Ensign Affair Shakes Up Nevada GOP

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Sen. John Ensign told his Republican colleagues on Tuesday that he's sorry for having an affair with a married staffer. Ensign made the comments during a closed-door lunch meeting of Republican senators. They say they accepted his apology.

But the scandal has tarnished Ensign's standing as a possible presidential contender for 2012. It's also taking a toll on the senator's party back home in Nevada.

At this point, another politician confessing to cheating on his wife is greeted by many Americans with a giggle and a sigh of boredom. That goes double in Nevada, where the majority of the population lives in Las Vegas — proudly known as Sin City. The Ensign affair barely rated a mention this morning on the Heidi Harris show on conservative talk radio station KDWN.

"I'm not calling for his resignation; I never have," Harris said. "But if he's gonna do it, he needs to do it soon."

Whoa, there's a ringing endorsement from one of Ensign's fellow conservatives. If some Nevadans are taking Ensign's affair as just another routine disappointment, it may be because they've already had practice dealing with the scandals of their Republican governor, Jim Gibbons.

Let's see: He's survived a couple of corruption investigations. He's involved in a messy divorce from his wife, Dawn; her divorce papers allege multiple infidelities. He's being sued by a cocktail waitress for allegedly sexually assaulting her in a parking lot.

You get the idea.

"If shooting yourself in the foot was an Olympic event, [Gibbons would] be a gold medalist," says Chuck Muth, a former head of the Republican Party in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located. Muth is now an independent conservative activist. But he says that Ensign's problems are a bit different from the governor's.

"The problem here is it was with a staffer — somebody who was paid, on your payroll — and that is raising a lot more questions — serious questions — about the propriety of this and that's one of the problems, why I think you're not seeing a lot of Republicans jumping to the senator's defense. They're worried there are other shoes yet to drop," Muth says.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party in Nevada is struggling to rebuild following significant losses last November. Even before Election Day, it lost the registration battle. There are now 100,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Nevada. An incumbent Republican representative was unseated. And in this traditional swing state, Barack Obama defeated John McCain by 12 points.

But Bernie Zadrowski , the current head of the Clark County party, says Ensign could still prove to be the party's star and savior.

"We'll know the impact of this when he comes here and he addresses the people of Nevada and says 'This is what I'm going to do to fix it,' to ask forgiveness and then, in essence go about politically doing the things he needs to do to make it right," Zadrowski says. "If he's able to do that, he'll move forward and he'll be fine."

But it's not just the philandering of prominent officeholders that is beyond the party's control. There's Nevada's changing demographics, says David Damore, political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. And Republicans here haven't figured out how to deal with that.

"In particular, they've taken a really adamant anti-immigrant position, and when you have Hispanics — the fastest-growing subgroup in the state, trending Democratic — that doesn't look good," Damore says. "So the demographics just is another factor [that] adds to problems associated with personality, lack of organization, lack of money, that makes it a real daunting task."

Zadrowski says he believes that pundits are always too quick to write you off when you're down.

"It wasn't that long ago that everybody was predicting the end of the Democratic Party in Nevada. So will the Republican Party bounce back from this? Yes," Zadrowski says.

But there could be a long way to go. A new organization, called the Republican Renewal Project, was set to have its kickoff fundraiser last Friday. But its founder and the fundraiser's guest of honor was none other than John Ensign. The event has been indefinitely postponed.

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