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October 1, 2014

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The Senator’s Scandal:

E-mails pull Ensign back in affair cauldron

They reveal some GOP officials knew of trysts last summer, prolonging senator’s struggle

Ensign in Washington

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., is seen talking with reporters on his way to a vote on Monday, June 22, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Launch slideshow »

New Details, seg. 1

What did they know, and when did they know it? That is the question facing Republicans amid the revelation that GOP staff knew about U.S. Sen. John Ensign's affair with a former staff member before the 2008 election. Jon asks conservative political consultant Steve Wark and liberal blogger Erin Neff about that and a court ruling that could change the face of political campaigns in Nevada.

New Details, seg. 2

What did they know, and when did they know it? That is the question facing Republicans amid the revelation that GOP staff knew about U.S. Sen. John Ensign's affair with a former staff member before the 2008 election. Jon asks conservative political consultant Steve Wark and liberal blogger Erin Neff about that and a court ruling that could change the face of political campaigns in Nevada.

New Details, seg. 3

What did they know, and when did they know it? That is the question facing Republicans amid the revelation that GOP staff knew about U.S. Sen. John Ensign's affair with a former staff member before the 2008 election. Jon asks conservative political consultant Steve Wark and liberal blogger Erin Neff about that and a court ruling that could change the face of political campaigns in Nevada.

Republican Sen. John Ensign is methodically trying to turn the page after admitting to having an affair with a former campaign staffer, but new details make it difficult to move on as the story is still being written.

E-mails obtained Monday by Las Vegas Sun columnist Jon Ralston show that Ensign’s top staff at the National Republican Senatorial Committee knew of the affair last summer, before the party suffered severe losses in the 2008 election that put Democrats in sight of a filibuster-proof Senate.

Ensign largely received a pass from his colleagues after the devastating electoral defeat as eight Republican seats eventually switched to Democratic control. Mostly, they blamed the outcome on a bad year for the party as President George W. Bush’s popularity plummeted.

Even as it was disclosed last month that the senator’s parents gave $96,000 last year to the family of the woman, Ensign’s colleagues were reluctant to connect any dots stemming from the affair to the party’s losses.

Ensign in June admitted to having an affair with the former staffer, Cynthia Hampton, from December 2007 to August 2008. Her husband, Doug Hampton, had been one of the senator’s top aides and one of the senator’s best friends.

The new e-mails show in emotional detail the strain those involved faced.

Ensign’s top staff members at the campaign committee were Mike and Lindsey Slanker, the husband-wife team that also runs the Nevada-based consulting firm November Inc.

Mike Slanker worked as the national senatorial committee’s political director during the 2008 election cycle, and Lindsey Slanker was the national committee’s financial director at the time.

The senator had been confronted about the affair by peers at the Christian C Street home he shares in Washington, and the Hamptons stopped working for the senator in April 2008. Ensign helped Doug Hampton get a job with November Inc.

The e-mails obtained by Ralston show that Mike and Lindsey Slanker struggled last summer with the fallout.

One e-mail exchange dated July 10, 2008, between Mike Slanker and Doug Hampton with the subject line “hey man” shows the men discussing the tension between their families and in the work environment.

“While we can’t possibly understand what you must be going through, we struggle with being in the cross-hairs,” Mike Slanker wrote. “We are happy to give Cindy space if that helps things ... If our relationship with John makes that more difficult then we won’t pressure her to spend time with us.”

Another e-mail that day from Lindsey Slanker to Cynthia Hampton further discusses the effect the situation has had on their friendship.

“I feel like since the moment the entire truth came out I have tried to be nothing but a friend ... whether by listening, giving you a place to stay, or by leaving you alone,” Lindsey Slanker wrote.

Mike Slanker had previously told the Associated Press he was unaware of the affair.

Ralston reported Monday that Slanker told him he did not intend to mislead the media, and only learned of the affair after he agreed to hire Doug Hampton. Later Ensign’s wife, Darlene Ensign, told him of the affair, he said.

Doug Hampton has previously offered a similar recounting, saying it was the senator’s wife who told Mike Slanker about the affair.

After the electoral losses in fall 2008, Ensign went on to be elected by his peers to party leadership and was sometimes discussed as a possible presidential candidate in 2012.

But Ensign resigned that No. 4 position in GOP Senate leadership after going public with the affair, and an ethics group has sought federal ethics investigations saying the $96,000 gift to the Hamptons could be a felony violation of campaign finance law.

Another e-mail obtained by Ralston shows Doug Hampton reached out to former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum to intervene, further raising questions if Santorum tipped off Ensign that the husband was taking the affair to the media.

Ensign went public with the affair because he knew the husband had approached a major TV station. Santorum is affiliated with Fox News, and Hampton had asked Fox for help. Santorum declined to address the question when asked recently by Politico.

As the details of the affair dripped out this summer, Ensign’s approval rating back home nose-dived. Once the most popular politician in Nevada, he saw his approval rating drop to 31 percent in a matter of months.

What bothered Nevadans most, according to results of the Las Vegas Review-Journal poll, was that the senator’s affair was with his best friend’s wife.

Crisis experts have said the best route for Ensign to rehabilitate his image is to show he is working hard and trying to reconnect with voters.

Ensign has been trying to do just that. He dashed off a letter last week with other Republican senators regarding recovery spending and twice in one day spoke on the Senate floor.

But even as he tries to move on, new questions develop. The Wichita Eagle in Kansas reported that the Ensign affair may spell trouble for the senator’s father, gaming mogul Mike Ensign, who has proposed a casino project in that state.

Kansas gaming officials confirmed Monday that the $96,000 Ensign’s parents gave will be part of their background investigation if Mike Ensign’s Prairie Sky Casino project is chosen to move forward for licensing.

“The winning group would go through a full background investigation in order to get the certification of the commission,” said Mike Deines, a spokesman for the Kansas Racing and Gaming Commission.

A decision is expected later this year after the Kansas Lottery reviews the application. Lottery executive director Ed Van Petten said that if the project advances to the racing and gaming commission, “that issue will be looked at.”

Time may mend Ensign’s relationship with voters, and the senator is not up for reelection until 2012.

Ensign was always a popular but somewhat distant figure to Nevadans. The party in Nevada has declined to take any formal reprimand against the senator, but party leaders haven’t rallied prominently to his support.

And so Ensign must rebuild his standing slowly, one speech, one handshake at a time.

“He needs to be out there,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior analyst at the Cook Political Report. “Voters need to see him working.”

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