Associated Press File
Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010 | 2 a.m.
Sen. John Ensign may have taken some severe hits to his campaign operation, his war chest and his reputation, but with the Justice Department’s inquiry behind him, one thing’s for sure: His race to 2012 is under way.
Ensign declared his intention to seek a third term last month, with his legal troubles still hanging over him. But if things continue on their current trajectory, there’s little question that he can become a viable candidate.
That means the clock is ticking for his challengers, on both sides of the aisle, to throw their hats in the ring before Ensign potentially makes a complete return to normalcy.
It’s not just the presumed candidates who are under pressure to decide where they stand. How influential Republicans and Democrats line up behind the scenes is going to be just as important an indicator of who’s got the goods to win the election.
On the Democrats’ side, it all comes down to Harry Reid: He has built an influential ground operation, has more connections than anybody in the state and knows how to raise money — the price tag for his 2010 re-election was almost $25 million.
Although the framework is there, it’s Reid’s to set in motion. The Senate leader has had a nonaggression pact with Ensign — he barely issued a peep about his junior colleague during the entire scandal — but it’s not clear if that will continue.
The chief hopeful recipient of Reid’s political treasure chest is Rep. Shelley Berkley, who told the Sun in an interview last week that she expects to declare whether or not she’ll run early in 2011 — certainly by Valentine’s Day.
If she joins the fray that soon, it will pressure Republican hopefuls to lay their primary cards on the table before the race is defined as between Berkley and Ensign only.
There are a lot more moving parts to consider on the Republican side.
After Ensign’s affair and a Tea Party push that helped Sharron Angle upset the GOP’s preferred Senate candidate this year, Nevada’s Republican organization is anything but organized. That should make it easier for Republican activists to make an independent pick.
With no direction from Washington — National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn says he hasn’t given the race enough thought to pick a preferred candidate, which given the party’s propensity to back incumbents is saying something — the field appears even more open to the potential of a nontraditional pick such as Rep. Dean Heller.
Although influential Republicans will whisper their preferences privately, few have named candidates publicly — some likely fearing they’ll be left out in the cold if their pick doesn’t run.
That said, several insiders noted how small Ensign’s circle of dependable political friends has become. Few rushed to his defense during the scandal, and his reputation wasn’t the only one to take a hit.
Ensign’s name being cleared does not necessarily mean his staff and former allies return. The GOP’s resident campaign genius, Mike Slanker, got burned in the Ensign affair, and has a history of running successful Heller campaigns.
Having an experienced state campaign operative such as Slanker on board could be crucial. Securing the Tea Party’s exclusive favor will also be an important step for securing the GOP nomination.
State GOP insiders say those are the considerations for Heller as he decides if and when to declare his candidacy.
His name was tossed about as a potential Senate contender in 2010; since the Ensign affair, he’s been the party’s undeclared favorite.
But with a more level playing field, he’s still got a lot to lose: Heller moves into the House majority next year, where he has close ties with Speaker-elect John Boehner.
But insiders aren’t everything. Just ask Angle. Come to think of it, she knows a thing or two about the Tea Party ... and doesn’t have much to lose.