The Monday Fix: Winners and Losers in the Ensign Affair, Besides Ensign
Sen. John Ensign's acknowledgment last week of an extramarital affair with his former chief of staff's wife ends any hope he had of running for president in 2012 and will probably imperil his bid for a third term.
While the damage done to Ensign's fellow Nevada Republicans is apparent, there are other politicians who will gain or lose as a result of his implosion. The three who immediately jump to mind are Sens. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), David Vitter (R-La.) and John Thune (R-S.D.).
Reid, the Senate majority leader, is one of the Republicans' top targets, and polling suggests that Nevada voters are far from enamored of the Democrat. But Republicans have struggled to find a candidate to run against him -- former congressman Jon Porter has passed on the opportunity, and few hold out hope that Rep. Dean Heller will run -- and the Ensign imbroglio will further distract the state party and hamper its recruitment efforts. Meanwhile, Reid will continue to stockpile cash.
Vitter is also up for reelection in 2010 and, despite having been named as a client of the D.C. Madam in 2007, appears to have put the incident behind him politically. The Ensign affair is certain to dredge up that unsavory episode from Vitter's past for the next few weeks -- at the very least -- as the image of two conservative Republican senators cheating on their wives is too attractive a story line for many in the news media to pass up. Vitter's path to a second term will also be complicated by the news that Rep. Charlie Melancon (D) appears ready to run against him in 2010.
For Thune, Ensign's resignation as chairman of the Republican Policy Committee -- the party's fourth-ranking leadership spot -- gave him a perfect opening to capitalize on the positive buzz about his potential as a national party leader. Thune is unopposed for the policy slot and seems to have the leadership's blessings. Thune is up for reelection in 2010, but given South Dakota's Republican tilt, plus the more than $4 million he carried in his campaign account at the end of March and the decided lack of a credible Democratic opponent, he is likely to be free to focus on building his national profile over the next 18 months.
Change in the Senate?
The Senate playing field has remained remarkably stable of late. That's not to say, however, that both parties don't have opportunities remaining to turn noncompetitive contests into real races over the next few months.
For Republicans, their best chances to create new competitive races are in Illinois and Arkansas. In Illinois, the continued problems of Blagojevich appointee Roland Burris (D) and the possibility of a candidacy by moderate Rep. Mark Kirk (R) could give Republicans a chance at an upset. In the unlikely event that state Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D) decides to run, however, this seat comes off the table.
In Arkansas, Republicans argue that Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) is vulnerable, and the strong showing by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the Razorback State in 2008 (he won 59 percent of the vote) suggests a conservative electorate. But the GOP field isn't particularly strong, and while some Republicans have high hopes for wealthy businessman Curtis Coleman, he remains an unproven commodity.
Democrats' best opportunities to broaden the playing field are in Louisiana and Texas. In the Pelican State, Vitter's sexual indiscretion would seem to guarantee a serious Democratic challenge. Texas is a bit more of a long shot, although the special-election race that will result if Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) resigns to focus on her run for governor would create an unpredictable dynamic in which Democrats might have a chance. The party's preferred candidate is Houston Mayor Bill White, but former state comptroller John Sharp is running as well.
Those races are in the maybe column. Here's a look at five sure things, ranked in the order of likely party switch in 2010:
5. Ohio (Republican-controlled): The key question in handicapping this race is whether Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner stays in for the long haul in her Democratic primary challenge to Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher. Brunner is the underdog, and if she can't put together a better fundraising performance in the second quarter than she did in the first three months of the year, the pressure will rise for her to step aside. Republicans have cleared the field for former congressman Rob Portman, and early indications show that he will be one of the party's stronger candidates in 2010.
4. Missouri (R): Rep. Roy Blunt (R) finally got some good news in his Senate bid when Washington University law professor Thomas Schweich took a pass on the race and endorsed the former House leader. While former state treasurer Sarah Steelman insists she is considering the contest, her decision not to formalize an exploratory committee should be worrisome to her allies. Blunt must -- must -- put together an impressive June financial report, with $1 million raised, to consolidate his position and keep Steelman out.