Nine times out of 10, a Senate retirement isn’t welcome news to the incumbent party. Open seats are simply problematic, regardless of how red or blue a state may be. Today’s announcement by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., that he will retire rather than seek a third term in 2012 is that one case in 10 that is good news for his party.
Ensign has been under a dark ethical cloud since it was revealed last year that he had an affair with a former campaign staffer whose husband was a friend of Ensign’s and who had worked for him in his Washington Senate office. While the Justice Department did not find grounds to file criminal charges, the Senate Ethics Committee has been actively investigating the affair, as well as a cash payment made to the couple by Ensign’s parents to determine whether the senator violated Senate rules.
In truth, Ensign’s announcement was inevitable. Party strategists and political observers have known for months that it was extremely unlikely that Ensign could win reelection or even survive a primary challenge. It would take some time, though, for Ensign to come to terms with the inevitability that his Senate career was coming to an end. He was struggling to raise money, posting a paltry $244,696 cash-on-hand total at the end of last year. Ensign pledged to have $1 million in the bank by June 30, a sum that is well below what a Senate incumbent should be raising, and is hardly a serious down payment on a primary race or the general election.
Polls also pointed out the obvious. A Public Policy Polling survey (January 3-5 of 932 registered voters) put the incumbent’s job ratings at 35 percent approval to 50 percent disapproval, and 59 percent said that Ensign shouldn’t run for another term, compared to just 26 percent who said he should.
Finally, Ensign faced a credible threat in the primary from Rep. Dean Heller. While Heller has not announced his candidacy, he did release a poll that showed him trouncing Ensign in a primary. It seems that Heller has been biding his time in the hope that Ensign would reach the same conclusion everyone else had and do what he did today; announce he’s not running.
Heller, 51, is a strong general election candidate. He would start the race with statewide name recognition and a strong fundraising base; he finished 2010 with $814,530 in the bank. A stockbroker by training, Heller served in the state House from 1990 to 1994 when he became Secretary of State, a position he held for three terms before making a successful bid for the House in 2006. He represents the 2nd Congressional District, which takes in a small part of Clark County but none of Las Vegas. It then takes up the rest of the state, 105,635 square miles. It is the only one of the three congressional districts that leans Republican with a PVI score of R+5, meaning that it votes five points more Republican than the nation as a whole.
Heller survived a competitive primary in 2006, taking 36 percent in a five-way field. He also faced a competitive general election, but defeated Democrat Jill Derby, 50 percent to 45 percent, in one of the few victories Republicans had that year. He faced Derby again in 2008, but won that race, 52 percent to 41 percent. Democrats didn’t target Heller again in 2010 and he won a third term with 63 percent of the vote.
The question is whether Heller clears the primary field. A number of other Republicans have been mentioned as potential candidates, including 2010 Senate nominee Sharron Angle, Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, and former Rep. Jon Porter. 2010 Senate primary hopefuls investment banker John Chachas, former state party chair Sue Lowden, and businessman Danny Tarkanian also make the list. At this point, Angle seems more interested in running for Heller’s open seat than in making another Senate bid. She placed second to Heller in the 2006 House primary. According to Heller’s poll, a Tarrance Group survey (January 19-20 of 601 likely Republican primary voters), he led a multi-candidate primary. He placed first with 39 percent, followed by Ensign with 23 percent, Tarkanian with 17 percent, Angle with 14 percent, and Chachas with 3 percent.
A number of Democrats have expressed interest in the race, and like Heller, they seemed to be waiting for Ensign to realize that he couldn’t mount a successful reelection campaign. Most of the attention has been focused on Rep. Shelley Berkley, who has represented the Las Vegas-based 1st Congressional District since 1998. Berkley has had no trouble holding her seat in a district that has a PVI rating of D+10. She is also a solid fundraiser and had nearly $1.1 million in the bank at the end of last year. Berkley seems to be in no hurry to make a decision on the race, though Ensign’s announcement may alter her timetable.
Other Democrats mentioned include Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, Treasurer Kate Marshall, Secretary of State Ross Miller, and former Rep. Dina Titus.
The January PPP survey showed Heller leading the Democrats tested. He was ahead of Berkley, 51 percent to 38 percent; bested Masto, 46 percent to 37 percent; and led Miller, 46 percent to 34 percent.
Nevada is a very competitive state and will be even more so in 2012 as both parties target the state in the presidential contest. While Heller is the strongest candidate Republicans can recruit for the race, almost all of the Democrats mentioned would give a competitive contest. For that reason, the race will stay in the Toss Up column.
Follow Jennifer Duffy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jennifereduffy.
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