The Fix: Why John Ensign isn't safe yet

By Chris Cillizza
Thursday, December 2, 2010; 9:47 AM

1. The news that the Justice Department has no plans to bring charges against Sen. John Ensign for his role in securing work for the husband of his mistress makes it increasingly likely that the Nevada Republican will seek a third term in 2012.

"[Wednesday] was a good day for John Ensign," said Nevada-based Republican consultant Ryan Erwin. "He still has work to do to earn back the trust of Nevada voters but this will help."

Ensign has long insisted he broke no laws in his relationships with Doug Hampton, his former chief of staff, for whom the senator worked to secure clients after his top staffer left his office.

The matter has been significantly complicated by the fact that Ensign has acknowledged having an affair with Hampton's wife, Cynthia, and Ensign's parents gave $96,000 to the Hamptons in the wake of the affair.

That affair -- and the payment by his parents -- still puts Ensign in significant political peril, according to Sig Rogich, a powerful Republican operative in the Silver State.

The Justice ruling provides Ensign "some relief" Rogich said, adding: "The overriding issue still remains and he could expect it to be exploited in a campaign."

It's not yet clear whether Ensign emerging legally unscathed from his affair will impact the calculus of Rep. Dean Heller (R) who has been critical of the incumbent and is seen by many national Republican operatives as the party's best chance to keep the seat in GOP hands in November 2012.

Heller has said little about the possibility of a primary campaign but one senior Republican strategist said the Justice Department news will do little to keep Ensign from facing intraparty peril. "All of this translates into a very difficult primary against a credible alternative," the source said.

Recent polling would suggest that Ensign still retains considerable support among Republicans. Two-thirds of GOPers tested in a Public Policy Polling -- a Democratic-aligned polling firm that uses automated interviews -- approved of the job Ensign was doing.

And, one high-level Republican operative with experience in Nevada politics noted that the 2010 Senate election proved that anything was possible in the state. "If Harry Reid can get re-elected so can John Ensign," the source said.

Democrats, however, see Ensign as badly wounded and almost certainly would have a better chance of winning the seat if he rather than Heller were the Republican nominee. Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) is looking at the race among others.

2. The powerhouse Democratic media consulting firm Murphy Putnam is breaking up.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company