Could senator's scandal hurt advocacy for gaming, tourism?

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*logoWhat a difference a few weeks makes. At the beginning of the month, pundits thought Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader, was the most vulnerable of Nevada's two senators. State polls showed middling approval numbers for Reid, whose snippy, impersonal and partisan style has never gone over well here or on Capitol Hill.

Republican Sen. John Ensign, on the other hand, seemed to be on the fast track to political stardom: He was likable, good-looking, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (the No. 4 man in party leadership) and touted as a possible 2012 presidential contender after an April speech in Iowa.

It all came crashing down last week as Ensign admitted to having an affair with a former staffer. As commentators debate Ensign's political future, the bigger concern for Las Vegans should be the scandal's short- and long-term effects on gaming and tourism.

Per an agreement made after he won a Senate seat in 2000, Ensign has worked with Reid on issues important to Nevada; they agreed to never attack each other. The bond has held through partisan fights (Ensign defied party orthodoxy to oppose a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain) and on common-ground issues such as protecting the gaming industry.

Casino companies have been generous campaign contributors. In turn, Ensign has fought against stringent gaming regulations and advocated for tourism. He and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) sponsored the Travel Promotion Act, which appropriates $200 million to promote the U.S. as a tourist destination. In interviews, Ensign and Reid said the legislation would create 230,000 jobs in Nevada alone.

Ensign's casino ties run deep: Raised by a single mother who was a casino "change girl" and adopted by gaming mogul Michael Ensign (former chairman of the Mandalay Resort Group), he managed the Gold Strike hotel-casino before entering politics.

The scandal has weakened Ensign. Whether the damage is permanent remains to be seen, but what's clear is that a politically weakened John Ensign (he resigned his NRSC position) is a less effective advocate for industries that desperately need champions.

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