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Sen. John Ensign of Nevada won't run again

The two-term Republican has come under Senate Ethics Committee scrutiny since admitting an extramarital affair with a top aide's wife.

March 08, 2011|By Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times
  • Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) announced plans to step down in 2012, facing lackluster funding and a Senate ethics inquiry.
Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) announced plans to step down in 2012, facing lackluster… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)

Reporting from Las Vegas — — Dogged by an extramarital affair, a Senate ethics investigation and lackluster fundraising, Nevada Sen. John Ensign announced Monday he would retire in 2012.

The two-term Republican said he wanted to spare his family from an "exceptionally ugly" race that was sure to rehash Ensign's dalliance with his top aide's wife.

"There are consequences to sin, and when you're in a leadership role, those consequences can affect a lot of other people," he said.

Ensign spoke at the same Las Vegas courthouse where he apologized in 2009 for the affair with the wife of Doug Hampton. She also worked for the senator.

Ensign's wife, Darlene, stood at his side during the brief news conference. When he spoke of earning her forgiveness — and God's — she smiled at him and patted his back.

"I'm putting my family first instead of my career," he said.

But other factors probably played a role in swaying Ensign, the eighth senator — and third Republican — to announce plans to retire in 2012.

Though Ensign repeatedly insisted he would run again, he faced a potentially stiff primary challenge from Rep. Dean Heller, a former Nevada secretary of state and the preferred candidate of national Republicans. Last month, Heller — who has not announced a candidacy — released a poll that showed him trouncing Ensign by 15 percentage points.

Analysts said Ensign's retirement helped shore up the GOP's chances of hanging onto the seat, though the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee called it "ripe for a Democratic pickup."

The Senate Ethics Committee recently named a special counsel to investigate whether Ensign violated ethics rules and federal law after his affair with Cynthia Hampton. Ensign's wealthy parents wrote the Hamptons a $96,000 check after they left his employ, which critics termed an improper contribution and the Ensigns defended as a gift.

On Monday, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington called for Ensign's resignation.

In response to questioning Monday, Ensign defended his actions, which included helping Doug Hampton find work with firms that lobbied his office. Doug Hampton later pressed Ensign to publicly admit the affair.

"If I was concerned about that, I would resign," Ensign said of the ethics inquiry. "That would make the most sense, because then it goes away. … Resigning would be admitting guilt, and I did not do the things that they're saying."

Regardless of how the investigation is resolved — the Justice Department declined to pursue criminal charges — the accusations would have cast a shadow over Ensign's reelection bid.

Once a member of the GOP's Senate leadership and a fixture on the cable news circuit, Ensign now suffers from dismal approval ratings.

A social conservative and member of the Promise Keepers, a Christian group that promotes marital fidelity, Ensign also opened himself to charges of hypocrisy. He had railed against same-sex marriage and, while serving in the House, had called for President Clinton to step down in the aftermath of his relationship with an intern.

Also, in recent months, Ensign's attempts to rekindle his relationship with donors and voters have sputtered.

At the end of December, Ensign had about $225,000 on hand, a paltry sum for a race that will probably cost millions. Heller had about $815,000, while Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, who is also considering a Senate bid, had banked more than $1 million.

Last month, during a forum in the Las Vegas area, a woman asked Ensign whether he had repented to God. Yes, he told her. "It's something I will regret for the rest of my life," the Las Vegas Review-Journal quoted him as saying. "If I could ever take back anything that I've ever done, this is it."

ashley.powers@latimes.com

Michael A. Memoli and Lisa Mascaro in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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