When the Nevada Republican Central Committee met in Fallon last month, it was announced to the audience that Sen. John Ensign would not be able to attend as planned. But there was an unusual reaction from some in the crowd of party leaders and activists: applause.
The tongue-in-cheek ovation was followed by laughter, as Republicans know they have an awkward situation awaiting them in 2012. Ensign says he is running for re-election, despite spending much of the past year under the cloud of a federal investigation related to the extramarital affair he had with a former staffer. Many party insiders worry he could put the seat in jeopardy.
After dropping the ball against vulnerable Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid last month, holding Ensign’s seat in two years has taken on even greater importance for Nevada Republicans.
“I think he’s going to have trouble,” said Republican National Committeewoman Heidi Smith, who was at the GOP gathering in Fallon. “Everybody is being very cagey right now, but I think that John Ensign is going to have a lot of competition.”
Ensign caught a bit of a break Wednesday, when his Senate office announced that the Department of Justice has dropped its investigation. But a separate Senate Ethics Committee investigation is ongoing. An Ensign spokeswoman said the Republican is “focused on earning back the trust of Nevadans.”
Smith said some activists have already set up political action committees targeting Ensign and that some “big-money groups” are strategizing against him.
Roll Call Politics rates this race as a Tossup.
The Republican most often mentioned as a strong challenger to Ensign is Rep. Dean Heller, who has been perhaps Ensign’s most vocal critic since the news of his affair broke last year. Heller was courted to challenge Reid by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He opted against it, and some insiders thought Heller saw a clearer shot at the Senate in 2012.
Heller isn’t expected to announce his intentions until July, but insiders say that if Heller decides to run, there will be pressure on Ensign to retire.
“There will be a lot of people close to John Ensign asking him to call it a career if Dean does in fact jump in,” said Reno-based GOP consultant Robert Uithoven, who managed Sue Lowden’s Senate campaign this year.