Ensign to get free pass in '06

Many leading Nevada Democrats say they will give Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) a pass when he seeks reelection next year — in part, they add, because of Ensign’s close relationship with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). State Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins (D), who is expected to announce his gubernatorial candidacy in the coming months, said Democrats would focus on state offices in 2006. “All six of the constitutional offices are held by Republicans right now, and we think we have great opportunities there, particularly because all six will be leaving office,” Perkins said. Besides the governorship, there will also be races for secretary of state, attorney general and other offices.

Many leading Nevada Democrats say they will give Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) a pass when he seeks reelection next year — in part, they add, because of Ensign’s close relationship with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

State Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins (D), who is expected to announce his gubernatorial candidacy in the coming months, said Democrats would focus on state offices in 2006.

“All six of the constitutional offices are held by Republicans right now, and we think we have great opportunities there, particularly because all six will be leaving office,” Perkins said. Besides the governorship, there will also be races for secretary of state, attorney general and other offices.

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Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D).


Ellen Pillard, the Sierra Club’s political chairwoman for Nevada and eastern California and a Democratic activist, agreed that the “D’s are focused very much on the governor’s race.” She added that Ensign has a substantial war chest; his father is in the gambling industry, meaning Ensign can count on support from that sector, and “he works very well with Harry Reid.”

Perkins generally agreed. “Senator Reid is the top Democrat in the state, and I know he has a very strong relationship with Senator Ensign, but I also think the senator would like to be in the majority,” he said.

Reid and Ensign, like lawmakers in many states, work cooperatively on bills that help their shared constituents. But Capitol Hill aides have said the two are particularly friendly by Washington standards. In the 109th Congress, joint efforts include a bill establishing the Great Basin National Heritage Route in Nevada and Utah and the transfer of land to the state university system. Both senators oppose abortion rights.

And, as many Republicans noted last year, Ensign did little, if anything, to find a candidate to run against Reid in 2004.

Pillard added that while “there will no doubt be a candidate,” that candidate “will very much be like the candidate that the Republicans ran against Harry Reid” in 2004, businessman Richard Ziser.

Reid captured 61 percent of the vote to win a fourth term, while Ziser garnered 35 percent of the vote. The Democrat also raised nearly $9 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics; Ziser raised just under $650,000.

As recently as a week ago, some Democrats were floating the possibility of former state Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa or current state Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus challenging Ensign, who is in his first term.

But at a recent Democratic gathering in Reno — which drew about 40 party leaders, including Titus and Perkins — it was clear that party officials had more or less given up on the Senate seat, said Pillard, who attended the meeting.

Other Democrats in the state said they viewed the Senate race as an afterthought.

Jon Summers, spokesman for the Nevada Democratic Party, wouldn’t rule out a strong challenge to Ensign but acknowledged that the race “could be a tough one.” He added: “We’re looking for any and all viable candidates who can win the seats that are up for election in 2006.”

Not all Democrats concede that the race is over.

Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), observed that it is early in the cycle. Referring to Ensign, Singer said: “If he thinks he’s going to get a free pass, he’s running at his own peril.”

Asked if Reid had helped recruit a candidate to challenge Ensign, Singer said, “We obviously don’t disclose the step-by-step process [of recruiting] in the press.”

While Nevada backed President Bush in 2000 and 2004 and has a long libertarian streak that runs deep, Democrats control the state Assembly. And, of course, there’s Reid, who is revered by state Democrats for, they say, rebuilding the party and injecting a practical, salt-of-the-earth style into the state’s political life.

Reid spokesman Jim Manley did not return a phone call seeking comment.