Senate Opening No Shocker

It really was no surprise at all when two-term Sen. John Ensign (R.-Nev.) announced yesterday that he would not seek reelection in 2012.  Having admitted an affair with a former campaign staffer, Ensign has been under additional fire over a substantial cash payment to the woman’s husband from the senator’s parents, which more than a few Nevadans have characterized as hush money.

To say the least, the conservative Ensign (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 94.37%) had his work cut out for him in ’12.

There two immediate developments from Ensign becoming the third Republican senator to call it quits next year:  First, Democrats who had hoped he would be carrying the GOP standard are going to be thinking twice about a run for the Senate against a “clean” Republican, and second, Silver State Republicans are now almost certain to line up behind Northern Nevada Rep. Dean Heller (lifetime ACU rating: 89.33%) as their Senate candidate.

Recalling how Heller flirted with and then rejected a challenge to Sen. Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) last year, one popular Las Vegas radio talk show put it, “Dean has made a cottage industry of running the string out on his decision to do anything besides staying put.  But no one else is making any serous noise about running against him.”

The fact that she won’t be facing Ensign in all likelihood means that Las Vegas-area Rep. Shelley Berkley will stay in the House rather than go for a statewide race.  At this point, speculation over Democratic contenders swirls around Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller, son of former Gov. Robert Miller, and state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto.  Both Miller and Masto won their offices last fall and thus have “free rides” to run for the Senate in 2012.

There are other factors that add to the post-Ensign intrigue in Nevada.  In one of the nation’s strongest cases of voters abandoning both major parties, Nevada has had the largest exodus of any state since November of voters from the Republican and Democratic column to the Independent camp—12.2% of Democrats and 5.5% of Republicans have reregistered as Independent or non-aligned voters.

In addition, the results of the census point to Nevada gaining a fourth U.S. House district next year.  This will mean that some candidates who had designs on a Senate race have another office to seek.  And pundits almost universally predict a free-for-all among both major parties for the northern Nevada district Heller is likely to relinquish for a Senate race.  The most talked-of name as a successor is that of conservative swashbuckler Sharron Angle, who won the Republican primary to oppose Reid for reelection and lost a close November election in one of the nation’s most-watched contests for anything in 2010.