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For someone who seemed, at the end, to have no friends in the party, on the books Sen. John Ensign is a master of close-call politics of the sort that the GOP could stand to mimic in the coming cycle.
Ensign is a Republican from the southern part of the state. He’s represented left-leaning Las Vegas as a congressman and bucked the state’s swing even in presidential years when Democrats rolled through.
He came to Congress in 1994 on the wave that brought in Republicans, beating James Bilbray, a Democrat, by a mere 1,400 votes. He won again in 1996, this time by a far more comfortable seven percentage points in the same year the district went for Bill Clinton in the presidential race.
Ensign has also come closest of anyone in the Republican party to upsetting Sen. Harry Reid. His first bid for the Senate, in 1998, he fell only 428 votes shy of trumping the future majority leader. It would take another two years for him to get his turn, filling retiring Richard Bryan’s seat after a 55-40 percent win over Democratic opponent Ed Bernstein.
Ensign also managed to bridge the partisan divide, at least as far as Nevada was concerned, for many years.
Ensign and Reid maintained a positive working relationship and even representative partnership for years. It only started to unravel in the wake of the scandal and has been in political tatters since the 2010 midterm election, during which Ensign aided Reid’s competitor, Tea Party-backed Sharron Angle.
Ensign’s political prowess let him rise fairly quickly in the ranks of the GOP’s senators.
He took over the helm of the party’s campaign apparatus, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, from 2006 to 2008 — not the most stellar election cycle for the GOP, but a rite of passage nonetheless for a senator on the make — and was rumored to be a potential presidential contender until his scandal broke.
It wasn’t the first time a Republican senator was caught with his pants down. It wasn’t even the first time it happened with a member of the C Street crew — the band of political brothers who lived and prayed together in a house just off the Capitol campus.
The gang had its fair share of fallen alum angels, including South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, who managed to coast to a comfortable reelection just two years after he confessed to extramarital affairs involving prostitutes in the notorious D.C. madam ring.
But it turns out Las Vegas has a moral barometer that is more sensitive than that of New Orleans.
There was something uncomfortably salacious about the particulars of Ensign’s affair — it being with a member of his staff, Cynthia Hampton, who also happened to be the wife of his chief of staff and best friend, Doug Hampton.
It didn’t get any more digestible when it was revealed that Ensign’s parents paid off the Hamptons and their children $96,000 and when Ensign admitted that he had made inquiries on Hampton’s behalf to recommend him for other jobs.
Now, Ensign’s departure frees up the GOP to try to build its brand in Nevada around someone new. It’s not yet clear who they’re going to get.
All signs point to the heir apparent being Rep. Dean Heller. If Heller does take over the position, the change — in terms of policy positions at least — won’t be that jarring.
The Senate’s biggest votes in the coming months are on issues Heller and Ensign have been, more or less, in lockstep on. Both stick to a principled but comparatively uncompromising position when it comes to spending cuts, going so far as to buck their own party’s leadership by voting against bipartisan bills, such as the measure to fund the government through the rest of 2011 that Congress adopted on the eve of shutdown earlier this month.
Once considered more moderate, Heller positions of recent cycles plant him firmly in the right wing of his party when it comes to fiscal matters like budgets and taxes and on social issues like gay marriage, abortion and immigration. He’s got a pretty solid record, as well, of voting against Obama administration policies, from the stimulus to the health care bill.
But until Gov. Brian Sandoval makes the appointment, it’s not something people can plan around.
While it seems clear Sandoval supports Heller’s bid in the general election, he could appoint any number of others — even himself — should he decide that it’s not yet Heller’s time.