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Ensign Exit Eases GOP’s Nevada Woes

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Sen. John Ensign announced that he won’t seek a third term in 2012. “There are consequences to sin,” Ensign told supporters, referring to his extramarital affair that surely would have been an issue in a GOP primary.

As Nevada Sen. John Ensign stood alongside his family in Las Vegas on Monday to announce his retirement, Rep. Dean Heller was in Reno raising money for what insiders believe will be a run for Senate next year.

It was a fitting end to the GOP primary that never was. A sense of relief settled over Nevada Republicans as Ensign announced the decision that many worried would not come until much later in the race, if at all.

The scandal-plagued Republican’s exit is now expected to accelerate the action in both parties, and it clears the way for Heller, who is all but in.

“Most people in Nevada speculate that he will get in the race and will be a clear favorite,” GOP strategist Robert Uithoven said. “We won’t see a primary like we saw in 2010, with 15 people running to take on Harry Reid.”

On the Democratic side, the attention turns to Rep. Shelley Berkley, to whom other potential candidates may give the right of first refusal. Berkley is in her seventh term representing Las Vegas and the strongly Democratic 1st district.

“What it does immediately is accelerate the pace by which the Democrats have to sort out who is going to run,” Nevada Democratic consultant Dan Hart said of Ensign’s retirement. “I think it puts pressure on Congresswoman Berkley to make a decision.”

Some state insiders say Ensign’s decision to opt out so early could influence Berkley’s decision — possibly keeping her out of the race that now looks more difficult without a contested Republican primary between Ensign and Heller.

Hart said the other Democrats considering running, including Secretary of State Ross Miller, Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and Treasurer Kate Marshall, “need to start taking measures” toward running if Berkley is going to bow out.

“Whether it’s setting up an exploratory committee or a certain kind of campaigning or visiting with local leaders — you’re going to see an acceleration of that on the Democratic side,” Hart said.

Reached by phone Monday, Marshall said not to expect an announcement from her any time soon, but that running is something she will consider in the months ahead.

“We are in the middle of a legislative session, which has some very large issues in front of it, and I’m working quite hard on a couple bills I have regarding economic development,” Marshall told Roll Call. “So I need to focus on those right now. Also, I think there are a lot of balls in the air that need to be addressed first, like our budget hole.”

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