part, Ensign has refused to be bowed since admitting the affair with his best friend’s wife. He’s been aggressive about his public appearances, refusing to shrink from questions from constituents and voters at forums, even while avoiding media interviews on the topic.

“Over the last year or so, Ensign has been more accessible, he’s worked harder, he’s been available,” Erwin said. “He’s been doing the things necessary to start earning back the trust of voters. It’s going to take time.”

The scandal has taken a toll on Ensign’s popularity, as well as his political relationships in Nevada.

He no longer works with longtime political adviser Mike Slanker. His fundraising has been less than lackluster, indicating contributors aren’t ready to back him — though with the Justice investigation put to rest, however, Ensign will likely work more aggressively on the money front.

Since the scandal broke, Ensign’s approval rating has also dipped into lethal territory, the way similarly disgraced Gov. Jim Gibbons’ did in the run-up to his unsuccessful bid for re-election.

But among Republican voters, the picture isn’t nearly so bleak. A poll of Republican primary voters conducted by Public Policy Polling in October, long before the legal storm clouds showed any sign of passing, showed Ensign remains in a strong position for a primary, with 64 percent of GOP voters approving of his job performance. That’s an important consideration, given Ensign may face his toughest election challenge in the primary round.

Ensign, however, continues to battle a perception among some Republican activists that he hasn’t done enough to build a reservoir of support within the party.

“John Ensign has never really done anything for the Republican Party per se,” Republican operative Steve Wark said. “Regardless of what happens to John, the simple fact is that he’s scarred himself irreparably with people — they can forgive him, but they don’t necessarily trust him, and that makes it far easier to find an alternative in Dean Heller.”

Damon reported from Reno.

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