POLITICS
12/03/2010 02:39 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

John Ensign Could Face Major Challenges In 2012

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) may no longer be the subject of an investigation into whether he violated federal restrictions after partaking in an extramarital affair with the wife of one of his top campaign staffers, but that is just a small step toward brushing Nevada's desert dust from the gears of his quest for reelection.

Ensign officially announced last month that he'd be mounting a campaign return to the seat that he first won in 2000, claiming that he still had "a lot to offer the state and our country." But Nevada's GOP doesn't seem ready to hand him the party's keys to the vital Senate seat.

Roll Call reports that U.S. Rep. Dean Heller has been receiving internal pressure to move forward in an effort to challenge Ensign in a primary, and many Nevada politicos view him as a strong and respectable alternative to the scandal-plagued Ensign.

Meanwhile, Republican National Committeewoman Heidi Smith recently told Roll Call that some newly formed political action committees and other "big-money groups" were looking to put Ensign in the crosshairs. "I think that John Ensign is going to have a lot of competition," Smith predicted.

The mobilization of monetary interests against Ensign or toward a challenger could be particularly draining on the incumbent, who spent more than a half million dollars on legal fees during a three-month period earlier this year.

The Las Vegas Sun reported last month that Ensign's road to reelection was also complicated by both poor fundraising numbers, as well as the clear insecurity of Republican operatives in the state:

Nevada's GOP is in acute rebuilding mode after an ugly primary and 2010 midterm season in which several Republican leaders split from their base to back Democrat Sen. Harry Reid.

Influential GOP members say Ensign has never taken the time to build up the base, or fortify the favor-based friendships every politician needs to call in when he's accused of sleeping with his staffer's wife and covering it up with campaign funds.

And while potential primary challenges loom, some Republicans are reportedly not convinced that Ensign will choose to run for reelection in 2012.