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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.

Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, met with the potential candidates on the ground in the Silver State last month. But he was also there in an effort to keep intact the machine that helped propel Reid to victory last year.

Last year’s missed opportunity to unseat Reid, one of the country’s most vulnerable incumbents, was at the heart of Nevada Republicans’ uneasiness with an expensive and perhaps nasty primary between Ensign and Heller.

Even worse was the possibility of Ensign winning and putting the GOP’s hold on one of the state’s two Senate seats in jeopardy.

“The thought of losing our one Republican Senate seat is a horrible thought for those of us who care about our country and our party and our state,” former Gov. Bob List (R) told Roll Call just before Ensign announced his retirement. “There is certainly a strong feeling that there was a missed opportunity last year, that we didn’t have the right candidate on the ballot in November. And we can’t afford to do that again.”

With that, the looming wildcard in the Senate discussion is Sharron Angle. The Las Vegas Review-Journal caught up last weekend with the former Assemblywoman who lost by 5 points last year to Reid even though his days had seemed numbered.

Angle said she was not sure what office she will run for next year — Ensign’s Senate seat, Heller’s House seat or a state legislative seat. A Heller Senate bid would open up his 2nd district seat, which Angle ran for and lost to him in a 2006 primary.

Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki is another Republican to watch. A press release from his political consultant on Monday stated that Krolicki will meet with his family in the coming days to “consider opportunities to best serve the people of Nevada.”

Krolicki has long been considered a potential Senate candidate, but insiders believe he may be more likely to run for Heller’s open seat.

If Heller runs, there will be at least two open-seat opportunities in Nevada since the state gains a seat in redistricting. It’s unclear how the lines will be drawn, but the population gains have largely been in Southern Nevada.

In a statement from the DSCC, Cecil called the Senate seat “ripe for a Democratic pickup” and said “it remains high on our target list.”

Roll Call Politics rates this race a Tossup.

Along with recruiting a strong candidate to the race, Democrats are banking on the turnout operation put in place over the past two election cycles by Reid and President Barack Obama, who is expected to campaign heavily in the state once again.

But in the wake of Ensign’s retirement, Republicans believe they have avoided what would likely have been a brutal primary given fallout from the affair that he had with Cynthia Hampton and the resulting Senate Ethics Committee investigation into his handling of the scandal.

Ensign’s fundraising had drastically fallen off since announcing the affair in June 2009, and GOP sources indicated he had not received much support at recent fundraisers held in Washington, D.C.

Ensign admitted as much at his press conference Monday, telling supporters, “There are consequences to sin.”

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