Sunday, June 28, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Sen. Harry Reid has publicly expressed empathy for his colleague, Sen. John Ensign, the Nevada Republican enduring a tough period. Ensign recently admitted he had an affair with a woman who was a member of his staff and who is married to a man who was also a member of his staff.
But it’s not difficult to imagine that in Reidville, where politics is served as a garnish for the main dish — still more politics — there’s some happy snickering going on.
Reid is up for reelection in 2010, and he has a fat target on his back. His poll numbers are weak, and national Republicans would love some payback for Reid’s years of hammering Republicans and stymieing their agenda when he was minority leader.
The Ensign scandal is a bit of a gift to Reid, the U.S. Senate majority leader.
Rep. Dean Heller of the 2nd Congressional District is the Republicans’ most prized candidate. GOP senators have been courting him heavily at fancy dinners. It went on so long that the suitors grew restless, according to sources here and in Washington.
Heller had a deadline of June 30 to make up his mind.
Then Ensign’s imbroglio hit, and they told him to take some time.
Still, take a swig or pass the bottle.
“At some point, he has to make a decision,” said Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, who replaced Ensign as No. 4 on the GOP leadership ladder.
Politicians tend to be risk averse, and surely Heller must be having second thoughts. Here are the arguments against running:
• Heller and Reid have a warm relationship.
• Heller has other options, including a run for governor or staying where he is on the House Ways and Means Committee. Those are safer plays.
• Running against Reid would entail a long and brutal campaign against the Reid machine, carrying that ‘R’ next to his name, like a scarlet letter. (With Republicans these days, all metaphors seem to be double-entendres.)
The latest voter registration numbers tell the story of how daunting it must look to Heller. Of 4,306 Nevadans who registered to vote from April 1 to May 31, here’s how many marked the Republican box: 148. The Democrats, who already had a 100,000-voter advantage, registered 2,065.
So-called “minor parties” registered 737. (It should be noted that quite a few Democrats were taken off the active voter list, but they still maintained their overall percentage advantage.)
The Reid campaign also announced last week its second set of “Republicans for Reid,” a group that could double as an elite country club: the Fertittas of Station Casinos, MGM Mirage CEO James Murren, old-school power player Richard Bunker, image maven Sig Rogich, first lady Dawn Gibbons, Michael Yackira of NV Energy.
There are two views among Republicans.
Chuck Muth, the conservative activist who has tried to fire up the anti-Reid base, is dejected.
Ensign “destroyed any chance of anyone getting elected to replace Harry Reid,” he said.
He is afraid Heller won’t run now, and does not like the rest of the field.
While acknowledging that there’s always a scenario to beat an incumbent, especially one with such lousy poll numbers, Muth said, “It was Heller or B team.”
Muth suggested a clever response to “Republicans for Reid”: Set up a Web site called “Anybody but Reid” and invite Nevadans to share their scorn. That was two weeks ago, and they’ve done nothing.
Maybe because the Republican Party is without an executive director.
The circus of Ensign and Gov. Jim Gibbons, whose own troubles are legendary, is dispiriting for volunteers, Muth said.
“There’s nothing to excite the base. They’re in a world of hurt and trouble.”
There’s another view, though, and I find it pretty compelling.
“Ensign is not instrumental in the success or failure of someone running against Harry Reid,” said Steve Wark, the Republican consultant.
“He never considered toiling in the fields of the Republican Party to be something he thought he was obligated to do, important or valuable,” Wark said.
This has made it all the easier to throw him overboard.
GOP consultant Robert Uithoven believes the power vacuum creates great opportunity for an ambitious Republican. “The Republican base is craving leadership,” he said.
He points to Ronald Reagan rescuing the party after the disgraced President Richard Nixon and the beaten President Gerald Ford. That era was the last time obituaries were being written about the Republican Party.
Wark likes the idea of a fresh candidate who is unknown. He imagines a retired military officer who did well in the private sector and then semi-retired to Nevada.
The money will flow in from out-of-state from all the Fox News watchers who clench their teeth at the sight of Reid.
In the end though, this discussion is a bit academic.
Bad policy is bad politics. If the policies of the Obama administration, which Reid is shepherding through the Senate, do not improve the economy, Reid will be in deep trouble running against a golden retriever.
And by the looks of it, that’s what Republicans may wind up with.
Sun Washington reporter Lisa Mascaro contributed to this story.