Rep. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) is leading Sen. John Ensign (R) in a survey conducted for Heller's campaign, the clearest sign yet that Heller is moving toward challenging the embattled senator.
"I am taking a serious look at the race for U.S. Senate," Heller said in a statement first reported by the Las Vegas Sun's Jon Ralston. "I will announce my decision in the very near future."
The poll, conducted by The Tarrance Group's Dave Sackett, shows Heller leading by a 53 percent to 38 percent margin. In the wake of a sex scandal, Ensign's support among Republican primary voters has vanished; he trails by huge margins in Washoe County, where Reno is, and in rural Nevada. Even in Clark County, home of Las Vegas, Ensign trails among those voters who know both candidates.
Even in a multi-candidate field, Ensign would not benefit from a split ballot. A survey that included several other prominent Republicans, including 2010 Senate nominee Sharron Angle and 2010 Senate candidates Danny Tarkanian and John Chachas, still showed Heller leading by 16 points.
Heller represents the biggest threat to Ensign, but Ensign's re-election prospects aren't good no matter who he faces. Many wondered whether Heller would get into the race, after skipping a 2010 matchup against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Republicans worked hard to get Heller off the sidelines, showing him polling that had him well ahead of Reid. Ultimately, Heller opted against a 2010 run.
His reluctance seems to have diminished, and the survey becomes the clearest indication yet that Heller will move to challenge Ensign.
After admitting to an affair and in the middle of an ethics investigation, Ensign's popularity is so low that few believe he can win another term. Still, Ensign is making moves toward a bid, holding a political strategy meeting at the National Republican Senatorial Committee earlier this month and setting up fundraisers for his bid.