Rep. Dean Heller renewed accusations Wednesday that Sen. John Ensign is dodging questions surrounding an extramarital affair and could be hurting GOP candidates.
In comments on a Northern Nevada political talk show, Heller, R-Nev., stopped short of calling for the resignation of Ensign, also R-Nev., while reigniting a debate among Republicans over whether the senator's woes will undermine their chances to reclaim power from Democrats in both Nevada and Washington, D.C.
"The fact that we have a wounded junior senator, yeah, I think that is a cause for concern," Heller said on the television show "Nevada Newsmakers." "Will it have impact up and down the ticket for Republicans this fall? I think there is a potential of that happening."
It's not the first time Heller has criticized Ensign for an extramarital affair with the wife of former Senate staffer Doug Hampton and subsequent allegations of using his influence as a senator to help his former aide find work lobbying the government.
But it's Heller's strongest criticism to date and comes as Republicans across the state debate what, if any, role Ensign should play in the future of the party.
"I have been probably more vocal than any other elected official in the state," Heller said on the show.
He said Ensign has compounded his problems by refusing to answer questions publicly on shows such as "Nevada Newsmakers."
"I want him to come on your show, I want him to come on other shows and talk about the issues that he has," he said.
Ensign is under investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee and the U.S. Justice Department over allegations that he helped Hampton violate laws that restrict lobbying activity by former senate staffers after leaving their government jobs.
Heller isn't the only Republican criticizing Ensign. Also on Wednesday, two former Clark County Republican officials wrote a three-page open letter calling on Ensign to quit because, they say, his scandal is hurting Republicans' ability to raise the money they'll need to win in November.
"Let's stop ignoring the problem," former county GOP Chairman Richard Scotti and former party Treasurer Swadeep Nigam wrote. "The only way the Ensign problem for the GOP will go away is if enough of us call for his resignation."
Others in the party disagree.
Ciara Turns, spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Nevada, says Ensign's problems aren't hurting the party's ability to raise money or generate enthusiasm among voters.
"We don't see Sen. Ensign as a reason for Republicans not to be successful," Turns said. "We believe it is reasonable to let the investigation continue and let his guilt or innocence be determined."
Other leading Republicans either shied away from talking about Ensign or stuck to existing positions.
"This investigation should not be carried out in the press, it should continue within the Ethics Committee and the U.S. Department of Justice," said former state GOP chairwoman Sue Lowden, now the leading Republican candidate seeking to challenge Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. "Every Nevadan is entitled to their opinion about this matter, and once we have the results of the investigation I will be happy to comment further."
Republican Senate candidate Danny Tarkanian renewed a response he gave in January after Heller criticized Ensign and sparked the resignation debate.
"After consideration of the news reports and Congressman Heller's recent statements -- which I take very seriously -- I think the issue is that the people of Nevada need to know that Senator Ensign can represent them effectively," Tarkanian said in a written statement. "I must respectfully say that as the potential Republican nominee, I do not expect to be campaigning with Senator Ensign this fall."
Gubernatorial candidate Brian Sandoval wouldn't comment.
And Dan Burns, spokesman for Gov. Jim Gibbons, said the governor believes Ensign should make his own decisions about his political career.
"Senator Ensign will decide what John Ensign will do," Burns said.
When asked whether Gibbons, who as governor would be charged with appointing someone to complete Ensign's term should he resign from the Senate, has considered replacement options, Burns said: "Governor Gibbons has given thought to that. And that is all I'm going to say about that."
Burns said Gibbons wouldn't consider appointing himself to the seat.
"That is not a scenario that will occur," he said.
Ensign was out of the country on official business, and a spokeswoman was unavailable to comment on Heller's remarks.
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@ reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.