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The Policy Racket

Sen. John Ensign to resign, Dean Heller likely replacement

Ensign Announcement

Steve Marcus

Sen. John Ensign announces he will not seek another term in 2012 during a news conference at the Lloyd George Federal Building in Las Vegas on Monday, March 7, 2011.

Updated Thursday, April 21, 2011 | 11:35 p.m.

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Ensign Announcement

U.S. Sen. John Ensign announces he will not seek another term in 2012 during a news conference at the Lloyd George Federal Building in Las Vegas on Monday, March 7, 2011. Ensign's wife, Darlene, stands by him at left. Launch slideshow »

Ensign resigns

KSNV coverage of Sen. John Ensign resignation, April 21, 2011.

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Dean Heller

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Shelley Berkley

At first he stood firm: the embattled Sen. John Ensign saying that, despite investigations into his conduct, he would stand for re-election. And then, just last month, he said he would complete his term, but not seek re-election.

And Thursday he packed it in. Saying the personal cost of staying in office was too much to bear, the man who once was considered possible presidential material announced his resignation, effective May 3.

Ensign made his plans known not in a news conference but through a statement: “It is with tremendous sadness that I officially hand over the Senate seat that I have held for eleven years. The turbulence of these last few years is greatly surpassed by the incredible privilege that I feel to have been entrusted to serve the people of Nevada. I can honestly say that being a United States Senator has been the honor of my life.”

The move opens the door for Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval to appoint Republican Rep. Dean Heller to complete Ensign’s term through 2012, at which time Heller could then seek election to the seat as an incumbent, getting a strategic advantage over his presumed opponent, Democrat Rep. Shelley Berkley.

Ensign’s political star fell two years ago when he revealed he had an affair with a campaign aide, a scandal for which he remains under investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee.

The Ethics Committee’s investigation is the only one remaining of the three Ensign found himself in after his affair; the other two, by the Justice Department and the Federal Elections Commission, were dropped last year.

The investigations of Ensign focused on the sordid details of Ensign’s affair with the wife of his best friend and former chief of staff and on whether Ensign unduly used his influence as a senator to get Doug Hampton, his former chief of staff, employed elsewhere, and whether a $96,000 gift made from Ensign’s parents to Hampton; his wife, Cynthia Hampton; and their children, was made in violation of finance rules.

Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, chairwoman of the Ethics Committee, and Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, its vice chairman, said in a joint statement that Ensign “had made the appropriate decision” in quitting.

“The Senate Ethics Committee has worked diligently for 22 months on this matter and will complete its work in a timely fashion,” they said.

Ensign said the stresses of the investigations had taken their toll.

“While I stand behind my firm belief that I have not violated any law, rule, or standard of conduct of the Senate, and I have fought to prove this publicly,” he said, “I will not continue to subject my family, my constituents, or the Senate to any further rounds of investigation, depositions, drawn out proceedings, or especially public hearings. For my family and me, this continued personal cost is simply too great.”

Heller stood as the party’s presumptive nominee for 2012. He released a statement saying “Governor Sandoval has the authority to appoint individuals to the U.S. Senate, and I will respect whatever decisions that he makes.”

Heller is serving his third term as Nevada’s congressman from the 2nd District. Although his voting record has not been perfectly aligned with Ensign’s, they are both considered conservative.

But the question remains as to why Ensign is quitting now. Heller and Ensign are not particularly close, and although Ensign’s resignation appears to give the GOP a leg up on the next election, the announcement caught most in both parties off-guard.

Lurking in the not-too-distant background, of course, is the ongoing ethics investigation against Ensign, for which the Senate Ethics Committee secured a special counsel in February. Since then, Hampton has been indicted on charges that are at least topically related: lobbying the senator within a year of his having left the office after the disclosure of the affair.

Although there’s been no indictment from the Ethics Committee, there are potentially several more pitfalls along the way to be navigated if the investigation progresses. They include a sworn deposition from the senator and potentially a series of public hearings — all of which could bring more bad press to Ensign that could reflect badly on the Nevada GOP.

Ensign seemed concerned about the Senate Ethics Committee’s proceedings, devoting ample space in his statement to clearing his name.

“I am gratified that, after extended investigations, both the Department of Justice and the Federal Election Commission saw no grounds on which to charge me with improper conduct,” he continued. “I was hopeful that, with the closure of these investigations against me the wear and tear on my family and me would soon be over. This was not the case.”

Although there’s little point in the Ethics Committee pursuing its investigation of Ensign once he resigns, the Ethics Committee has released no word on how it may proceed — nor has Ensign disclosed what steps remain on his end to conclude his legal obligations, namely, the financial ones. Ensign reported $190,137 in cash on hand, less about $45,574 in debt, in his now-disbanded campaign’s war chest at the end of March. It’s not clear how much of that, or more, is owed his legal team.

“It’s probably going to save him a lot of continuing difficulty and it allows the party to move on,” former Nevada Gov. Bob List said. “In the end, it’s probably best for everyone.”

An adviser to Sandoval said it is unlikely the governor would settle on a replacement for Ensign other than Heller. When Heller announced his Senate bid, Sandoval quickly endorsed him, and no other Republicans have ventured into the Senate race.

Such an appointment will trigger a chain reaction in Silver State representation that could also claim another casualty who’s been on the outs with the local GOP: Sharron Angle.

Under electoral rules, if the governor appoints Heller, Heller’s seat has to be filled by a special election, in which the state GOP’s Central Committee will handpick a Republican, and state Democrats will handpick one of their own, to face each other.

“At this point, it’s hard to say, but I think three or four candidates could emerge and compete for it,” List said, listing Angle, Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki and current state GOP Chairman Mark Amodei as likely vying for the post. It’s a race in which the Tea Party is less likely to play such a dominant role as it did in 2010: Each congressional hopeful will only have to convince members of the Central Committee that they’re the best pick.

Still, state and federal laws governing special elections are murky at best and Nevada has no experience in running a federal special election.

Some lawyers argue the law allows multiple major party candidates to file for the election, instead of putting the nominating decision to the parties’ central committees. In that case, several Republicans and several Democrats could vie for the seat on the same ballot.

Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller said he will make a decision on the process after reviewing all of the applicable laws if Heller is appointed.

If appointed Heller assumes the part of a senator. He will begin serving on Senate committees, be tapped into a national fundraising network through the Republican senatorial committees, and build up a rapport with lobbyists as the sitting junior senator from Nevada — a seat he’ll have gained 18 months’ experience in by the time he has to face a public ballot.

That has certainly changed the stakes for Democrats, who had identified Nevada as their No. 1 pickup opportunity with much pomp and circumstance a week ago, when Berkley announced she’d be making a run for the seat. Berkley is expected to stay in the race.

“Nevada will remain a top target for Senate Democrats,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Executive Director Guy Cecil said. “There will be a very clear choice for Nevadans between an uncompromising extremist like Dean Heller, who wants to end Medicare and cut loans for small businesses to give more tax breaks for the very rich, and Shelley Berkley, a true fighter for Nevada’s economy and middle class.”

But the stakes are now much higher for Democrats, who only hold a 53-47 lead in the Senate — and for their Nevada leader, Harry Reid.

Reid’s fate rests on the ability of his caucus to hold on to almost all the seats it’s got, and likely pick up some replacements, as several Democrats from swing and/or Republican-leaning states have announced they plan to retire at the end of their terms in 2012. Several more moderate Democrats who came to Washington on the party’s 2006 wave of victories are facing close fights once again, but in a year when political winds won’t be blowing so strongly in their favor.

Some analysts had casually predicted that Reid’s continued occupancy of the majority leader position might be determined by who won the other Senate seat in Nevada. But on Thursday, Reid, who is traveling with a congressional delegation in China, didn’t reference his own interests, or even utter a word about elections in 2012.

“From fighting Yucca Mountain in Southern Nevada to protecting Lake Tahoe in the north, I have appreciated John’s partnership in working with me to address our state’s needs. He was a strong advocate for Nevada, and worked for many years to improve our state,” Reid said of his colleague in the Senate for the last decade. “My relationship with the Ensign family began many years ago with his father, Mike, a pioneer who has been a force in Nevada gaming and tourism for decades. I know this is a difficult time for the family and I wish them all well as they work through it.”

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