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Nevada Rep. Dean Heller launches bid to replace retiring Sen. John Ensign

The Republican congressman, beginning his fourth term, says he will run as a fiscal conservative. Ensign announced his retirement while facing an ethics inquiry over an affair he had with a campaign aide.

March 15, 2011|James Oliphant | Washington Bureau

Washington — Rep. Dean Heller of Nevada moved quickly Tuesday to try and fill the space left by the retiring Sen. John Ensign, announcing his bid to replace the embattled Republican.

Heller, 50, who just began his fourth term in Congress, cited hard economic times in his Nevada in his statement.  The unemployment rate in the state is 14% and it has been hammered by foreclosures.

He signaled that he’ll run as a fiscal conservative, saying he was the only member of the Nevada congressional delegation to vote against the Wall Street bailout” in 2007 and 2008. That includes Ensign, who made conservatives unhappy with his support of the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

But Ensign, of course, has bigger problems. His decision earlier this month to stand down in the 2012 race was greeted with signs of relief in GOP campaign circles. Ensign faces a Senate ethics inquiry stemming from his affair with a campaign aide, Cynthia Hampton, and a $96,000 payment to her husband—and questions surrounding the affair would have dogged any reelection effort.

Heller, who won three statewide elections as secretary of state, goes in as the early favorite. But much of the intrigue surrounding the race involves Sharron Angle, the "tea party" conservative whose challenge to Democratic Sen. Harry Reid in 2010 fizzled. Angle ran against Heller in the GOP primary in 2006, nearly winning.

Angle, now a fundraising powerhouse, could also choose to run for Heller’s seat in the House to add to that chamber’s growing tea party influence.

No Democrat has yet jumped in the Senate race, although Rep. Shelley Berkley is said to be considering a bid. Former Rep. Dina Titus, who lost her swing district to Republican Joe Heck in November, and Reid’s son, Rory, who faltered in his campaign for governor last year, could also be interested.

Heller’s announcement came in an email to supporters first obtained by Nevada political reporter Jon Ralston.

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