Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010 | 2:01 a.m.
John Ensign supports higher taxes on all Americans and Dean Heller is against them. But John Ensign is against burgeoning deficits and Dean Heller doesn’t seem to care.
What’s a Tea Partyer to do?
That’s the seminal question as the 2012 U.S. Senate race began last week — or at least it seemed to — as Sen. Ensign and Rep. Heller were on opposite sides of the tax cut compromise vote that overwhelmingly passed both houses of Congress and was signed by President Barack Obama.
Ensign voted against the package after repeatedly saying how horrendous it would be to raise taxes during a recession but saying the near-trillion dollars in spending was too much to bear. And Heller voted for it, ignoring the deficit implications in a statement defending his vote and focusing on the “disastrous” tax increases if the tax-cut compromise hadn’t passed.
So does the Tea Party hate deficits or tax increases more? Or are both supplanted by hatred for a president it doesn’t think should be given a victory?
The group supposedly is all about excessive federal spending, so maybe Ensign wins this round. But a year from now, when and if Heller starts his ad campaign, besides mentioning Ensign’s vote for TARP in 2008, might he mention this overwhelming tax increase the senator supported?
The bad boy senator seems to be flailing about as part of the John Ensign Resurrection Project, desperately trying to transmogrify himself from crucified sinner to true believer once more. And the ambitious congressman seems to be embarking on a Dean Heller Just Might Run Campaign, trying to maintain his viability until he makes a decision while drawing a contrast whenever he can with Ensign.
Or maybe they both voted their consciences and it has nothing to do with 2012.
We in the Fourth Estate love to pore over every vote and statement for political signals, especially in the 24/7 world of instapunditry. But the fact is the Ensign-Heller conundrum is one the GOP will have to solve sooner rather than later, with the former a much weaker general election candidate than the latter and an almost-certain loser to a strong Democratic candidate.
So the 2012 question — and not just in Nevada — morphs into: What do you do with a damaged incumbent who has voted right and now panders, no matter how erratically, to the Tea Party while another credible conservative (albeit one who scampered right after being singed in a near-loss four years ago) stands ready to be the party’s nominee?
Ensign is appealing to that important GOP primary niche: The voter who doesn’t care if Ensign had an affair with his wife’s best friend who was also his best friend’s wife or that he had his parents pay off the couple or that he then creepily tried to find the cuckolded husband a job or that he is a world-class hypocrite for being a public morality enforcer while being a private adulterer or that he voted to raise taxes on every American (after saying how awful it would be to do so in a recession) or that he sponsored tens of millions in earmarks (after complaining about profligate federal spending).
This is your candidate, Tea Party?
If you take away his personal failings, rank hypocrisy and ethical transgressions, Ensign is a GOP exemplar. He also has aligned himself with the Jim DeMint-Tom Coburn wing of the Republican caucus, the deficit hawks who have made slashing spending the holy grail. (You also may recall that Coburn, a doctor, is Ensign’s gynecologist, having claimed doctor-patient privilege at the onset of the Ensign scandal and who Ensign’s former best friend says tried to negotiate a deal to buy the humiliated family’s silence, which Coburn denies. They are all honorable men.)
Heller is in an enviable position as he can wait for a few months to see how many factors play out: Whether Ensign’s near-fatal negative rating turns fatal. Whether Ensign raises any money. Whether the National Republican Senatorial Committee quietly signals it will support Heller. Whether Sharron Angle decides to get into the Senate race — a three-way race may be Ensign’s only salvation.
The senator’s biggest worry — if reality ever intrudes in Ensignville — should be that Republicans are good at terminating wounded incumbents. (See Gibbons, Jim, 2010.)
I don’t underestimate the Democrats’ ability to muck this up, either — Rep. Shelley Berkley will be well funded if she runs but may have serious problems outside Southern Nevada. And if the congresswoman doesn’t take the leap, the Democrats may have a crowded field that could inure to the GOP’s benefit.
Whatever happens, judging from the events of last week, forgetting this year’s apparently unforgettable U.S. Senate race may be easier than I thought, thanks to Ensign and Heller.