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November 28, 2015

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the senator’s scandal:

Facing re-election bid, will John Ensign be left in the cold?

Republican meeting with National Republican Senatorial Committee on raising money for his 2012 bid to retain his Senate seat

UPDATED STORY: Senate Ethics Committee appoints special counsel in John Ensign case

WASHINGTON - Not too long ago, Sen. John Ensign holding an event at the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s Washington headquarters was hardly cause for a headline. After all, from 2006 to 2008, when he was chairman of the organization that works to elect Republicans to the U.S. Senate, it was his house.

But when Ensign convenes a meeting with key re-election fundraisers and strategists there today, he’s entering as a guest — and hoping that a few months from now, they keep letting him in.

Ensign is the only person who has officially declared intentions to run for the Senate seat he currently holds in 2012, but even in a field that doesn’t yet officially include anybody else, many analysts think he is the longest shot to win.

Ensign is still struggling with ethics accusations stemming from an affair with former aide Cynthia Hampton, whose husband, Doug, was also an employee of Ensign’s.

Although the Justice Department dropped its investigation of the senator’s actions in the wake of the affair, and the Federal Election Commission refused to start one, the fight is not over for him until the Senate Ethics Committee renders its verdict on whether to indict him.

But in the race to save his seat, Ensign doesn’t have time to wait.

Right now, Ensign’s got access to the resources, and most importantly, the Rolodexes of the Senatorial Committee — deep-pocketed Republicans he knows from years of fronting the GOP’s re-election machine. He’s also got their attention as an outspoken advocate for spending cuts who will be sitting on several influential committees for the next two years: Budget, Finance, Homeland Security and Government Affairs, and Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

But that all likely dries up if another candidate makes his or her intentions known — a possibility that won’t escape potential donors, Nevada Republicans say.

“I think that if they write the checks, they’ll be smaller in amount,” former Nevada Gov. Bob List said. “They’re going to be more reluctant to open up big time, because of the unknown.”

Last month, Ensign set a fundraising benchmark: $1 million. If he can raise that by the end of June, he said on Nevada Public Radio, “I think that would be a healthy number,” and enough to shore up his candidacy.

If he’s nervous about a potential primary challenge — and all eyes are on Rep. Dean Heller to mount one — he’s not showing it. Ensign told reporters at a January conference in Reno that he wasn’t worried about a primary challenge, although he acknowledged his campaign would be “very, very difficult” because of the scandal surrounding him.

But the sum is a modest one for an uphill battle.

According to records filed in the third quarter of 2010, Heller has more than $850,000 on hand and presumed Democratic challenger Rep. Shelley Berkley, more than $1.1 million — compared with barely $300,000 for Ensign.

But Ensign says he isn’t feeling any special pressure to add to his figure dramatically during today’s strategy session with his campaign fundraisers and minds, where they’ll likely assess the odds, give him tips, reach out to potential donors and go-to check writers. “It’s all part of the process,” Ensign said.

The national stage will likely have to be a significant part of Ensign’s process, given polls show his unpopularity at home. This is where the Senatorial Committee could be a valuable resource for Ensign.

Last month, a Public Policy Polling survey showed Ensign trailing Heller by an average of 14 points in potential matchups against Berkley and Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, another Democrat whose name has been tossed around for a potential 2012 run.

His solo numbers weren’t much better: 59 percent of state respondents said he shouldn’t bother running, and only 35 percent approved of the job he’s done thus far.

Click to enlarge photo

John Ensign

Ensign insisted that his numbers were no worse than approval ratings for Nevada’s senior senator, Democrat Harry Reid, several months before he won re-election against Sharron Angle. But Reid wasn’t under investigation.

There’s also the example of Louisiana’s Republican Sen. David Vitter, who was shown to have solicited the services of a Washington call-girl ring madam, but still won against Democratic challenger Charlie Melancon by a 20-point landslide in 2010.

But Vitter wasn’t under investigation, either. And his party didn’t disown him.

To be fair, the national Republican Party hasn’t disowned Ensign. But it isn’t sticking up for him either, not even in the casual hints and winks that often signal whether top party brass plans to protect incumbents. The decision makers in this case are being careful to be unopinionated.

“We make the NRSC facilities available to all senators,” said Senatorial Committee Chairman and Texas Sen. John Cornyn. “I have not talked to anybody about that race.”

But other Republicans are talking, and wondering whether the dollars Ensign pulls in could help him resuscitate his tarnished image.

“It’s really all about fundraising,” List said. “If it’s successful, that can translate into communication with the voter base, and ultimately could result in an enhanced standing.”

But whatever today’s efforts yield, the sense among state Republicans is that Ensign’s national fundraising ability is likely to be the litmus test for how big his campaign chest can grow, as he’s likely to fare better with national donors than he is in state.

The Senatorial Committee is a heavy-handed fundraiser, raising almost $79 million during the 2010 midterms cycle for candidates nationwide. And apparently it knows how to spend those dollars — although Democrats raised more than $104 million, they also lost six seats.

But Ensign isn’t yet buying the rationale that his best hopes are in his old stamping grounds.

“We gotta raise money here, there and everywhere,” he said.

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