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Nevada GOP Wary of Ensign Re-Election Bid

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The Justice Department has dropped its investigation into Sen. John Ensign’s affair with a former staffer, allowing the embattled Nevada Republican to breathe a sigh of relief as he focuses on seeking a third term.

Heller, who was just elected to a third term with 63 percent, represents the largest Congressional district in the country, not counting single-district states. It has been a safely Republican district, but with Nevada expected to gain a fourth House seat next year through reapportionment, it is unclear what any of the districts will look like. Democrats control the state’s legislative chambers, but the governor is a Republican.

Heller’s seat on the influential Ways and Means Committee could also factor into his decision about whether to run.

“Ways and Means is an important committee for us. He has a lot of power that can help us in the state,” said former Nevada first lady Dawn Gibbons, who is now communications director for NBC in Nevada. “If he chooses to leave that, I guess for Republicans our downfall could be we have Sharron Angle running. She’s been pretty good at winning primaries, but not good at winning generals.”

Angle told a northern Nevada newspaper last month that she was keeping her options open for 2012, and she specifically mentioned Heller’s district as a possibility, should he challenge Ensign. Angle ran for that seat in 2006, losing a close primary to Heller and to Gibbons, a former state Assemblywoman who finished third.

If Heller decides to stay in the House, the other names mentioned as potential Senate candidates include the same crowd that looked to challenge Reid in 2010: Angle, Danny Tarkanian, Wall Street investment banker John Chachas and Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki. Tarkanian came in third in the summer primary that Angle won.

“All eyes are on Dean Heller,” Uithoven said. “I think that has consequences from the top of the ticket down to the Congressional races. He’s holding all the cards right now, not John Ensign.”

On the Democratic side, Rep. Shelley Berkley is giving strong consideration to running but will likely not make a decision until the Senate field becomes more defined. Should Berkley run, state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford has been mentioned as a potential candidate to run for her seat.

Some Democrats in the state expect her to run and think she would be a strong candidate against any Republican. Berkley has been a well-known figure in Las Vegas’ Clark County since the early 1980s, and she reported having nearly $1.2 million in the bank as of Nov. 22.  

“I will tell you Shelley Berkley is very popular in southern Nevada, so whoever wins that Republican primary is going to have a really tough race against her,” Gibbons said.

But other Republicans think Heller would easily defeat Berkley. “Dean Heller should pay her filing fee to run against Shelley Berkley. That’s how confident I am that he would beat her,” Uithoven said.

Part of the GOP’s worry is that 2012 is a presidential election year, and President Barack Obama won the state by 12 points in 2008. He did so despite winning just two counties — Clark and Washoe. Those are the state’s two population hubs, so if Democrats perform well there, they can win statewide.

Last month, Reid won those two counties as well, along with tiny Mineral County, defeating Angle by nearly 6 points.

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