On November 19, Nevada Republicans met in rural Fallon. The weather was bad, but almost 200 people attended, including Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval and the recently defeated Senate candidate Sharron Angle. Sen. John Ensign, however, didn’t show. “When it was announced that he wouldn’t be there, people were disgusted — and a bunch of them actually clapped,” says Heidi Smith, a Republican National Committee member. “Later on, I spoke to a breakout group of maybe 30 or 40 people. I asked, ‘How many of you will vote for John Ensign?’ Nobody raised a hand.”
The rap on Lugar and Hatch is that they’re not conservative enough for red-state Republicans. Nobody says the same about John Ensign. The American Conservative Union gives him a lifetime rating of 94 percent. Yet he’ll have a difficult time in 2012.
Last year, Ensign confessed to an extramarital affair with an aide. The problem worsened with the revelation that his parents had paid $96,000 to the woman’s husband. Several investigations ensued. Although Ensign has not yet been charged with any legal wrongdoing, the scandal has dimmed his once-bright future. He quit as head of the Republican Policy Committee, the fourth-ranking post in the Senate GOP leadership. “He is a walking political corpse,” wrote Jon Ralston of the Las Vegas Sun
on November 10.
Can he rise from the dead? “People have come back from worse, but he won’t have an easy reelection,” says Ryan Erwin, former executive director of the Nevada GOP. “I’m certain he’ll face a primary challenge.” The most talked-about potential candidate is Dean Heller, a congressman who refuses to comment on his plans for 2012 — which is another way of saying he hasn’t ruled out running against Ensign. There’s also Brian Krolicki, the lieutenant governor. The wild card is Angle, the woman who failed to knock off Democratic senator and majority leader Harry Reid this year. “Don’t underestimate her,” warns Sue Lowden, who ran against Angle for this year’s GOP Senate nomination. “She would be a very serious candidate, especially in a primary.” Lowden says she would run her own campaign for the Senate in 2012 only if Ensign stepped aside first.
Even in freewheeling Nevada, pols can pay a price for their sins. In this year’s GOP gubernatorial primary, Sandoval defeated incumbent Jim Gibbons partly because of Gibbons’s messy personal life, which recently involved a divorce.
Ensign and his wife remain together, but in politics, that guarantees nothing. Nevada is a toss-up state, and Democratic congresswoman Shelley Berkley may bid for the Senate. Many Republicans fear that a showdown between Ensign and Berkley would create the best chance for Democrats to pick up a seat now held by the GOP. So any Republican who challenges Ensign will be able to deliver a simple but compelling message: The senator can’t win.
And for many conservatives who hope that 2012 will realize the promise of 2010, winning is the only thing.
— John J. Miller is NR’s national correspondent. An earlier version of this article appeared in the December 31, 2010, issue of National Review.