- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 24, 2011

Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign’s resignation last week, along with the expected gubernatorial appointment of Rep. Dean Heller to fill the remaining 18 months of his term, has set off a game of political musical chairs in the Silver State.

The scenario also is expected to help the GOP hang on to the Senate seat by giving Mr. Heller, a Republican, a leg up on any Democratic challengers next year.

“This has created a great opportunity for Heller to get a big head start to prepare for the 2012 election,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist. “He’ll be much more high profile with all the powers of incumbency at his disposal.”

Mr. Heller, a three-term Republican, already had announced he would run for Mr. Ensign’s seat after the senator said last month he wouldn’t seek re-election in 2012 because of an ongoing ethics investigation.

But Mr. Ensign’s announcement Thursday that he instead would resign May 3 opens the door for Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval to pick a replacement to serve out the Ensign term. The governor, who endorsed Mr. Heller minutes after the congressman made his Senate campaign announcement, is widely expected to give Mr. Heller the job.

Mr. Sandoval said Friday he expects to name a replacement before May 3.

The governor was tight-lipped about his choice, however, saying he “take[s] very seriously the importance of this appointment, so to speculate on potential candidates … before then would be premature.”

The potential appointment would create a scramble for Mr. Heller’s seat in the U.S. House, which already has attracted significant interest from both parties, including Republican Sharron Angle, who lost a Senate challenge last year to incumbent Democrat Harry Reid.

If the governor chooses Mr. Heller, then under Nevada electoral rules the Democrat and Republican candidates who run for the seat in a special election would be handpicked by their respective state party committees — a scenario that could be particularly damaging to Mrs. Angle, a tea party favorite who isn’t widely popular in Nevada’s GOP establishment.

On the Democratic side, Nevada Rep. Shelley Berkley has been rumored to be exploring a run for the Ensign seat.

Mr. Ensign cited the toll of the ongoing investigation on himself and his family as the reason for his resignation.

His action is expected to trigger a winding down of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics’ investigation, though the panel may release more findings of its probe later.

Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, and Vice Chairman Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican, said in a joint statement that Mr. Ensign “has made the appropriate decision.”

Mr. Ensign, 53, admitted in 2009 to having an extramarital affair with Cynthia Hampton, a member of his campaign staff at the time. The senator is accused of helping her husband, Doug Hampton, a former top Ensign aide, set up as a lobbyist after he found out about the affair.

Federal law bars former Senate aides from lobbying in the Senate for a year after they leave their congressional jobs.

Mr. Ensign’s legal staff said last year the Justice Department had dropped a criminal investigation into the matter. The Federal Elections Commission also previously halted its own investigation.

Mr. Ensign has insisted he did nothing illegal.

“I was hopeful that, with the closure of these investigations against me, the wear and tear on my family and me would soon be over,” said Mr. Ensign in a statement Thursday. “This was not the case.”