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July 29, 2021

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John Ensign in awkward position headed toward 2012 elections

Ensign’s new poll numbers show him vulnerable, and event with Heller exposes his weak side

John Ensign

AP file

John Ensign, unable to dodge questions about an extramarital dalliance and facing pressure from his own party, finds himself in an awkward position as he attempts to salvage his political career.

Dean Heller

Dean Heller

U.S. Sen. John Ensign’s attempt to salvage his political career will be an awkward affair. That much was apparent Wednesday.

He can’t escape questions about his extramarital dalliance with his best friend’s wife — questions that by their very nature are awkward. And he faces the uncomfortable possibility that his party will throw him overboard in favor of a more popular standard-bearer.

He was confronted by both of those uncomfortable questions and the person who might be willing to replace him at a conference of human resources executives.

Ensign, R-Nev., was a confirmed keynote speaker when Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., accepted at the last minute an invitation to address the gathering.

That led to this scene: The two politicians, standing feet apart and avoiding eye contact at all costs, while addressing reporters’ questions about the 2012 Republican primary that could pit the two against each other.

They alternated between dodging questions about the race and each other, and foreshadowing their resolve to see the race through should such a matchup occur.

“I would be lying to you if I said I wasn’t thinking about it,” Heller said. “But I have no timeline for making that determination.”

Asked if Ensign should consider abandoning the race, Heller spoke a little more strongly: “If John Ensign wants to run for re-election, he has a right to run for re-election, and I don’t mind giving voters a choice if it winds up being a head-to-head.”

Heller then shot a glance at Ensign, just feet away and talking to a television reporter.

But in his speech to the human resources executives, Heller outlined the forces that might keep him where he is: being a member of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, with a coveted seat on the powerful Ways and Means committee and a plum assignment to the Health Care subcommittee that, as he put it, will be “repealing Obamacare.”

Still, Heller hinted that Nevada party leaders are looking for him to run.

For his part, Ensign continued his defiant tone in the face of poll numbers showing him trailing Heller badly and calls from at least one party leader for him to quickly assess whether his pursuing re-election is in the best interest of the party.

“When you saw Harry Reid ahead of his election, what kind of numbers did he have? OK?” Ensign told reporters. “Against every Republican he was down double digits. Last time I checked, he won by over 5 points.”

Recent polls show Ensign’s approval rating well below 50 percent in the wake of the 2-year-old scandal involving his extramarital affair with his best friend’s wife. Both Ensign’s friend, Doug Hampton, and the woman with whom he had the affair, Cynthia Hampton, worked for Ensign.

The Senate Ethics Committee continues to probe whether he violated ethics rules when his parents paid the Hamptons $96,000 and Ensign helped Doug Hampton find a lobbying job after he discovered the affair.

“There’s no question this is going to be very, very difficult,” Ensign said. “I’m well aware of that.”

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