Ensign faces hurdles running for third Senate term


WASHINGTON -- Even amid ethics turbulence, Sen. John Ensign said Wednesday he is running for re-election because he believes he still is an effective representative for Nevada and a productive advocate on Capitol Hill for economic growth and competitiveness.

"I believe I still have a lot to offer the state and our country, and I believe just as passionately about a lot of issues," Ensign said. "I think I can still contribute in a positive light."

Ensign's plans for a 2012 campaign were reported Tuesday, just two weeks after the end of the 2010 election season. But the Republican said he has been making no secret of his desire to run again, in appearances before Nevada audiences dating back through the fall.

Apart from incumbency, Ensign, 52, would be mounting a campaign almost from scratch in terms of money and organization. He has focused for more than a year on repairing his reputation and regaining his footing after his disclosure in June 2009 that he had carried on an extramarital affair with his wife's best friend, Cyndi Hampton, a political aide who was married to a senior member of his staff, Doug Hampton.

Ensign also has been under investigation since late last year by the Senate Ethics Committee and the Department of Justice, which are looking into allegations stemming from the affair, including an accusation he broke a federal lobbying law in setting up Doug Hampton as a lobbyist and giving him access to his office.

In an interview, Ensign wouldn't discuss the status of the investigations or whether he has received signals from the legal front that factored into his decision to run for re-election.

"We've cooperated" in the investigations, he said. "I have never felt like I broke any laws or ethics rules."

Ensign acknowledged a long road ahead to what would be a third Senate term. He is "thinking through" who would run his campaign, as his relationship with his longtime political consultant, Mike Slanker, was damaged in the scandal.

Also unclear is how he would raise necessary funds in short order, especially while he is under investigation. A Nevada political operative Wednesday estimated Ensign might need to raise at least $10 million, while his campaign account was down to $280,000 because of legal bills.

Ensign said he had not discussed his re-election plan with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky or with Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who is in charge of the GOP's Senate campaign machinery as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Ensign is one of 10 Republican senators up for re-election in 2012, while 21 Democrats and the two independent senators who caucus with Democrats also face the voters. At stake is control of the Senate, where Democrats now enjoy a 53-47 advantage.

In recent approaches by reporters, McConnell and Cornyn have been noncommittal about Ensign seeking another term. Cornyn had no immediate reaction Wednesday.

Ensign said he expects party leaders will let him run his race and will not try to push him aside.

"I have not even thought about that," he said "I can't imagine it any other way."

But Ensign said he expects he will have an opponent in the Republican primary. He wouldn't comment on a possible challenge from Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who has been mentioned as a candidate. Also, Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., has said she is considering running for the Senate.

Asked about fellow lawmakers and others who believe he cannot win re-election, Ensign said, "We'll see. People didn't think Senator Reid was viable either. They thought he was a dead man walking."

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., won re-election this month after a hard-fought campaign that cost $23 million.

Mark Peplowski, a political science professor at the College of Southern Nevada, said Ensign will need to run a careful campaign heavily laced with humility.

"He has to go very deftly. He has to tiptoe through a minefield. He has to show he has his head up and take the old 'redemption and forgiveness' track.

Ensign might be able to survive a Senate ethics reprimand, but a federal indictment probably would mean game over, Peplowski said.

Ensign said he has been encouraged by positive reactions from constituents during company tours and group meetings he has been holding this year.

"People have talked to me about offers for fundraising and home socials," he said, adding that his wife, Darlene, supports his decision.

"Darlene and I have talked a lot about it and thought about it, and prayed about it, and this just seems like the right direction," he said.

Ensign said he was not running out of fear he might be labeled a quitter if he didn't. "All I am concerned about is this is where I think I can use the gifts and talents the Lord has given me in the best possible way to help people."

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

 

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