Las Vegas Sun

November 21, 2019

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Ensign hears calls to quit, but is that the right move?

John Ensign

John Ensign

The drip, drip, drip of political scandal can suddenly turn into a deluge. Such was the case last week for John Ensign.

Ensign has damaged his party at home and in Washington with his extramarital affair and his subsequent efforts to land jobs for the woman’s husband, Doug Hampton, who was his former friend and top staffer.

Yet until last week, calls for his resignation have been few. A talk radio show host in Reno, a conservative rabble rouser in Las Vegas and even Sean Hannity on Fox News have been unable to bring others to their view that Ensign must resign.

Not that Republicans aren’t thinking about a future without Ensign. As one GOP strategist put it: “A lot of people wish he would resign, but there’s a difference between wishing it and calling for it.”

When Republican Rep. Dean Heller this year said Ensign was casting a “cloud” over Nevada politics, that was about as far as anyone in the GOP would go.

Until last week.

In a one-two punch, first Heller, followed by a pair of former Clark County Republican Party officials stepped up the game.

Heller labeled Ensign a “wounded” politician.

Two former Republican Party officials became the first to publicly call for him to step down.

“Let’s all stop ignoring the problem,” wrote Richard Scotti, the immediate past chairman of the Clark County Republican Party, and Swadeep Nigam, the county party’s former treasurer, in an op-ed on the conservative Web site Nevada News & Views.

“The only way the Ensign-problem for the GOP will go away is if enough of us call for his resignation.”

The momentum was palpable.

Their harsh words came on the heels of ongoing disclosures from The New York Times and KLAS Channel 8 about the Justice Department’s investigation into Ensign’s behavior, as well as a widely circulated Las Vegas Sun story last week that portrayed Ensign’s political isolation.

Yet several Republicans dismissed the op-ed calling for Ensign to resign as a well-intentioned but inconsequential essay by “two guys” with no real influence as opinion leaders in the state.

Because Scotti was more recently co-chairman of the Las Vegas-area campaign for Brian Sandoval, the Republican front-runner for governor, speculation immediately turned to an obvious connection: Was he penning the column as groundwork for Sandoval to wade into the conversation?

The op-ed would provide cover for candidates who may be sheepish about being the first to call for Ensign’s head. Showing leadership on this issue could be an empowering move for Republican candidates — especially in the state’s conservative and libertarian circles — separating them from the pack as Heller has done with his outspoken comments.

But Scotti, it turns out, left the Sandoval campaign this year. Sandoval himself declined to comment on Ensign’s future.

Even if Ensign were to be indicted, Republicans said they may prefer to let the charges play out before calling for his resignation — not so much standing by his side, but refusing to get involved.

Bernie Zadrowski, another former chairman of the Clark County Republican Party and candidate for judge, said, “People want to hear what the evidence is.”

A resignation would greatly complicate party politics heading into the November election. Embattled Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons would be able to appoint a successor, but the seat would be contested in November, creating a domino effect of candidate jockeying. Would Heller run? Or Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley? Who would fill their congressional seats with the filing deadline for those races passed?

With the upcoming summer anniversary of the Ensign scandal, how the saga began is now well understood. When or how it will end is another matter entirely.

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