Poll shows Ensign in deep hole, Heller in better shape for 2012

A poll released today indicates scandal-marked Sen. John Ensign is in a deep hole as he seeks re-election, trailing every Democrat likely to consider challenging him in 2012.

The survey by Public Policy Polling is the first comprehensive look at the Nevada Senate election that is almost two years away but that already has generated significant interest.

The poll shows Ensign’s approval rating at only 35 percent, with 50 percent of voters disapproving of his job performance. Further, 59 percent of respondents want him to step aside while 26 percent want him to run again.

Among Democratic challengers, Ensign loses 45-42 to Rep. Shelley Berkley, 44-42 to Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and 40-39 to Secretary of State Ross Miller. Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who is an independent but would probably run as a Democrat, beats Ensign 45-35.

"Their leads over Ensign would be more likely to increase than anything else if any of them was actually to enter the race and become better known across the state," pollster Tom Jensen said.

Alternately, Republican Rep. Dean Heller would fare better if he were the party’s candidate for Senate in 2012, according to the poll.

Heller "would start out with an initial lead over all of the Democrats, ranging anywhere from 7 to 13 points. It’s 45-38 over Goodman, 46-37 over Masto, 46-34 over Miller, and 51-38 over Berkley," Jensen said.

Ensign had no immediate comment on the poll. Neither did Heller.

Berkley said the survey would have little impact on her decision whether to run. She has said she would decide by mid-February.

"Ensign is going to decide what he is going to do without any input from me," Berkley said. "I’m going to make my decision whether I stay in Congress, which is a position I love, or run for the United States Senate, based on a number of considerations but not who I would be running against or who would be running against me."

The survey by the North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling of 932 Nevada voters was conducted Monday to Wednesday of this week, and carries a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

The poll was released the same day another political pundit, Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, listed Ensign as "very vulnerable" in his opening analysis of the election cycle.

Sabato rates it a toss-up whether Republicans could retain the Nevada Senate seat. Among possible Ensign challengers in a GOP primary, Sabato lists Heller, Lieutenant Gov. Brian Krolicki, former Rep. Jon Porter and 2010 Senate candidates John Chachas and Danny Tarkanian.

Ensign has declared his candidacy for a third Senate, even as he acknowledged in June 2009 he had an extramarital affair with his campaign treasurer who also was a close family friend and the wife of one of his top aides.

Ensign’s handling of the affair and its aftermath triggered investigations by the Senate ethics committee, the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission. Justice and the FEC have dropped their probes, while the Senate investigation remains active.

While Ensign has been seeking to rehabilitate his reputation and his standing with constituents, the early analyses suggest a steep hill lies ahead.

The Public Policy Polling results are here.

The analysis is here.

"Nevada should be competitive Ensign or no Ensign given the increasing blue tinge of the state, but at least from the get go Republicans would be favored to keep the seat with Heller but lose it with Ensign," Jensen said.

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