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September 16, 2014

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THE SENATOR’S SCANDAL:

Heller acknowledges the John Ensign effect

Affair influenced decision not to challenge Reid, he says

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COURTESY OF KLAS-TV

Rep. Dean Heller’s comments Wednesday to Jon Ralston, left, on “Face to Face” fuel speculation he is eyeing a Senate run in 2012.

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Sen. John Ensign admits affair

Sen. John Ensign holds a press conference announcing his affair with a staff member at the Lloyd George Federal Building in Las Vegas on Tuesday. Launch slideshow »

Rep. Dean Heller has become the first high-ranking Nevada Republican to call on Sen. John Ensign to break his silence and answer remaining questions about his affair with a member of his staff.

“I don’t want to speculate, but until John talks, we haven’t seen the end of it,” Heller told Sun columnist Jon Ralston during an interview on “Face to Face With Jon Ralston,” which aired Wednesday and will again at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. today.

Ensign faces investigations by the Federal Election Commission because of an undisclosed payment to Cynthia Hampton, with whom he had the affair, as well as a likely investigation by the Senate Select Committee on Ethics for possibly breaking Senate rules.

When Heller told Ralston the story would likely continue until Ensign speaks, Ralston asked, “And he should talk, shouldn’t he?”

Heller responded: “I think he should.”

Ensign in June admitted to the affair with Hampton, who had been his campaign treasurer and is married to Doug Hampton, who had been Ensign’s co-chief of staff.

The Hampton and Ensign families had been lifelong friends.

Last month Ensign acknowledged that his parents, who have made millions in the casino business, gave the Hampton family $96,000 as recompense for their trouble — a gift in keeping with a “pattern of generosity” toward the Hamptons, as John Ensign’s lawyer put it.

E-mails obtained by Ralston showed that a close aide to Ensign was made aware of the affair after being enlisted by Ensign to set up Doug Hampton with a lobbying job after he left the senator’s employ.

In the interview with Ralston, Heller made explicit what Republican sources have been saying for weeks — that the Ensign scandal weighed heavily on Heller’s decision not to run against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, both delaying the decision and influencing him not to run.

“It just gave pause,” Heller said. “I had anticipated in a good campaign like this Sen. Ensign being there with me.

“Sen. Ensign had to be there when I announced,” Heller continued. “Sen. Ensign had to deflect some of the attacks that would have occurred in a very rough and tumble campaign like that. All of a sudden that variable was out.”

Heller said his daughter entering ninth grade was the primary reason he decided not to run.

Still, he said the Ensign matter “was an important part of that decision-making process.”

Heller, who beats Reid handily in private polling, said that turning down the Senate race would have been much tougher without the Ensign scandal.

Heller’s strong comments further isolate an already besieged Ensign, and fuel speculation that Heller is looking ahead to 2012, when Ensign will face reelection if he decides to run.

National Republicans have declined to offer full support to Ensign, which is being taken as a preference that he step aside for someone else in 2012, rather than risk giving Democrats the seat.

A Republican operative, granted anonymity to speak freely, speculated that Reid assured Heller that he would not stand in the way of a 2012 run and would even tacitly help him by directing his fundraising network toward Heller.

After Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons decided not to run against Reid in 2004, some Democratic partisans found Reid conspicuously silent as Gibbons ran for governor in 2006.

Reid was also an early supporter of Gibbons’ statewide education initiative, Education First — support that arrived after Gibbons announced his intention not to run against Reid.

Brandon Hall, Reid’s campaign manager, reacted to speculation that the senator offered inducements to Heller not to run: “It’s a ridiculous claim. Dean Heller made the decision on his own. You’d have to ask him what led to that decision.”

Earlier in the week, when news broke that Heller would not run, Reid put out a warm statement: “Dean Heller has served Nevada well in his years of public service as secretary of state and in Congress. As a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, he is and will continue to be in an important position for Nevada.”

The statement continued: “Our families have been friends for many years, and regardless of his decision, that wouldn’t have changed.”

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