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December 21, 2014

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Stevens scandal makes Ensign’s job even tougher

Alaskan’s indictment puts his seat, other GOP senators’ in jeopardy

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associated press file

Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican senator, has been indicted by the Justice Department on charges of concealing home renovations and other gifts from a contractor. The news bodes ill for Nevada Sen. John Ensign, who is in charge of filling Senate seats with Republicans.

Sen. John Ensign’s difficult task of trying to keep Republican electoral losses in the Senate to a minimum this fall could become even more daunting after the party’s longest-serving senator was indicted Tuesday by the Justice Department.

Ensign has had a rough time in the two years since he took the job. Polls steadily show voters prefer Democrats in Congress. Fewer than half of the 23 Republican Senate seats up for reelection are considered safe, and most of the 12 Democratic seats are expected to remain so.

Ensign’s earlier goal of putting the narrowly divided Senate, split 51-49, back in Republican hands has long been abandoned. The chance of knocking his fellow Nevadan, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, off his perch seems all but impossible.

Ensign now talks about holding the line so there will be at least 40 Republicans in the Senate, enough to form a fire wall against the usual 60-vote rule.

Sometimes, though, he doesn’t even say that, conceding only that seats will be lost.

Jennifer Duffy, the Senate analyst at the Cook Political Report, said Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens’ indictment by the Justice Department furthers a trying environment for Ensign and his fellow Republican senators.

“It’s one more thing they don’t need — like being kicked when you’re down,” Duffy said.

“I don’t think any member of the United States Senate would trade places with Ensign right now.”

As chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Ensign must now work to save the Alaska seat, which was in play because the Democratic challenger, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, is gaining in popularity.

Republicans were hammered by Democrats two years ago on ethics issues, and polls show voter unease over alleged ethical lapses contributing to Republicans’ losing control of Congress in 2006.

The Republican Party brand, as strategists call it, was tarnished in part by the fall of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and the congressional page scandal that forced Florida Rep. Mark Foley from office, even as at least one Democratic House member was under scrutiny. Senate Republicans have had their own transgressions since, but alleged ethical lapses had mostly receded from the daily headlines.

Duffy said “voters get disgusted” by this kind of news but that negative opinions wane as time goes on. There are still three months before the election.

Stevens was indicted on a charge of concealing home renovations and gifts from a contractor who had sought government aid, according to the Associated Press. Stevens issued a statement asserting his innocence.

Ensign was not commenting Tuesday, nor were other party leaders.

The Republican leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, made only the briefest appearance for his regular Tuesday news conference, avoiding the topic.

Ensign’s spokeswoman at the National Republican Senatorial Committee declined to address the issue.

Shortly after McConnell faced reporters, Reid stepped up for his weekly briefing.

“It’s a sad day for him, us,” Reid said. “I believe in the American system of justice, he’s presumed innocent.”

But when pressed on whether this situation wasn’t similar to the “culture of corruption” Reid had railed against for so much of 2006, Reid avoided elaboration. “The Republicans are faced with what they’re faced with,” he said.

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