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Posted at 12:24 PM ET, 02/ 2/2011

Why John Ensign (probably) can't win

By Aaron Blake

Embattled Nevada Sen. John Ensign continues to move forward with plans to run for reelection in 2012 despite anemic fundraising and a looming Senate ethics investigation.

In an interview with the Post's Paul "PK" Kane and other reporters Tuesday, Ensign said he is preparing for an "exceptionally ugly" campaign, but that it's still a battle worth fighting.

Ensign is right about it being ugly, but whether or not it's a battle he can win remains a matter of considerable debate.

Ensign met with his DC-based fundraising team on Tuesday and is set to hold a fundraiser tonight, beginning a process to push forward with a 2012 reelection campaign -- or at least give it the old college try.

"I know it's going to be unbelievably hard, but at the same time, I believe very strongly in what I'm doing," Ensign said Tuesday. "We need people with the courage to vote the right way for our country and to work in a bipartisan fashion, and my career has shown that."

Previously, the Justice Department ended its investigation into the Ensign matter, but the ethics committee's appointment of a special counsel yesterday only increases the intrigue.

A Senate ethics probe of this nature is exceedingly rare; this is the first time a special counsel has been appointed in two decades. Two of the most recent senators to face such an investigation -- David Durenberger (R-Minn.) and Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) -- each bowed out before their next reelection campaign.

There is little reason -- at least right now -- to believe that Ensign will be any different. And here's why:


Polling has shown Ensign's image has a lot of recovering to do -- a task that only gets harder with the headlines this week and the likely prospect of an ongoing investigation into whether he broke lobbying restrictions by trying to secure business for former staffer Doug Hampton, the husband of Ensign's mistress.

Polling show that Ensign starts as an underdog in both the general election and a primary, where Rep. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) is considering running against the senator and appears to be the consensus choice of the GOP establishment.

To be so clearly trailing in any early polling -- and particularly a primary against a lesser-known candidate -- is generally a political place from which incumbents don't return.


Ensign faces a steep financial hill against Heller in a primary or Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) in a general election. A report filed this week shows Ensign has spent down his campaign account to just $224,000, with much of the spending going to legal bills. Heller had $815,000 cash on hand, and Berkley had $1.1 million in the bank.

As we noted in Morning Fix today, Ensign had $1 million in his campaign account just a year ago. He's in considerably worse financial shape now, especially given that donors will likely be less willing to fork over their money to a guy with so many questions hanging over his head.

Ensign has said his goal is to raise $1 million in the first half of 2011 -- a modest goal for an incumbent senator, and particularly one on the Senate Finance Committee -- but even if he does that, he'll likely have less cash on hand than his prospective opponents.

The establishment

Besides money and name recognition, the one thing an incumbent like Ensign generally has going for him is some establishment support. But finding a Republican who's willing to speak up for the embattled senator is getting increasingly difficult, and that's unlikely to change as long as Heller is still considering a run.

Republican leaders in Washington have taken what is best described as a noncommittal stance toward's Ensign's reelection bid -- not publicly urging him to step down but not sending any signals of support either.

"We make the NRSC facilities available to all senators," National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn told the Las Vegas Sun in a notably lukewarm statement. "I have not talked to anybody about that race."

Combine all that with the fact that the NRSC is increasingly gun-shy about getting involved in primaries after its experience in 2010, and Ensign can't count on too much help from the committee that he ran during the 2008 cycle.

The nature of the affair

As we've discussed before, Ensign's sins may well be more politically damaging than those of Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who won reelection last fall.

Repairing Ensign's image will take more work and the set of circumstances are considerably more difficult.

None of this is to say that Ensign can't win reelection. After all, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) just won another term with similar approval numbers (albeit for FAR different reasons).

It's not impossible to see a scenario under which Ensign's name is cleared and he successfully repairs his relationship with voters in Nevada.

But, overcoming the hurdles in front of him will be very difficult, and when it comes down to it, Ensign may ultimately decide retirement is a better alternative to an ignominious loss in the primary or general election.

If he can somehow pull it off, though, it would be one of the great political comebacks in recent history.

By Aaron Blake  | February 2, 2011; 12:24 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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