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Sen. John Ensign complicates Nevada campaigns

As Nevada candidates gear up for 2010, there are risks to either condemning or supporting the senator, who in June acknowledged an extramarital affair with an aide.

October 11, 2009|Ashley Powers

RENO — Politically speaking, Sen. John Ensign of Nevada is about as battered as it gets.

The Republican senator in June acknowledged an extramarital affair with a campaign aide, who was married to his best friend, who has castigated Ensign in television interviews as a shameless Lothario.

In recent days, after the New York Times reported on Ensign's efforts to silence his mistress' husband, Doug Hampton, the Senate ethics committee launched an investigation and talk surfaced of a possible FBI inquiry.

Ensign has said he won't resign, and Nevada's GOP is widely considered too emasculated to push him out. Regardless of what voters think -- Ensign's approval rating in August was a dismal 30% -- they can't weigh in until 2012.

So instead Ensign has, for a time, become a player in two of next year's highest-profile races.

Nevada's political elite -- including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat -- is struggling with whether to stand by its man. Last week alone, liberals castigated Reid for staying out of the Ensign fray and one of Reid's potential challengers, Sue Lowden, for defending him.

As long as Ensign's woes keep making headlines, candidates will be asked to comment on his travails. In a state with fewer residents than Orange County and only a few major campaign donors, there are risks to either embracing or ignoring the onetime GOP golden boy.

"No one wants to speak ill of him if this blows away, especially if he wins reelection and remains a political player," said Kenneth Fernandez, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "But right now, he's sort of a pariah. No one wants to get too close to him."

Complicating things: Ensign's greatest potential sin -- possibly helping Hampton sidestep a federal lobbying law -- is tough to explain to voters. Even as watchdog groups call for Ensign's head, many Nevadans are preoccupied with the state's 13% unemployment rate.

"Who slept with whom -- that's a distraction," said Darren Johnson, 23, a Reno Web developer who voted for President Obama. "If a CEO of a company did the same thing, we wouldn't care."

For years, Ensign was among the most popular politicians in a state where the federal government is often viewed as anathema. With anchorman looks and casino money -- his father is a former gaming executive -- Ensign nearly knocked off Reid in 1998. He won his own seat in 2000. Even as Nevada swooned over Obama, who won the state by 12 points, Ensign seemed safe.

But since admitting having an affair with Hampton's wife, Ensign has been sidelined, stripping the GOP of a key campaigner when Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons is also hamstrung by gloomy polling and accusations of infidelity.

"His absence alone is felt because somebody has to pick up the slack, and things are such a mess in the party overall that I'm not sure who does that," said Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Ensign's affair has lingered in the news. First, his attorney acknowledged that Ensign's parents wrote the Hamptons a $96,000 check after they left his employ. This invited not only mockery -- "What kind of man lets his parents clean up his mistakes?" a Washington Post editorial recently wondered -- but also squabbling among the state's gubernatorial hopefuls.

Although Gibbons is running for reelection next year, he faces a number of Republican challengers who've voiced few policy differences. (None of them, for example, likes taxes.)

"If you can hang John Ensign around an opponent's neck in any meaningful way, it'll probably give you an advantage," said Steve Wark, an advisor to GOP candidate Mike Montandon. "Many Republicans, even if they say they'd vote for John Ensign, are probably embarrassed about what he did."

In September, after Ensign supposedly bragged about recruiting former state Atty. Gen. Brian Sandoval to the race, Montandon issued a scathing news release:

"U.S. Sen. John Ensign displayed bad judgment when he had an affair with his best friend's wife, and now he's displaying more bad judgment in his endorsement and recruitment of Brian Sandoval for governor."

For his part, Sandoval tried to distance himself from Ensign, saying his role was limited to a couple of conversations.

As election season heats up, Democratic consultant Dan Hart said candidates could easily use Ensign as shorthand for hypocrisy. A social conservative and member of the Promise Keepers ministry, Ensign voted to impeach President Clinton and has railed against gay marriage.

"He wore his devoutness on his sleeve, and yet things keep coming out," Hart said.

This month, the New York Times described how Ensign pushed Hampton out of Washington and got him a job in Las Vegas. Hampton talked to Ensign's office on behalf of clients NV Energy and Allegiant Air, possibly violating a law that barred him from lobbying his old boss for a year, the paper reported.

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