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GOP: Ensign affair hurt efforts to field Reid opponent

Cornyn declines to endorse Ensign for re-election

Updated Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2009 | 10:39 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- The head of the Republican campaign arm in the Senate acknowledged Wednesday that Republican Sen. John Ensign’s affair has disrupted the political landscape for his party in Nevada as it tries to field a challenger to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, believes Republican Rep. Dean Heller would make a formidable candidate against Reid in 2010, but is not certain if the congressman will run.

“There’s been a lot happening in Nevada that has created some uncertainty about the political environment there for a Republican candidate,” Cornyn told reporters.

Click to enlarge photo

Rep. Dean Heller

Click to enlarge photo

Sen. John Cornyn

Cornyn had hoped to announce a candidate to run against Reid several weeks ago, as Ensign’s affair with a staffer, whose husband was one of his friends and top aides, was unfolding. He hopes to have a candidate in several weeks.

The chairman said Heller is “seriously considering it. We'd love to have him run. He would be a formidable opponent and I think could and would beat Harry Reid.”

Reid has racked up money and endorsements in his race for a fifth term. Reid’s poll numbers have fallen dramatically as leader, with just one-third of Nevada voters giving him a positive approval rating, making him a prime target for Republicans.

Reid has promised an aggressive campaign, pledging to raise $25 million to keep his seat.

Also today, Cornyn declined to endorse Ensign, who has said he will seek re-election in 2012.

Cornyn took the job of chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee after Ensign ran the office last election cycle, when Republicans suffered landslide losses. Cornyn has said he may serve two terms, which would put him in charge when Ensign is up for re-election.

“I’m really not going to comment on 2012 now,” Cornyn told reporters at a briefing on the upcoming 2010 races.

Ensign has vowed not to resign, saying he will seek re-election to a third term.

“Senator Ensign, his family, everybody involved have been through a very tough time,” Cornyn said. “All of us have tried to give him, his family and all involved the space to work through that.”

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