Rising star shoots for Ensign’s job

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneGOP leaders to Trump: Leave Mueller alone Toyota halts self-driving car tests on public roads Senate Commerce presses Facebook, Cambridge Analytica for answers on data MORE (R-S.D.) is maneuvering for the GOP leadership opening left by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who resigned the post Wednesday.

Thune’s office confirmed that the senator has begun making phone calls to leadership and to rank-and-file senators to tell them he will run for Republican Policy Committee chairman.

Thune’s ascent to the No. 4 spot in Senate Republican leadership is all but assured, as no other candidate has stepped forward to challenge him.

Sources say the only possible contender for the Policy Committee slot would have been Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsGOP leaders to Trump: Leave Mueller alone FBI chief refuses to deny reports he threatened to resign amid pressure House Judiciary Chair expected to issue DOJ subpoena over Clinton emails as soon as this week MORE (R-Ala.), who just took over as ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. But Sessions has secured promises that he will be named the top Republican on the Budget Committee in the next Congress, essentially pulling him out of contention for the leadership post.

If Thune does ascend the leadership ladder, Senate GOP strategists say, a battle is likely to emerge for his post as vice chairman. Sens. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiProposed budget for Indian Health Services won't treat Native American patients equally Keep anti-environment riders for Alaska out of spending bill Industry should comply with the Methane Waste Prevention Rule MORE (R-Alaska) and Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrOvernight Cybersecurity: Senate Intel releases election security findings | Facebook to meet with officials on Capitol Hill amid Cambridge Analytica fallout | Orbitz admits possible breach Senate Intel releases summary of election security report Overnight Cybersecurity: Trump-linked data firm Cambridge Analytica attracts scrutiny | House passes cyber response team bill | What to know about Russian cyberattacks on energy grid MORE (R-N.C.) are mentioned as potential candidates.

Murkowski’s office confirmed Wednesday that the first-term Alaska senator would run for the vice chairman’s position, but Burr’s office declined to say whether the senator was in the running.

Ensign resigned his leadership spot Wednesday, a day after he admitted his affair with a campaign staffer.

A member of the Senate Republican leadership said that Ensign could have held on to his chairmanship of the Policy Committee but would not have risen much higher in the party, describing Ensign’s presidential ambitions as “eliminated.”

“I don’t think it would have had an effect, because he is well-liked and respected for his substance,” said the lawmaker, who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic.

The GOP lawmaker also said that Ensign could one day become assistant Republican leader, a post now held by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), but predicted that it would be difficult for Ensign to ever become GOP leader.

“We want our leader to be a spokesman and not an issue himself,” the lawmaker said.

A GOP consultant concurred: “I always thought [the White House] was a long shot for him, regardless. But time has a way of healing some of these things, and the way he’s handled it probably is the best way he could have handled it.”

However, the full damage estimate from Ensign’s admission is still months or years from being determined.

The wary reaction of Ensign’s colleagues suggests his political recovery is still a ways off, and his party is concerned about being tarred with the scandals that cost them their majorities in the middle part of the decade.

On Wednesday, Ensign’s GOP colleagues were treading lightly around questions of his future in the chamber.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Ensign’s D.C. housemate, said he had no knowledge of the affair and had no immediate response when asked if Ensign should resign.

In a broader context, though, DeMint acknowledged the GOP’s focus on morality and family values opens the party up to charges of hypocrisy.

“All elected officials have a credibility problem right now, I think, and it’s up to us to earn the trust of the American people,” DeMint said, adding: “People don’t like hypocrites, so we’ve got to live up to what we say.”

Kyl said that senators consider Ensign’s affair an extremely personal matter.

“People should view things like this on a personal level,” Kyl said. “Every one of us is a sinner, and that’s what John Ensign said.”

Other GOP senators said very little about Ensign on Wednesday.

“He’s doing what he needs to do as a man,” said Sen. Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnPaul Ryan should realize that federal earmarks are the currency of cronyism Republicans in Congress shouldn't try to bring back earmarks Republicans should know reviving earmarks is a political nightmare MORE (R-Okla.). “He’s a bright young man, and lots of people make mistakes.”

“I feel for him and his family,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).

Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchNew kid on the tech block Senate GOP: Legislation to protect Mueller not needed Week ahead: Lawmakers scramble to avoid another shutdown MORE (R-Utah) declined to comment on Ensign other than to praise his leadership ability.

Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerMississippi gov to fill Cochran seat with agriculture commissioner: report Senate Commerce presses Facebook, Cambridge Analytica for answers on data McDaniel to run for open Senate seat in Miss. rather than challenge Wicker MORE (R-Miss.) said he supports Ensign’s decision to stay in the Senate.

“I certainly did not urge him to resign his leadership position,” Wicker said. “I think he’ll continue to be a valuable member … I think most members, Republican and Democrat, wish his family all the best.”

The timing of Ensign’s announcement Tuesday was all the more striking considering his visit to the early-presidential caucus state of Iowa a couple of weeks ago. It was his first foray into the presidential dialogue, and he began to capture the imagination of conservative Republicans who are looking for a fresh face.

While some saw Tuesday’s admission foreclosing any potential candidacy for the nation’s top job, others saw it as a well-timed announcement for a man acting on his presidential ambitions and airing his dirty laundry early in the process.

 Alexander Bolton and J. Taylor Rushing contributed to this article.