Although U.S. Sen. John Ensign's legal and ethical troubles may fade, Republicans worried Thursday that the lingering political damage caused by his extramarital affair could cost them his Senate seat in 2012 unless he steps aside for a stronger GOP contender to run instead.
State GOP leaders and national insiders said an uphill battle for re-election faces Ensign, who is unable to raise much money and is weighed down by questions about his character. As a result, the GOP primary could be nasty and contentious, leaving the victor -- whether it's Ensign or a challenger -- limping into a general election where Democrats are expected to put up a strong opponent.
"It would be easier if he didn't run," said Heidi Smith, Republican national committeewoman based in Reno. "He told me he thinks he can win, but I know John Ensign is still in the mud right now, especially in the North. He's still the subject of cocktail parties, barbecues, potlucks.
"I just know that John's got a lot of work to do in Nevada to come back," she added.
Smith, like other GOP leaders in Nevada and in Washington, D.C., stopped short of calling for Ensign to step aside. But they sent strong signals he won't get much support, even if he's cleared of all allegations surrounding his affair with a former staffer .
Instead, GOP insiders are pushing for Rep. Dean Heller to run as the strongest likely contender and the best hope for Republicans to defend the seat as they maneuver to take control of the Senate.
"Dean Heller is positioned well to do it and it's an opportunity he probably won't get again for a while," said Steve Wark, a GOP consultant and former state Republican Party chairman.
For now, Ensign has said he plans to run for a third Senate term. Heller has said he won't decide until summer, although he's already reaching out behind the scenes to test how much support he'll be able to muster for a Senate race that could cost $10 million, according to insiders.
"Heller is not somebody who wants to rock the boat, unless he can get absolutely everybody behind him," said one Republican operative in Washington with ties in Nevada. As for Ensign, GOP leaders in the state "don't want him around" but are reluctant for now to publicly oppose him.
In Washington, Republican leaders also have been giving Ensign the cold shoulder.
"Ensign was presumed dead and the exhuming of his political existence is problematic for some people," said one GOP operative who works with the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
"People were throwing dirt on his grave and now all of a sudden we need to rethink this," added the insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private thinking.
Ensign, 52, at one time was talked about as a potential presidential contender, but he torpedoed his political career when he was forced in June 2009 to confess to an affair with Cindy Hampton, his former campaign treasurer and wife of Doug Hampton, his top administrative assistant. Doug Hampton had threatened to go public, forcing Ensign to acknowledge the behind-the-scenes drama.
Federal and congressional investigators have been trying to determine whether Ensign broke ethics rules or laws in an attempt to cover up the affair by rewarding the Hamptons to keep their mouths shut. The main allegation centered on Ensign's efforts to call Nevada firms and find lobbying work for Doug Hampton as a way to cushion the aide's departure and loss of salary.
On Wednesday, Ensign said the Department of Justice informed him that it has no plans to charge him with crimes related to the affair and he's "no longer a target" in the investigation.
It was the second break for Ensign. The Federal Election Commission said Nov. 18 it was dropping a campaign finance complaint against Ensign related to $96,000 his parents paid the Hamptons.
Ensign, who has said he broke no laws or ethics rules, remains under investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee on allegations similar to those examined by Justice. That investigation could result in dismissal, a reprimand or a recommendation the full Senate consider censure or expulsion.
Former Gov. Robert List, a RNC national committeeman in Las Vegas, said even if Ensign is cleared he remains burdened with the character question. Although his wife stuck by his side, voters may not, especially if given the choice of a challenger such as Heller, a former secretary of state.
"Clearly if you have an unscarred, well-liked, clean candidate in the general election, who's a proven winner in his own right, it's a whole lot easier to win in November than if you have someone who's beaten and blooded in the primary," List said.
This past year, Republicans worked behind the scenes to try to talk Gov. Jim Gibbons out of running for re-election after a troubled term that included a nasty divorce and allegations of an affair. Gibbons lost the GOP primary to Brian Sandoval, who went on to defeat Democrat Rory Reid.
List said it's too soon to have any such conversations with Ensign, who remains fairly popular for his conservative voting record, according to a recent poll that suggests he could defeat Heller in a primary. His chance against a strong Democrat in a general election wasn't surveyed.
"I would certainly be completely honest with Senator Ensign when that time comes," List said. "If I thought he could not win the primary or the general I would tell him so. The first priority is to win."
Republicans are still smarting over their failure to oust U.S. Sen. Harry Reid in 2010. The vulnerable Democratic leader defeated Sharron Angle, a Tea Party-backed conservative who emerged from a highly divisive GOP primary with more than a dozen contenders.
"There's a higher sense of urgency after Senator Reid won re-election. We can't have two Democrats in the Senate," said Robert Uithoven, who ran the campaign of Sue Lowden, the former Nevada Republican Party chairman who lost to Angle in the primary. "I hope the Republicans learned that we have to put up the strongest candidate going into the 2012 election cycle.
"It's not that Senator Ensign can't win. There's a path," he added, saying Reid himself defied the political odds to win a fifth term. "But I don't think it's a risk that many Republicans want to take."
Ensign's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Other talked-about GOP contenders include Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, who like Heller stayed out of the Reid race in 2010, former Rep. Jon Porter and several other 2010 Senate contenders. Angle also could run for the Senate, but is more likely to seek Heller's seat if he goes for Ensign's post.
On the Democratic Party side, popular Rep. Shelley Berkley is the leading potential contender. She has said she'll likely decide sometime in the spring.
If Berkley doesn't run, Democrats might recruit some other state office holders, including Secretary of State Ross Miller, Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and State Treasurer Kate Marshall.
Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault contributed to this report. Contact Laura Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2919.