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Posted at 8:18 AM ET, 01/12/2011

Why John Ensign has it harder than David Vitter did

By Aaron Blake and Chris Cillizza

Sen. John Ensign just saw a Republican colleague overcome a prostitution scandal to win reelection. And he's got to be asking himself about now, 'If David Vitter can do it; why not me?'

Unfortunately for Ensign, who is still dealing with the fallout of his affair with a former staffer, his situation is shaping up much differently than Vitter's did. And 17 months before the 2012 primary, the Nevada Republican has got much bigger electoral problems than Vitter ever did.

Vitter, after acknowledging a "very serious sin" in 2007, went on the win reelection easily in November even as he was targeted by the national Democratic Party and a capable Democratic opponent, Rep. Charlie Melancon.

Even as a number of Republicans were considering running against Vitter in the primary -- notably now-Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne -- Vitter's numbers looked solid. Even if people didn't like what the senator did, they were prepared to support him again.

And they did.

Ensign cannot say the same. A primary poll released Tuesday by Democratic automated pollster Public Policy Polling showed Rep. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) leading Ensign 52 percent to 34 percent in a prospective primary matchup. That's real bad territory for an incumbent.

Heller isn't in the race yet, but the poll should serve notice to Ensign that, unlike Vitter, he's still got a long way to go before he returns to the public's good graces.

Here's why the two situations are different:

* The state: Nevada may have a reputation that's all about the excess and loose morals of Las Vegas, but its residents are actually pretty culturally conservative. Louisiana, meanwhile, has a reputation for being conservative but has often put up with plenty of tomfoolery from its elected officials.

* The deed: One thing that gets lost in coverage of Ensign's affair is who it was with -- namely, his best friend's wife. While the media in Washington generally refer to her as a former staffer, the media in Nevada are much more apt to mention the close relationship between Ensign, his wife, and two of their best friends. By that measure, a prostitution scandal is preferable. "He's doing worse with men than with women," said one Nevada Republican. "There's sort of a code among men that you don't sleep wit your best friend's wife."

* The investigation: Ensign's ethics problem is still a current event, as the Senate ethics committee continues looking into the matter. The senator caught a break when the Justice Department ended it's investigation, but he's not out of the woods yet. Vitter never had to deal having the "under investigation" descriptor.

* The competition: Ensign faces more formidable potential primary and general election opponents, in the form of Heller (who is very popular) and Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.). Dardenne and Melancon are capable politicians, but they didn't have near the chance to upend Vitter as Heller and Berkley would against Ensign.

* The party infrastructure: It stood by Vitter, for the most part. With Ensign, it's slowly but surely distancing itself from him. Plenty of Nevada Republicans acknowledge privately that they would like to see Heller as their nominee, and some are doing so publicly.

Ensign has a lot to think about in the coming months. With numbers like the ones in the PPP poll, Nevada Republicans say it will be hard for Heller to turn the race down. And that would really force Ensign's hand.

Mitch Daniels: No new taxes: Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) touted his fiscal austerity and rolled out a series of educational and governmental reforms for his final two years in office in his 2011 "State of the State" address.

"No tax increases," Daniels said in the address. "Can I get an 'amen' to that?"

Daniels, who is considering a run for president in 2012 and is expected to decide once the legislative session ends this spring, repeatedly touted his ability in his first six years in office to "live within our means...put the private sector ahead of government [and] the taxpayer ahead of everyone" -- a bit of messaging that would fit nicely in the context of Republican presidential primary fight.

Daniels also touted himself as a reformer, rolling out a series of proposals to reform state government and dedicated the entire second half of the address to the state's education system.

Haley Barbour: Mississippi isn't Washington: Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, meanwhile, used his annual "State of the State" address to draw contrasts between how he had handled business in the state to how President Obama's performance at the national level.

"Positive change has been the norm, and Mississippi, despite the global recession, is a better place in so many ways than it was seven years ago," said Barbour, drawing a direct contrast to "federal policies that stifle economic growth" and to financial regulatory reform that "stymies investment."

Barbour, who like Daniels is weighing a bid for president in 2012, also sought to do a bit of clean-up work from comments he made regarding the civil rights movement in a profile that was published late last year.

Barbour said that 2011 was the year to build a delayed civil rights museum, noting that it is the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides and the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil  War.

"The Civil Rights struggle is an important part of our history, and millions of people are interested in learning more about it," said Barbour.

Fixbits

Vicki Kennedy says in pretty stark terms that she will not run for Senate against Scott Brown (R-Mass.).

Sarah Palin issued a statement fighting back against criticism of her after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). "Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own," Palin said. "They begin and end with the criminals who commit them..."

Mark Bergman, a former spokesman for the Paul Hodes for Senate campaign, is joining Ed Peavy's mail firm Mission Control as a senior writer and account executive.

Former Republican National Committee chairman candidate Ken Blackwell has endorsed former RNC official Maria Cino for that post.

Ohio Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor (R) and newly minted Ohio state Treasurer Josh Mandel (R), who is 33 years old, are being talked up as potential challengers to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) in 2012.

Former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), who is weighing a bid to seek a return to the Senate in 2012, is accompanying Mitt Romney on his Middle East swing.

Former Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox (R) says he will not run against Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) in 2012.

Must-reads

"Pawlenty takes path frequently followed" -- Kevin Diaz, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"Republicans Boost Ayotte as New Face of Party" -- Roll Call

By Aaron Blake and Chris Cillizza  | January 12, 2011; 8:18 AM ET
Categories:  Morning Fix  
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Next: It's Go Time for Pawlenty

 
 
 
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