Sen. John Ensign's sex scandal has created a potential opportunity for Rep. Shelley Berkley, as Berkley has not been shy about acknowledging.
Berkley, the sassy six-term Democrat who represents the urban Las Vegas 1st Congressional District, threw her name in the ring as a potential candidate to replace Ensign, days after news of his affair with a former staffer broke last month, telling Politico that she had never previously considered a U.S. Senate run.
"It created a calculation that wasn't in the equation before," Berkley said.
Berkley could be seen as opportunistic for jumping on the news of a fellow lawmaker's misfortune, but she also has effectively staked a claim on the potential race. A source close to the congresswoman said since she raised the possibility she has been "flooded" with support and encouragement from inside and outside Nevada.
Berkley's thinking at this point is said to hinge on whether Ensign stays put or decides to resign. If it's the latter and there's a special election in 2010 to replace him, Berkley would seriously consider getting in. But if Ensign stays put, his seat isn't up until 2012.
An unrepentant liberal on most issues, Berkley, a former casino lawyer and member of the university system Board of Regents, has a conservative streak when it comes to national security, particularly Israel. She serves on the Ways and Means and the Foreign Affairs committee in the House of Representatives.
In the Politico interview last month, Berkley, 58, predicted there would be "more and more pressure on him (Ensign) to do the right thing. He's going to decide for himself what the right thing is -- decide what the right thing is for his family and for the state of Nevada and the people he represents."
Ensign's admission of a nine-month extramarital affair with Cindy Hampton, whose husband worked in Ensign's Senate office, had "compromised dramatically" the Republican's ability to represent Nevada, Berkley opined.
And that was before it came out that Ensign's parents paid the Hampton family $96,000, listed as a series of $12,000 gifts.
Both Democrats and Republicans in Clark County are slated to choose new leaders later this month.
Bernie Zadrowski, chairman of the Clark County Republican Party, and John Hunt, chairman of the Clark County Democratic Party, both are stepping down as their terms come to an end.
In both cases, there are contested races to replace them.
On the Democratic side, the officers' election is scheduled for July 25.
In the running are consultant Roberta Lange, union man Jack Mallory and William Hawkrigg.
Most of the other county party offices also are being sought by multiple candidates.
Hunt pointed to huge gains in participation and energy for the party during his tenure; he will leave behind a new headquarters and money in the bank. Between the presidential caucuses and 2008's electoral successes, Democrats' challenge now is to sustain momentum, he said.
Hunt came under fire last year for his handling of the 2008 county convention.
With heightened attention on the event because of the protracted delegate battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, thousands showed up to vote, then got turned away because party officials hadn't reserved a room big enough for the turnout they themselves had anticipated.
The convention was shut down and resumed weeks later.
Hunt, a lawyer and former Democratic nominee for state attorney general, also took heat for siding with the teachers union in its lawsuit against the state Democratic Party during the Jan. 19, 2008, presidential caucuses.
On the Republican side, the candidates are the county party's political director, Dave McGowan; former Assembly candidate Jim Jonas; former Henderson City Councilman Jack Clark, and Steve Esh.
All the other party offices also will be up for election at the July 21 meeting of the party's Central Committee.
Like Hunt, Zadrowski has not been afraid to take a stand, even if it means ruffling party establishment feathers. Last month, he backed a set of resolutions that praised Gov. Jim Gibbons and the Republican legislators who voted against tax increases during the legislative session -- and singled out for condemnation those who didn't.
The resolutions, which Zadrowski said were necessary to bring the party back to its conservative roots, passed overwhelmingly.
A Clark County prosecutor who has run unsuccessfully for judicial offices, Zadrowski said he believes he's leaving the party better than he found it. In particular, he pointed to improved relations between the county party and the state GOP, which often had been "at odds."
Meanwhile, the state Republican Party has lacked a national committeeman since attorney Joe Brown left the post in order to serve on the state Gaming Commission. That vacancy is scheduled to be filled at a meeting tonight.
Former Gov. Bob List appears to be a lock to get the nod.
KIECKHEFER MAKING RUN
Ben Kieckhefer, Gov. Jim Gibbons' former communications director, is running as a Republican for state Senate in Washoe County, he announced last week.
The seat, District 4, is being vacated by Republican Randolph Townsend, who cannot run again due to term limits. Townsend, the quirky moderate who was seen as Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio's right-hand man, has endorsed Kieckhefer.
Also supporting Kieckhefer are Raggio, Sen. Mark Amodei, R-Carson City, Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, R-Reno, and the mayors of Reno, Sparks and Carson City.
Assemblyman Ty Cobb, R-Reno, also is expected to run for the seat, setting up a GOP primary with Cobb as the likely voice of hard-line fiscal conservatives.
Since abruptly leaving Gibbons' office last year, Kieckhefer has worked for the state Department of Health and Human Services. Before his work for Gibbons, where he generally was seen as an effective advocate for the unpopular governor, Kieckhefer (pronounced KEE-keffer) had worked as a reporter and in public relations.
"With the exodus of leaders from the Senate due to term limits, particularly from Northern Nevada, it's critical that the people we elect to replace them are consensus builders who will stand up for conservative principles while building partnerships that will move our state forward," Kieckhefer said in the news release announcing his candidacy.
If elected, Kieckhefer says he would quit his state job "to maintain the tenet of separation of powers and avoid any real or perceived conflicts of interest."
He's holding a kickoff fundraiser July 22 at Reno's Tamarack Junction.
Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.