Las Vegas Sun

April 14, 2024

jon ralston:

GOP may be setting its sights on Ensign

Suffering from the enervating ennui of postelection depression, I always find there is only one cure: Look ahead to the next one.

No, I don’t mean the yawnfest to succeed Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman — assuming he doesn’t barricade himself in his office (lifetime supply of Bombay Sapphire therein) to stay longer. I refer to Campaign 2012, which officially began one week ago, with Republicans salivating to build on legislative gains here and everywhere, and Democrats trying to find a way to hold off the GOP without the vote magnet named Harry Reid on the ballot. And before the campaign matrix sorts itself out, we have to endure a bloodbath unlike any Sam Peckinpah could have imagined — and it always seems to move in slow motion! — known as Session ’11, which could reshape the conventional wisdom I am about to dispense.

Rarely does a cycle approach with the number of cascading triggers as does the one that just began, with the first one at the top. Nevada’s junior senator, John Ensign, may not know it, but he is a walking political corpse, soon to be indicted or willingly or forcibly retired.

His fate is inextricably linked to that of several other Nevada politicians, whose ambition or lack thereof could dramatically alter the levers of power in the state — or not.

I have to believe Ensign will soon become a target of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Why? Because the GOP sees a path to taking the Senate in 2012 — two-thirds of the contested seats are held by Democrats — and they don’t want to have to worry about defending their own. Ensign has a disapproval rating approaching Harry Reid-like elevation and he will have neither the benefit of a Reid-like turnout machine or campaign team. Those who know him or have been with him before want nothing to do with him now. Even in Nevada, where the dead are resurrected and no depredation seems unforgivable, Ensign has no path to victory.

And, yet, Ensign has seemed nothing short of delusional in recent months, telling folks he is getting ready to ramp up his re-election bid even as his personal campaign account and his leadership PAC are depleted. He has not been able to raise money since June 16, 2009, when he made the announcement of an affair that would later lead to the revelation that he had slept with his wife’s best friend who was also his best friend’s wife — I still cringe when I write that. What followed was a series of revelations, hastened by the volubility of the cuckolded husband, that has resulted in two federal probes over allegations of parental payoffs, senatorial juice and pay-for-play.

If Ensign does follow through and run, all things being equal, he will be flattened by GOP Rep. Dean Heller. Heller has been skillful in his career at picking — and not picking — spots. He eschewed a run against The Anointed One, Kenny Guinn, in the 1998 gubernatorial race. But when Rep. Jim Gibbons decided to run for governor four years ago, Heller leapt at the opportunity to run for his seat and would have won in a walk if not for a Club for Growth-energized former assemblywoman named Sharron Angle, who almost beat him. After Ensign cast a pall over the GOP a year and a half ago, Heller passed up a run against Reid, believing the junior senator’s days were numbered and that running against him was much preferable to the majority leader’s buzz saw.

Ensign and Heller don’t like each other, either, so that adds to the likelihood of a primary challenge if Ensign runs. The wild card of course is the $14 million Tea Party star, who might well think she can translate that fundraising prowess into a bid against Ensign and/or Heller. Much of that money was anti-Reid, but Angle is never to be underestimated, although I think the damage done by this year’s campaign may limit her options. But if one of those options is Heller’s seat, I make her the favorite.

So where do the Democratic dominoes fall?

Rep. Shelley Berkley wants to run, but she has a seat for life and may not want to risk it. I think she will decide relatively soon. (If she does go, ex-Rep. Dina Titus is buying property in CD1.) The only other intriguing possibility is Secretary of State Ross Miller, perhaps the most talented Democrat on the bench, who would have a free roll (he retains his office if he loses).

If the Democrats don’t avoid a primary, start calling him Sen. Heller. If they do, it could be almost as intriguing as the Reid-Angle race.

Now that helps the postelection depression.

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