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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 12/ 2/2010

John Ensign: Political Survivor?

By Chris Cillizza

1. The news that the Justice Department has no plans to bring charges against Sen. John Ensign for his role in securing work for the husband of his mistress makes it increasingly likely that the Nevada Republican will seek a third term in 2012.

"[Wednesday] was a good day for John Ensign," said Nevada-based Republican consultant Ryan Erwin. "He still has work to do to earn back the trust of Nevada voters but this will help."

Ensign has long insisted he broke no laws in his relationships with Doug Hampton, his former chief of staff, for whom the senator worked to secure clients after his top staffer left his office.

The matter has been significantly complicated by the fact that Ensign has acknowledged having an affair with Hampton's wife, Cynthia, and Ensign's parents gave $96,000 to the Hamptons in the wake of the affair.

That affair -- and the payment by his parents -- still puts Ensign in significant political peril, according to Sig Rogich, a powerful Republican operative in the Silver State.

The Justice ruling provides Ensign "some relief" Rogich said, adding: "The overriding issue still remains and he could expect it to be exploited in a campaign."

It's not yet clear whether Ensign emerging legally unscathed from his affair will impact the calculus of Rep. Dean Heller (R) who has been critical of the incumbent and is seen by many national Republican operatives as the party's best chance to keep the seat in GOP hands in November 2012.

Heller has said little about the possibility of a primary campaign but one senior Republican strategist said the Justice Department news will do little to keep Ensign from facing intraparty peril. "All of this translates into a very difficult primary against a credible alternative," the source said.

Recent polling would suggest that Ensign still retains considerable support among Republicans. Two-thirds of GOPers tested in a Public Policy Polling -- a Democratic-aligned polling firm that uses automated interviews -- approved of the job Ensign was doing.

And, one high-level Republican operative with experience in Nevada politics noted that the 2010 Senate election proved that anything was possible in the state. "If Harry Reid can get re-elected so can John Ensign," the source said.

Democrats, however, see Ensign as badly wounded and almost certainly would have a better chance of winning the seat if he rather than Heller were the Republican nominee. Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) is looking at the race among others.

2. The powerhouse Democratic media consulting firm Murphy Putnam is breaking up.

The two principals -- Steve Murphy and Mark Putnam -- formed the firm in 1997 but have been working together for more than two decades. (They were both affiliated with the media firm run by Peter Fenn and Tom King in the early 1990s.)

"Steve Murphy and I had a great firm for many years, but it was time for me to act on the challenge of building a new firm that will offer a broader array of services in traditional and new media," said Putnam who announced the formation of Putnam Partners along with former Murphy Putnam employees Phillip de Vellis and Jim Duffy.

Murphy Putnam handled the television ads for House special election victories earlier this cycle in New York's 20th and 23rd districts as well as Pennsylvania's 12th. The firm also did the ads for incoming Govs. Andrew Cuomo (N.Y.) and John Hickenlooper (Colo.).

Murphy and Putnam were also part of the media team that produced ads for then Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's 2008 general election presidential campaign.

3. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, the incoming chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, on Wednesday downplayed the notion that Republicans are at a significant advantage in redistricting given their gains this year, noting that "the tremendous seismic shift did not happen there."

Speaking at a DGA event featuring a half-dozen newly-elected governors, O'Malley estimated that only about 30 seats in the redistricting battle would be affected by Republicans' gains in gubernatorial races this year.

The Election Day returns, though, suggest a different conclusion. According to results in state legislature battles as well as gubernatorial races, Republicans stand to control the redistricting process in four times as many House districts as Democrats do, meaning that the GOP will be able to draw nearly half of all new House districts.

Democrats did dodge their nightmare scenario in gubernatorial races this year, however; O'Malley noted that in a tough year for Democrats all around -- and despite being outspent two-to-one by their Republican counterparts -- Democrats succeeded in flipping five GOP-held governorships.

The DGA meeting included Oregon's John Kitzhaber, Hawaii's Neil Abercrombie, Connecticut's Dan Malloy, Vermont's Peter Shumlin and West Virginia's Earl Ray Tomblin who become governor following former governor Joe Manchin's (D) election to the Senate.

Meanwhile, congressional Republican leaders also met with more than a dozen newly-elected GOP governors at the Capitol on Wednesday.

At a press conference after the meeting, Republican governors-elect including South Carolina's Nikki Haley, Oklahoma's Mary Fallin and Ohio's John Kasich joined Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) in addressing reporters.

Kasich, a former nine-term congressman, joked with reporters after the press conference about today's planned White House meeting. "I'm looking forward to seeing the president," Kasich said. "I got the MVP of the congressional basketball game one year, you know? I mean, he needs to know that."

4. Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill has a new big-name opponent, and looks to be in for a very tough campaign, according to a new poll from Democratic-leaning automated pollster Public Policy Polling.

Former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman (R) entered the race Wednesday morning, and, just hours later, a new survey showed her and McCaskill in a virtual tie.

McCaskill is at 45 percent in the poll compared to 44 percent for Steelman.

But Steelman, despite her one term in statewide office and an unsuccessful run for the Republican gubernatorial nod in 2008, is still largely unknown to voters, with 59 percent unable to rate her favorably or unfavorably. Among voters who do know her, 22 percent have a favorable opinion and 19 percent have an unfavorable one.

McCaskill's job approval numbers aren't great, as 43 percent of poll respondents approve of her and 44 percent disapprove.

Former Republican Sen. Jim Talent is also considering running for the seat. The poll shows he would start three points higher than Steelman in a head-to-head against McCaskill. Talent's favorability is 36 percent while 32 percent view him unfavorably.

McCaskill is a major target for Republicans given the state's recent turn back toward the GOP.

5. Final 2010 financial reports are due for all candidates and committees today, with the Republican National Committee's report looming large over the pending chairman's race.

The new reports, which must be filed with the Federal Election Commission by midnight, will cover the period from two weeks before the Nov. 2 general election until Nov. 22. The key number on the reports will be how much cash each candidate and committee has and how much debt they carry into the next cycle.

The RNC, which The Fix reported Wednesday has admitted to a cashflow problem, will be under a microscope. The memo is the second internal document since the election that has raised red flags about the committee's finances, and on Thursday, we will find out just how much debt the committee is in.

Meanwhile, Chairman Michael Steele and a number of would-be challengers are plotting their strategy for the chairmanship race, which will be decided next month.

Other reports to watch for include the major House and Senate campaign committees, most or all of which likely went into debt down the stretch in the hard-fought election.

Potential presidential candidates will also have to file new reports for their political action committees - the first real tangible fundraising reports of the 2012 race to face President Obama. Look for reports from the PACs run by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin raised $500,000 over the last month through her leadership PAC.

Other reports to watch for include those of House members who are considering running for Senate. Keep an eye on Reps. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), Connie Mack (R-Fla.), Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).

With Felicia Sonmez and Aaron Blake

By Chris Cillizza  | December 2, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Morning Fix  
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