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September 21, 2021

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Senate majority left swinging after John Ensign resignation

Decision puts pressure on both parties to find right candidate

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. Ensign’s wife, Darlene, stands by him at left.

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 »

In a final acquiescence to what many saw as the inevitable end to his scandal-scarred political career, U.S. Sen. John Ensign closed the door on a re-election bid Monday, dramatically improving his party’s chances of keeping his seat in a swing state that has been leaning more Democrat.

The move accelerates the race for a seat that will help determine which party controls the U.S. Senate after 2012.

Ensign’s announcement intensifies the pressure on Democrats, who had been hoping the beleaguered incumbent would stay in the race long enough to weaken presumed Republican front-runner Rep. Dean Heller.

But the timing surprised many Republican insiders — even those who expected him to eventually bow out — and comes as the Senate Ethics Committee intensifies its investigation into his extramarital affair with his best friend’s wife.

Democrats must quickly figure out who their strongest candidate will be to run as they hope to resurrect the Obama wave and ride it once again to down-ticket victories.

Meanwhile, Republicans will try to quell a potential scrum of primary opponents who might view the open seat more favorably now, despite Heller’s presumed entrance.

Democrats put on a strong face in the wake of Ensign’s announcement, brushing aside suggestions the departure of a weakened incumbent makes it more difficult for them to pick up the seat.

“We’ve been preparing to run against Dean Heller since Day One,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Eric Schultz said.

The committee has identified Ensign’s seat in Nevada, and Scott Brown’s seat in Massachusetts, as their two best opportunities to build their majority in 2012.

The GOP has only 10 Senate seats to defend, while Democrats will try to hold onto 23.

Still, with 20 months to go, Democrats are moving slowly in narrowing in on a candidate for the seat.

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., has put the party on notice that she is considering running. She’s been raising money, gauging support in Washoe County — outside her Southern Nevada base — and polling.

But the committee’s recruitment process goes beyond Berkley; they’re also eyeing Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and Secretary of State Ross Miller. Treasurer Kate Marshall is also said to be interested.

Cortez Masto and Miller are expected to defer their announcements until after Berkley declares her intentions.

Democratic strategists say with Ensign out of the race, they expect Berkley will make her plans known in the spring.

But Berkley says she won’t change her schedule: Expect an announcement by early summer, not before.

“I’m not going to be rushed into this. What happens on my side of the aisle is my business,” she said. “And nobody is rushing me.”

Meanwhile, Republicans are quickly working to line up behind Heller, who is expected to make an announcement sooner rather than later.

In a clear signal of his intentions, Heller leaked an internal poll last month showing he is the strongest candidate in a Republican field that included Ensign, by a 15-point margin.

Although Heller’s the clear party favorite, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll have a free ride.

Former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, R-Reno, who lost to Sen. Harry Reid last year, has indicated an interest. So has Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki.

National Republicans clearly want to avoid a primary and have set their sights on the general election already.

“Next year’s Senate race in Nevada will now come down to a clear choice between two competing visions for our country — between a Republican candidate who believes in smaller government, fiscal responsibility and creating good, private-sector jobs, and a Democrat candidate who believes in keeping our country on the same reckless fiscal path of more government and higher taxes,” Sen. John Cornyn, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a statement.

In an interview, Cornyn said Ensign’s decision helps the party: “It eliminates an issue. So I think our chances are very good of holding onto that seat.”

Click to enlarge photo

Rep. Shelley Berkley listens to the concerns of a constituent during a "Congress on Your Corner" event honoring Rep. Gabrielle Giffords Friday, Jan. 14, at Berkley's office in Las Vegas.

Click to enlarge photo

U.S. Rep. Dean Heller speaks at the grand opening of the Mandarin Oriental at CityCenter, Friday, Dec. 4, 2009.

Cornyn hasn’t talked to any of the possible candidates yet, he said. And a spokesman for the committee, which works to get Republicans elected, issued a reminder Monday that the organization plans to remain neutral until after the primary.

Despite Heller’s showing in early polls, Democrats point out that he has never been tested in a competitive statewide race, and that his congressional district has been solidly Republican since it was created after the 1980 census.

His district includes only a sliver of the heavily Democratic-leaning Las Vegas area, home to most of the state’s population. And Heller’s name-recognition isn’t high in Clark County: In 2009, only about two-thirds of the voters had registered an opinion of him, positive or negative.

“Dean Heller is not as strong as he likes to portray himself,” said one senior Democratic strategist with ties to the state.

The true testing ground for Heller’s cross-party appeal will be his performance in the urban area of his district — Washoe County, Democrats say. There, the picture isn’t quite so decisive: Heller lost Washoe to his opponent, Democrat Jill Derby, by 4 percentage points in 2006, and barely held onto it by 1 point in 2008.

Heller’s case with Democrats may be further complicated by his having spent his first two years in office shoring up support among conservatives, following a bruising primary victory over Angle. He’s taken conservative views on immigration, federal spending, the financial industry bailout and the stimulus, positions that won’t play as well in Las Vegas.

But the first hurdle to clear is the primary, and there, the field is one contender slimmer.

Ensign made his departure brief, calling the decision the most difficult of his life.

“This campaign would be exceptionally ugly,” he said. “I just came to the conclusion I couldn’t put my family through it.”

Once considered a potential 2012 presidential contender, Ensign fell sharply from grace in 2009 when he announced he had an affair with his best friend’s wife. His parents paid the couple, both Ensign’s employees, $96,000 after the affair. Ensign also helped the woman’s husband, Doug Hampton, find a job. Ensign’s actions are the target of a Senate Ethics Committee investigation.

Ensign spent two years denying the scandal would scuttle his re-election, and had been campaigning and fundraising in recent months, insisting he could still win.

Ensign chose the George Federal Building in Las Vegas for his announcement Monday, the site where two years earlier he revealed his sexual indiscretion.

Ensign said that both his wife, Darlene, and God have forgiven him. And although he apologized for his mistakes as a husband and friend, he remained adamant that he did nothing wrong as a senator — and that the pending investigation did not influence his decision.

“I didn’t break any ethics rules, I didn’t break any of the laws,” said Ensign, who has resisted pressure to resign. “Resigning would indicate guilt, and I did not do the things that they’re saying.”

Still, Ensign appeared to acknowledge lessons learned.

With his children standing nearby, Ensign’s wife rubbed his back as he announced his retirement. She smiled. Ensign winced.

“There are consequences to sin,” he said.

Sun reporter Delen Goldberg contributed to this story.

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