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January 18, 2018

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New poll heralds end for Ensign, sparks Senate scramble

John Ensign is dead, one in an occasional series:

Of all those thrilled with poll results showing Rep. Dean Heller poised to end Sen. Ensign’s career, my guess is the happiest bunch of all resides at the National Republican Senatorial Committee headquarters.

When they lay out the favorable 2012 matrix over at NRSC HQ — 23 Democratic seats up, only 10 GOP — my guess is the map has a large question mark on the Silver State. Republican strategists plotting the GOP takeover fret that the coup could stop in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s home state, where a bid by a fatally wounded Ensign could cost them the seat.

NRSC boss John Cornyn all but cut Ensign loose after the poll’s release, telling Hotline On Call “the nominee will be chosen by the primary voters in Nevada and nobody else. And so we’ll await their judgment.”

Make no mistake, folks: National Republicans want Ensign out and Heller in, and the poll released Tuesday showing the congressman up by 15 percentage points (53-38) is just what they hoped to see. It means Heller is 99 percent there and, they hope, Ensign is 99 percent out.

The former is certainly so but the latter may be wishful thinking, as Ensign’s zone of virtual reality envelops him and convinces him that he should continue the career God chose for him, even though his devilish ways have made him unelectable. (I have posted the poll summary on my blog on the Sun’s website.)

Beyond the horse race, the most telling part is pollster Dave Sackett pointing out Heller takes 62 percent of the vote among conservatives and beats Ensign 2-1 among “extremely conservative” Republicans.

So if it’s Heller-Ensign, it’s game over for the incumbent, barring anything cataclysmic befalling the congressman or Ensign hypnotizing the Nevada electorate to believe it was all a case of mistaken identity. The only fly in the Heller anointment is if the mercurial Sharron Angle were to decide to run, too.

Angle does have an affinity for crowded GOP primaries and she enjoys taking on Republican incumbents. But if she had any smart advisers or attuned political antennae, she would immediately announce for Heller’s seat and be the front-runner. Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, who has gazed eastward, surely would consider the race, too, but Angle has the right.

Even though the prospect of a GOP primary conflagration may thrill Democrats here and in D.C., they have problems of their own.

Anyone else interested in the contest is frozen in place until Rep. Shelley Berkley makes up her mind. The congresswoman for life in the 1st Congressional District is in no rush to make up her mind — she says her timetable leads into the summer. But folks in D.C. do not drink decaf and they want Berkley to decide yesterday — they are feeling out Democratic constitutional officers who would be at midterm next year.

Berkley is torn — she has a safe House seat and loves her role, but her husband wants her to run and she is intrigued by the possibility. Anyone who thinks she is leaning one way or another at this point, from what I know, is dead wrong. The real question is if she will feel extreme pressure to decide earlier, before she can evaluate her prospects (paging pollster Mark Mellman) and see how the GOP side shakes out.

If Berkley passes, the likely second choice will come from the pool of four Democratic constitutional officers who are not up until 2014, although Controller Kim Wallin is not considered a likely candidate. Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto may have the best profile, but is the least politically skilled or apparently ambitious. Secretary of State Ross Miller is considered the second choice after Berkley by many, but he seems more like an executive branch sort and has a young family he would have to move to D.C. And Treasurer Kate Marshall, who may be more ambitious than all of them and may be the most tireless, too, surely would take a look.

Also in the background, and panting for the foreground, is Byron Georgiou, the lawyer/businessman and member of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission who badly wants to run and could self-fund, which the party doyens always like. But I hear he is not winning friends and influencing people behind the scenes.

What’s most striking is how (almost) irrelevant Ensign has become to the discussion of 2012. Heller would rather the senator exit gracefully, but that’s not likely unless the Senate Ethics Committee clobbers him or donors really dry up, making it Jim Gibbons redux.

Ensign may cling to the ridiculous comparison to once-thought-dead Harry Reid, but that is not a corpse to corpse analogy. Reid had no primary, had a formidable machine and had an egregiously flawed opponent. Ensign will have none of that.

So Ensign is dead. We just don’t know yet who, besides Heller, is alive in this race.

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