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April 16, 2014

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LETTER FROM WASHINGTON:

Silence, not calls for Ensign to quit

Nevada Republicans have lots of reasons to prefer the senator stay in office

Doug Hampton interview, part 2 - July 2009

Exclusive Interview pt. 2, seg. 2

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Doug Hampton interview - July 2009

Exclusive Interview, seg. 2

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  • Exclusive Interview, seg. 2
  • Exclusive Interview, seg. 3
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Perhaps the political future of Republican Sen. John Ensign will become clearer Monday evening at the Chianti Cafe in Las Vegas.

There, the state’s Republican Party leaders will gather to discuss other matters, but amid the mozzarella fritta and calamari appetizers, Ensign’s affair is certain to come up.

These are the loyalists, the volunteers and officials who are trying to keep a crumbling state party together in the face of the Democratic machine engineered by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

The state’s Republican apparatus has mixed feelings about Ensign, the hoped-for rising star who disappointed — not just because of his affair with his campaign treasurer and his parents’ $96,000 payout to her family, but for all the opportunities that could have been with Nevada’s top Republican.

Perhaps more than Gov. Jim Gibbons, whose approval rating is lower than the state’s 11 percent unemployment rate, or Republican Rep. Dean Heller, these party activists will set the tone for Ensign’s future.

Will they throw him a lifeline or cut him loose?

Two of Nevada’s loudest conservative voices have called for Ensign to resign — talk show host Bill Manders in Reno (the Rush Limbaugh of Northern Nevada) and activist Chuck Muth in Las Vegas (who, technically, is no longer a Republican).

But the bar for scandal in Nevada is uncommonly high. (The governor was elected weeks after a cocktail waitress accused him of aggressive advances.)

One Republican strategist familiar with Nevada politics was stumped to come up with a single Republican leader who would conceivably call for Ensign to step down.

“There’s no one, really, in the state at this point,” the strategist said. “It’s going to be the national party.”

In Washington, Republican Senate leaders seem disinclined to overtly push out one their own, a phenomenon that is part cultural quirk, part strategic silence.

Republicans face a difficult 2010 election cycle in the Senate. (If Ensign’s seat became open, state law says the governor could appoint a successor, followed by a race in the next general election in 2010). That would require sifting through a shallow candidate pool as they are struggling to find a viable challenger to Reid — once their top target.

Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who is heading up the party’s reelection efforts for the Senate, “needs another race like he needs a hole in the head.”

She also notes that Ensign’s father, who made millions in the casino business, has been a political donor and the party may not want to drop his son.

Republicans immediately felt the discomfort of Ensign’s disclosure that his parents paid the affair partner’s family $96,000 about the time she and her husband stopped working for the senator. With Mark Sanford’s affair and Sarah Palin’s resignation, Ensign helped create a trifecta they could have lived without as the party has been trying to gain ground in opposition to the Obama administration’s agenda.

But in Washington, Republicans have yet to call for him to resign.

The other person who matters here is Ensign.

Does he want to stick around while the story of this affair plays out? Investigations are being sought, and if the affair partner or her husband files a lawsuit, would he want to be a sitting senator in a civil trial?

Would his family prefer that he pack it up for a quieter place?

Ensign told the Sun last week he plans to stay in office and continue working.

Monday’s meeting of Republicans in Las Vegas, a party strategist in Nevada said, is likely to provide “a sense of the depth of this.”

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