Smack in the center of the fight for Congress

LAS VEGAS — LAS VEGAS -- Call him "Landslide" Ensign because the freshman Republican congressman won his seat by just 1,436 votes out of 152,167 votes cast. Or call him "Bull's-Eye" Ensign, because that is how he must feel, being smack dab at the center of the Democrats' target in their campaign to recapture the House of Representatives. But don't try to call him because he is probably heading for the airport to catch the red-eye flight back to Washington.

Such rigors are required if Republicans are going to retain what most of them value more than the presidency -- control of Congress.


Nevada, which for more than three decades has been the nation's fastest growing state, still has only two congressional districts. John Ensign's district is essentially this city. The other is the other 99.8 percent of the state, a territory the size of 1 1/2 New Englands. The big district is the more Republican. Even with a Republican riptide running in 1994, Mr. Ensign carried his heavily unionized urban district only because of an October revelation that the incumbent was sponsoring legislation that would have meant a financial windfall to one of his friends.

Seven hundred thousand dollars buys bushels of broadcast time in this market, and Mr. Ensign says his district already has been flooded with approximately that much advertising against him, most of it purchased by the AFL-CIO. The editor of one of this city's newspapers is the president's boon companion, having managed Bill Clinton's successful campaign for class president when they were classmates at Georgetown University.


Mr. Ensign, even facing an opponent (a state senator) with the forbidding name of Coffin, would be forgiven for feeling put upon by fate.

Liking his chances

However, he likes his odds. He says both his parents got started in "the gaming industry," as Nevadans call it, by "carrying change" at Harrah's Casino in Reno. His father is now a senior executive at Circus Circus casino on The Strip. Mr. Ensign has double-digit leads in various polls, ample campaign funds and an underfunded opponent.

However, in Mr. Ensign's district from May 1995 to May 1996, Newt Gingrich's negatives soared 31 points, from 30 to 61. And Mr. Ensign's door-to-door campaigning tells him that his constituents don't cotton to Bob Dole's decision to slip-slide away from repealing the ban on assault weapons. "People out here like their guns," says Mr. Ensign, who deserves at least a silver medal in the Olympic understatement competition.

Nevada, writes Michael Barone in his "Almanac of American Politics," has been a "second chance" state, with mining and gambling -- sorry, gaming -- attracting lots of freebooters who think they can beat the odds. The influx of go-getters (not always paladins of family values: the state has the nation's highest divorce rate and largest percentage of non-family households) recently made Nevada tilt toward the Republicans.

But now it is a swing state. Both its representatives are Republicans, but it has two Democratic senators in their second terms; Bill Clinton beat George Bush 37 percent to 35 percent, with Ross Perot -- speaking of freebooters -- getting 26.2 percent. All politics is local? Not any more. Mr. Ensign says the national Democratic Party is doing well, if not good, by its relentless national message, "Republicans are cutting Medicare and Medicaid and education and the environment," which Mr. Ensign repeats as though it is a single word: "meanttopayfortaxcutsfortherich."

Still, some national issues are intensely local in a state where the federal government owns 87.2 percent of the land. A Republican senator from Nevada once said he did not want his state to become a nuclear waste "suppository," and Nevadans reach for their assault weapons when talk turns to legislation in Congress that would increase the use of Nevada as a repository for such waste. Mr. Ensign says that if a Republican-controlled Congress passes that legislation, Mr. Clinton will veto it, and Mr. Dole will lose the state and Republicans will lose both congressional seats.

By now Nevada should be used to being a plaything in national struggles. In 1864 Republicans, thinking Lincoln's re-election might require Nevada's three electoral votes, snuck it into statehood even though the state's population was too small to qualify it for statehood. This year control of the House could turn on whether Mr. Ensign's district reaffirms or revises its 1,436-vote decision.


George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/05/96