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Has scandal doomed once-popular Ensign?

It turns out scandal can be bad for your reputation.

That’s the not-so-surprising news found in a new poll of likely Republican voters conducted by The Tarrance Group for Congressman Dean Heller, who is thinking about challenging U.S. Sen. John Ensign in a Republican primary next year.

Ensign was once Nevada’s most popular elected official, consistently posting approval numbers in the mid-to-high 50s. He easily defeated challenges from Democrats in 2000 and 2006.

A Christian conservative and member of the group Promise Keepers, Ensign was quick to preach family values of marriage publicly and privately. But then he had an affair with Cynthia Hampton, the wife of his then-best friend, Doug Hampton, when both worked for him. His parents paid the family $96,000, what some characterized as either hush money or an illegal severance payment. And he worked to get Hampton lobbying work in apparent violation of a strict one-year cooling off period.

Thus far, official investigations by the Federal Elections Commission (into the $96,000) and the Justice Department (into the cooling-off allegations) have not resulted in charges, although the Senate Ethics Committee is still investigating and just hired a former federal prosecutor to complete that probe.

And that explains why Ensign doesn’t look so good in Heller’s poll.

“Incumbent U.S. Senator John Ensign is so badly damaged that he is already trailing on a ballot test against Dean Heller by 15 points,” the poll memo says. In a head-to-head matchup, Ensign would lose to Heller 53 percent to 38 percent. Heller captures 70 percent of the Republican vote in Washoe County, 63 percent in the rurals, and 50 percent in Clark County, Ensign’s home turf.

Even with three other candidates thrown into the mix (Danny Tarkanian, John Chachas and Sharron Angle), Heller still beats Ensign 39 percent to 23 percent.

Ensign has always been a reliable conservative vote. And regardless of his faithlessness to religious or marital vows, he’s never wavered from conservative principles. For some, that earns him a pass.

But according to the poll, that some isn’t very many — Heller apparently leads Ensign by double digits among tea partiers, pro-lifers, gun rights advocates and fans of Fox News and talk radio.

In sum, Ensign is in a very bad way, politically speaking. (The senator’s spokeswoman failed to return requests for comment.)

But it’s not just poll numbers darkening Ensign’s path to victory.

Consider his paltry fundraising — he’s taken in very little money since he confessed to the affair in June 2009. And he’s spending money from his campaign accounts for the lawyers defending him — thus far, very successfully — from official investigations.

Ensign has said he hasn’t really been trying to raise money, but for an incumbent U.S. senator to have just $225,000 cash on hand (as Ensign did in his 2010 year-end report) is a sure sign of weakness.

And then consider the lukewarm-at-best support Ensign has received from Republican leaders in Washington, D.C. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn barely seem to remember Ensign’s name when reporters ask about the latest twist and turn of his saga.

For the past year or so, Ensign has been engaged in a make-up tour throughout Nevada, meeting with businesses and groups to answer questions and show he’s fully committed to his re-election. He’s fond of saying that no one save the media asks about the scandal, the fallout or the investigations.

He might want to consider whether people are just being polite. Because, as Heller’s poll demonstrates, while they may not be asking about it, they’re sure thinking about it.


Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist. His column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/SteveSebelius or reach him at 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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