Two-term Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada will resign on Friday, Republican sources tell National Journal, ending a once-promising career that had the former veterinarian and casino manager eyeing a possible presidential bid before an ugly sex scandal and subsequent ethics probe snuffed out his ambition and, eventually, his Senate tenure.
Ensign’s resignation will clear the way for GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval to appoint GOP Rep. Dean Heller, already an announced candidate for Ensign’s seat, to the Senate vacancy.
Ensign, 53, began notifying Nevada friends of his intentions late Thursday. The senator has kept his distance from official GOP circles in Washington for months, but word quickly spread to GOP figures inside the Beltway who tell NJ they are certain Ensign will resign.
“We have no reason to doubt that it’s true and believe it’s happening,” a senior GOP official told NJ.
I’m pretty surprised to see this happen – Ensign had many chances to resign over the years, and sooner would have been better for him than later. But with his announcement six weeks ago that he wouldn’t seek re-election, there just didn’t seem to be a reason for him to quit early anymore. So either he’s doing one last solid for the GOP (as the National Journal notes, this will give Heller an easy and instant move into the Senate), or he’s worried that the still-pending ethics investigation against him will somehow make him look worse than he already does, or both.
I’m not sure whether a year-and-a-half of incumbency will make a huge difference in next year’s race (Heller would have to stand for re-election in November 2012), but I’m guessing Shelley Berkeley, the almost-certain Democratic nominee, would rather face Rep. Heller rather than Sen. Heller. I’ll be very curious to see how she reacts if this comes to pass, and what her strategy looks like.
One final observation: Assuming Sandoval does the obvious thing here, this would also create a vacancy in Heller’s 2nd CD seat. That would prompt a special election, presumably under existing district lines, which could be a very entertaining affair. Candidates have already been lining up for the GOP primary to replace Heller, so I’d guess they’d all likely run in a special election, too – and that includes Sharron Angle. If Dems put up a strong candidate, we could potentially steal this seat. It’s going to be interesting.
UPDATE: Ensign in fact decided to announce today, via press release. He says his resignation will be effective May 3.