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November 15, 2018

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Ensign is front and center. Now what?

Conservative Nevada Sen. John Ensign’s rise in GOP prominence puts him at odds with increasingly blue Nevada electorate.



Sen. John Ensign speaks about the Employee Free Choice Act in April at Brady Industries in Las Vegas. An aide stresses the amount of time the senator spends in Nevada.

Sen. John Ensign

Sen. John Ensign speaks about the Employee Free Choice Act in April at Brady Industries in Las Vegas. An aide stresses the amount of time the senator spends in Nevada. Launch slideshow »

Beyond the Sun

Note from Nevada to a longtime lover: “It’s not you, John. It’s me. I’ve changed.”

That’s a message no one wants to get, certainly not a Nevada senator facing reelection.

Republican Sen. John Ensign, long the state’s most popular elected official, has emerged over the past two years as a leader of Senate conservatives, championing positions that public opinion polls show are well to the right of those of much of the Nevada and national electorates.

Ensign’s cool, telegenic demeanor and reliably conservative positions have made him a favorite of national TV bookers. He recently declined to rule out a run for national office, and he has scheduled a speech in Iowa, whose presidential caucus is the first contest on the nominating calendar.

The question is whether his new role has put him out of step with Nevada.

Ensign was first elected in 2000, when Nevada was home to roughly 1,500 more Republicans than Democrats among about 900,000 registered voters. George W. Bush carried the state in the presidential election that year and in 2004.

Today, following a flurry of effective organizing by the state Democratic Party, as well as sharp demographic change that has made the state increasingly Hispanic, Nevada has about 100,000 more Democrats than Republicans among its more than 1.3 million voters.

President Barack Obama carried the state by 12.5 percentage points in November. Democrats took control of the state Senate and picked up a seat in Congress.

Political analysts and local Republican operatives say Ensign will have to be cautious, as elected officials can alienate constituents by seeking national prominence. Witness the flagging poll numbers of Nevada’s other senator, Harry Reid, when he became a leading spokesman for Democrats nationwide in 2005.

Jennifer Duffy, analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington, noted that Ensign spent the past election cycle as chairman of National Republican Senatorial Committee. His job was to elect Republicans. The party lost eight seats, according to the latest tallies.

Ensign’s duties included a lot of out-of-state travel and fundraising. “He does have to do some reconnecting,” Duffy said.

Ryan Erwin, a longtime Republican operative, likened Ensign taking on a national profile to “knowingly walking into a trap.” But Ensign has the skills and staff to win reelection, Erwin said.

Robert Uithoven, another Republican operative who said he first got excited about politics volunteering for Ensign’s congressional campaign in 1994, said, “The risk of reports of national ambitions can impact anyone from any state. He just has to control the message that Nevada is his No. 1 priority.”

Uithoven also noted another risk for Ensign. Deep-pocketed liberal interest groups in Washington could open fire on Ensign much as Reid faced attacks from well-funded conservative groups beginning in 2005.

Duffy, Erwin and Uithoven all say Nevada isn’t solidly in the Democratic column. Yet Obama will be up for reelection when Ensign is on the ballot in 2012 and the president’s powerful political machine could again lead to collateral damage for Republican officeholders.

Erwin said Ensign would have to pay attention to tone. “What would get him in trouble would be if he were a partisan attack dog just to be a partisan attack dog,” he said.

Duffy noted that last year Ensign expressed admiration for Reid’s ability to turn around the state Democratic Party and said he hoped to duplicate the effort for state Republicans. The need is urgent, as the state Republican Party is in disarray while Democrats continue to employ paid staff to ready the Reid campaign operation for 2010.

Erwin said he expects Ensign will indeed try to reinvigorate the party in Nevada. Still, he acknowledged the party is in a deep hole.

“We’re not going to close the registration gap in two years, but four or five is realistic,” he said.

Duffy noted that even if Nevada continues to turn deeper shades of blue, Ensign can still maintain his political standing at home with good outreach and constituent service — running down lost Social Security checks and the like — and fighting for federal dollars for Nevada. Those steps can help independent and Democratic voters forget about party label and ideology, Duffy, Erwin and Uithoven all said.

State Democrats, however, sense that Ensign may be vulnerable. A Democratic Party spokeswoman offered a sharp attack. “He’s out of touch with middle class Nevadans,” spokeswoman Phoebe Sweet said. “Otherwise he never would have voted no on the recovery package,” she said, referring to Ensign’s opposition to the Democratic plan to stimulate the flagging economy.

Clearly, though, Ensign and his staff understand the risks of ignoring changes in the Nevada electorate or perceptions that he is concerned with national politics at the expense of more parochial issues.

Tory Mazzola, Ensign’s communications director, emphasized the senator’s outreach, his bipartisan initiatives and his support for some Obama policies.

Mazzola rattled off the Nevada cities Ensign has visited this year: Reno, Carson City, Fallon, Minden, Elko, Virginia City and others. He has held telephone town halls to reach tens of thousands of Nevadans, Mazzola said.

Mazzola also noted other factors: Ensign is home every weekend and works from Nevada many Fridays; his office is focused on constituent service, and he has made investing in Republican infrastructure and outreach — especially to minority groups — a priority. He spoke recently to a group of Hispanic Realtors.

On policy matters, Mazzola said Ensign had worked closely with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., on the Invest in the USA Act, which offered massive, one-year tax relief for corporations with overseas earnings as a way to encourage them to bring their money back to the United States. Mazzola said Ensign has worked with Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., on renewable energy legislation.

Then there is Ensign’s long-standing relationship with Reid. The pair work together on legislation and have an agreement that neither will attack the other. Mazzola said Ensign would support the Republican candidate running against Reid in 2010 but wouldn’t denigrate Reid.

Mazzola said he did not know how involved Ensign is in recruiting a candidate to face Reid. A Republican operative, who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely about internal party matters, said Ensign has been working hard to secure a good candidate.

Ensign and his team are clearly aware of Obama’s popularity in Nevada. They highlight issues on which they agree: “Yucca Mountain, renewable energy, Afghanistan and Iraq are all areas where he agrees with President Obama,” Mazzola said. “Sen. Ensign has offered alternatives and has tried to offer solutions and not just criticize.”

Ensign has also been involved in early talks on health care reform, and Mazzola said he hopes Democrats will keep the process open and bipartisan.

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