Ensign hires media adviser, tries to revive fundraising

WASHINGTON -- Testing the waters for re-election even as he is under investigation for ethical misconduct, Sen. John Ensign has hired a media consultant and is trying to revive his fundraising.

The embattled Nevada Republican raised $15,175 from April through June, according to a quarterly report his campaign committee filed this week with the Federal Election Commission.

That sum is paltry compared to the big money he was raising as an up-and-coming senator earlier in the decade, before his acknowledgement last year of an extramarital affair sent his political career spiraling.

But compared to the first three months of this year when his dormant campaign collected only $50, Ensign's more recent activities suggest at the least that he is exploring a possible re-election bid.

For instance, Ensign has contracted with Jack Finn, one of his former communications directors who now is a public relations consultant in Las Vegas.

Finn, whose firm was paid $9,000 in May and June, said he was offering Ensign "advice and guidance on the media landscape" in Las Vegas "in terms of any sort of re-election campaign, and some general public relations advice for him specifically."

Also, a Republican source in Washington said Ensign met a few weeks ago with a group of political action committee supporters to gauge their willingness to back him in 2012.

According to the source, the senator was told it would be good for him to demonstrate he could still raise money within Nevada before major interests would kick in.

"I would say he is testing the waters to see what he can get," the Republican said. "It's like he is doing an exploratory committee all over again. If he can't fund it he can't run."

As of June 30, Ensign counted $961,247 cash on hand toward a possible 2012 campaign. Political consultants say that under normal circumstances senators can raise lots of money and do so quickly.

This might not be normal, however. Ensign's reputation has taken a beating as he is being investigated for possible ethics and criminal violations stemming from what he has described as an improper relationship with the wife of Doug Hampton, who used to be a friend and a top aide in the senator's Washington office.

Ensign has insisted he broke no laws or Senate ethics rules.

At the same time he is raising funds for a possible re-election bid, Ensign is soliciting donations for a legal defense fund.

He also has agreed to pay the legal fees of staffers who are being questioned by investigators from the Senate Ethics Committee.

In June, Ensign's campaign cut checks totalling almost $8,000 to three law firms his office confirmed were representing Ensign aides.

A few weeks after the disclosure of his affair in June 2009, Ensign said he planned to run again. Interviewed in May, he said he would not decide until next year.

"I have had all kinds of people offer to do fundraisers for me and that usually is a pretty good indication of whether people still support you," he said.

Even if all his legal problems go away, Ensign would still be saddled with having had an extramarital affair with a messy aftermath that strained his relationships with family and longtime friends and associates.

Whether he could be re-elected with that baggage "will be up to the people in Nevada," he said.

Ensign, the ranking Republican on the Senate telecommunications subcommittee, has held one fundraiser so far this year, geared to communications firms, aides have confirmed.

More than half of the money he raised this spring stemmed from that event. Ensign collected $4,000 from the PAC for Time Warner Cable, $1,000 from Clear Channel Communications, $2,000 from AT&T, $2,000 from Microsoft and $2,000 from DirectTV.

An Ensign aide said "he plans on having several more (fundraisers) that will draw from multiple industry communities. Senator Ensign's support has not and does not lie solely with one industry community."

Michael Beckel, a campaign finance researcher and spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, said it is "certainly not uncommon in this day and age " for members of Congress to raise money from industries with business before their committees.

"Whether voters find it uncouth is up to them," Beckel said.

Speaking from the PAC perspective, a lobbyist who asked not to be identified said lobbyists have little choice when asked to donate to a lawmaker whose actions in committee can help or hurt.

"I don't know how you say no," the lobbyist said.

The New Republican Majority Fund, a PAC affiliated with former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., also gave Ensign $2,000. Sen. Lindsey Graham's PAC, Fund for America's Future, gave Ensign $500.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.