By Shane D'Aprile - 03/07/11 11:47 PM EST
Sen. John Ensign's (R-Nev.) retirement came as welcome news on Monday for national Republicans, who have privately admitted for months the party would be better off without the scandal-plagued senator on the ticket next year.
With Ensign, who is battling ethics charges, not running, Republicans will likely get their candidate of choice — Rep. Dean Heller (R-Nev.).
"This must have been a very difficult decision for John to make," Heller said in a statement. "He and his family have been through a lot. Lynne and I wish them the very best."
While Heller is the clear favorite on the Republican side, he could face a primary challenge if other Nevada Republicans see an opportunity in the open-seat contest.
One potential candidate is Republican Sharron Angle, who came up short in her challenge to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in 2010. Another is Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, who said he would decide in "the coming days" whether to mount a campaign.
A Nevada Republican strategist noted that Heller and Krolicki are close friends and unlikely to face each other in a primary. Krolicki, who chaired Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) presidential campaign in the state, is known as a team player who has paid his dues.
Heller hasn't yet ramped up his 2012 operation and, if he doesn't do so soon, there could be pressure on him from party activists and state lawmakers to let Krolicki run instead as payback for past favors. If Heller does run for Senate and Krolicki takes a pass, it is expected that both Republican Party leaders and Tea Party activists will encourage Krolicki to run for Heller's congressional seat.
A January poll from Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling (PPP) showed Heller easily defeating Ensign in a Republican primary, 52 percent to 34. An earlier PPP survey also showed Heller would start ahead of every rumored Democratic candidate for the seat.
On the Democratic side, the top name is Rep. Shelley Berkley (Nev.), but with Ensign out, Democrats could think twice before opting for a 2012 Senate run, especially given Heller’s strong poll numbers. Another potential candidate on the Democratic side is Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller.
Ensign made his decision official Monday, ending months of speculation over whether he would forge ahead, as originally promised, with another campaign.
Citing the "pain" that a "very ugly campaign" would inflict on his family, the two-term senator said he had decided not to seek reelection.
"I do not want to put my family, those that I care about, or this state through what would be a very ugly campaign that would ultimately cause a great deal more pain than has already been felt as a result of my actions," Ensign said, according to prepared remarks.
Calling it "the most difficult decision of my life," Ensign thanked his family, staff and others who have stood by him since the revelation of his affair with the wife of a former staffer.
He vowed to serve out the remainder of his Senate term "wholeheartedly" and fight "for the future of our country."
His retirement announcement could also affect the Senate Ethics Committee’s investigation.
In February, the Ethics Committee ramped up its investigation of the senator over claims he violated ethics rules in the aftermath of an affair with Cynthia Hampton, the wife of former top aide Doug Hampton, whom he helped obtain a lucrative lobbying job. The committee named a special counsel to the case, but the panel has been known to discontinue an investigation if a member announces his retirement.
That wasn't the case with former Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), who the committee continued to investigate after Craig announced he wouldn't seek reelection.
Ensign said his decision was not influenced by the Ethics Committee investigation.
"If I was concerned about that, I would resign," he said.
The Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) called on Ensign to resign immediately, given the ongoing probe, and urged the committee to "proceed full steam ahead" with the investigation unless he does so.
"The senator has nearly two years remaining on his term, and the investigation has been ongoing for over a year and a half already," CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said in a statement. "The Ethics Committee should not use Sen. Ensign's announcement as an excuse to sweep the whole matter under the rug. Senators need to know that actions have consequences."
In December of last year, Ensign got one piece of good news — the Justice Department dropped its investigation, meaning he wouldn’t face federal charges.
Ensign was first elected to the Senate in 2000 after serving two terms in the House. He was once viewed as a rising Republican star whom most observers pegged as a future presidential contender. But Ensign's ascent came crashing down two years ago when he admitted to the affair.
He becomes the eighth senator to announce his retirement this year, and just the third Republican to do so.
His decision significantly eases the path for the GOP in Nevada next year. Poll after poll showed Ensign with an uphill battle for reelection and had Democrats eyeing a pickup opportunity in a year when the party will have precious few.
Democrats have 23 seats to defend this cycle and are clinging to just a four-seat majority in the upper chamber.
Ensign was widely seen as the most vulnerable Republican incumbent up for reelection.
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) expressed confidence Monday that his party would retain the seat.
"Next year’s Senate race in Nevada will now come down to a clear choice between two competing visions for our country — between a Republican candidate who believes in smaller government, fiscal responsibility and creating good private-sector jobs and a Democrat candidate who believes in keeping our country on the same reckless fiscal path of more government and higher taxes," Cornyn said.
But Democrats see a chance in the home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
"Nevada is now an open seat, and ripe for a Democratic pickup," Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a statement. "It remains high on our target list."
-- Sean J. Miller and Jordy Yager contributed.