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Conservatives in Nevada want Ensign to quit

Some Nevada conservatives want Republican Sen. John Ensign to resign amid a federal investigation stemming from an extramarital affair, with one critic calling him "the political equivalent of a suicide bomber."
Image: U.S. Senator John Ensign
Ensign, who had once been seen as a potential 2012 presidential contender, admitted an extramarital affair in June.Sam Morris / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Some Nevada conservatives want Republican Sen. John Ensign to resign amid a federal investigation stemming from an extramarital affair, with one critic calling him "the political equivalent of a suicide bomber."

Republicans believe that Ensign's troubles are serving as a colossal distraction in the high-profile effort to oust Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid.

Chuck Muth, the former executive director of the Nevada Republican Party, called Ensign "an albatross around the necks of every Nevada Republican candidate on the ballot this year" and likened him to a political "suicide bomber."

The discord among GOP loyalists bubbled to the surface last week and follows grand jury subpoenas issued to a Republican campaign committee and companies in Nevada about Ensign's role in seeking work for the husband of his former mistress. The Senate Ethics Committee is also investigating.

The scandal has marked a stunning fall for a politician who was once a rising conservative star with White House aspirations.

Ensign has said he would not resign because he wanted to help Republicans defeat Reid. Ensign said last year that a resignation would take some of the attention off Reid, split GOP resources and hurt "the conservative cause."

Ensign's office did not immediately respond to telephone and e-mail messages seeking comment this week.

Bob List, national committeeman and former Nevada governor, said he didn't see Ensign's problems as causing serious issues for the GOP in Nevada, but added, "Obviously, he's very much focused on his own challenges.

"From a party standpoint, we're moving forward with our own fundraising," List said. "I don't see it dragging down our activities."

Republicans running for office in Nevada are keeping their distance from Ensign to various degrees.

Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., called Ensign a "wounded junior senator" whose scandal could potentially have an impact up and down the Republican ticket this fall. Heller cited Ensign's scandal last year as one reason he decided to seek re-election rather than challenge Reid.

"I must respectfully say that ... I do not expect to be campaigning with Sen. Ensign this fall," said Danny Tarkanian, a Republican primary candidate in the race.

Sue Lowden, the presumed Republican front-runner in challenging Reid, said she has supported Ensign in the past "but I also encourage that the current allegations against Sen. Ensign reach a conclusion through the thorough investigation that has been launched."

Two former Clark County Republican officials, Richard Scotti and Swadeep Nigam, said "all true conservative Republicans" should speak out for Ensign's resignation.

"We are on the verge of a great victory come November, but the most long-awaited victory can quickly slip through our grasp unless we immediately put the focus back on conservative issues," they wrote on the political blog, Nevada News & Views.

If Ensign were to resign, Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons would appoint an interim replacement, and, time permitting, the state GOP and Democratic central committees would nominate candidates to appear on the November ballot.

Eric Herzik, political scientist at the University of Nevada, Reno, said Ensign, until recently, has been a minor distraction in the Senate race "because Republican candidates have to answer questions about it."

"But now he's so damaged, they can come out and say he should resign with impunity."

Herzik said he once believed Ensign would survive until his term expires in 2012.

"Now I think my interpretation has changed. He may resign, but it will be part of a deal. This has spun from a kind of personal embarrassment to a legal problem," he said.

"At some point he's looking at a very uncomfortable meeting with the Department of Justice. But he's in a much stronger position as a U.S. senator than a resigned U.S. senator. It's an ugly calculation, but leaving the Senate is something of a bargaining chip," he said.