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October 30, 2014

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THE SENATOR’S SCANDAL :

For Ensign, a new lot in Congress

Suddenly unpopular and much less powerful, senator adjusts to a low-key position in Senate politics

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Harry Hamburg / Associated Press

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., leaves a Republican policy luncheon Tuesday in Washington. Ensign was well received by his peers, fellow Republican senators said.

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Sen. John Ensign with his wife, Darlene, and Cynthia and Doug Hampton.

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 »

Ensign Admits Affair

U.S. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., acknowledged an extramarital affair with a campaign staff member Tuesday afternoon at the Lloyd George Federal Building in Las Vegas.

Sen. John Ensign admits affair

Sen. John Ensign holds a press conference announcing his affair with a staff member at the Lloyd George Federal Building in Las Vegas on Tuesday. Launch slideshow »

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  • Sen. John Ensign read a statement about his extramarital affair with a member of his campaign staff at a press conference on Tuesday, June 16, 2009.
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Beyond the Sun

Republican Sen. John Ensign is adjusting to his new political life, and it is a bit complicated.

On the one hand, he is the humbled senator who won applause Tuesday from his Republican Senate colleagues after apologizing for an affair with the wife of a senior staff member. Peers characterized his two-minute talk during their weekly luncheon as “contrite,” “heartfelt” and “sincere.”

And on the other hand, he is facing a backlash from conservatives calling for his resignation in both Washington (Fox News’ Sean Hannity) and Nevada (activist Chuck Muth), amid continued questions about the affair, his past absence in 2002 and early claims of extortion that have gone unresolved.

One thing is clear: The once-rising national star who pledged to use his growing political influence to rebuild Nevada’s troubled Republican Party will instead likely be using this time to lie low, toil away at policy and repair his own image with colleagues here and voters at home.

Probably no fundraising to boost the party’s fortunes. No appearances on the talk shows. No early stumping for Republican candidates who will run in 2010.

The senator who had a prime opportunity to help the party at home and nationally from his perch as the No. 4 Republican leader in the Senate is now, again, just one of 100.

“What he had worked for in the last three or four years is gone,” said Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst who monitors the Senate for the Cook Political Report.

“Even if he is asked to be a on a Sunday show in the next year, he probably shouldn’t do it.”

Besides the damage to his reputation and influence, he has taken practical losses.

In stepping down from his leadership position as chairman of the Senate’s Republican Policy Committee, Ensign forfeits his $1 million-plus policy office budget and a staff of 20 researchers, legislative analysts and others who supplied him with a steady stream of initiatives. (He maintains his Senate office.)

The committee provided Ensign a platform to become a national figure — enabling him to visit Iowa, as he did this month, to great speculation that he was eyeing a presidential run in 2012, and creating a sought-after voice for him on national issues.

It also afforded him the chance to tap campaign donations that might not be as plentiful now.

In Nevada the lost potential is clear. The state Republican Party suffers from an infrastructure deficit (it has no executive director). It lacks an obvious leader (Gov. Jim Gibbons’ approval rating is lower than the state’s unemployment rate, 10 percent and 11.6 percent, respectively).

Ensign could have provided direction for the Nevada party.

“I think people were looking to Ensign to fill that role, but I don’t know if he can do that right now,” Duffy said.

Nationally, while the Ensign affair may not be as salacious as the past dalliances of others with prostitutes or the men’s restroom sting that caught Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig, Washington seemed particularly concerned that the woman involved was on his staff.

When the affair started in December 2007, Cynthia Hampton worked on Ensign’s campaign committees, and was promoted within a few months to treasurer of one after her predecessor left. Her husband, Doug Hampton, was one of Ensign’s top aides in the Senate office, and the couple’s teenage son worked as a summer intern on the National Republican Senatorial Committee headed by Ensign.

The couple left the senator’s employment in May 2008. The affair continued until August.

One immediate political casualty is likely Ensign’s ability to campaign early for the candidate who will try to defeat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid next year.

Home state senators are expected to help raise money and stump for their party’s candidate — and Ensign was ready to do so in the race against Reid.

Surely, though, Ensign will reemerge on the campaign trail, and a spokesman for the party’s national senatorial campaign committee, Brian Walsh, downplayed the setback, saying the election remains 17 months away, “a lifetime in politics.”

Reid and Ensign have spoken several times since Ensign first called him a week ago to inform him of the affair. They spoke again Tuesday, though a Reid aide could not say what was discussed.

When asked about Ensign at a press briefing, Reid offered a history lesson, praising Ensign’s father, the casino mogul Mike Ensign.

“I have known the Ensign family for many, many years,” Reid said. “Everyone knows that Sen. Ensign and I had a very difficult race in 1998. We have become friends since then. I’m concerned about his family, and I hope he works his way through this.”

On Tuesday, Ensign sought the comfort zone of his Republican Senate peers, attending the weekly private luncheon he once organized when he was policy chairman.

Ensign spoke briefly at the start of the closed-door lunch, apologizing for having put his colleagues and his family in this position, those present said. No questions were asked. Applause was given.

Ensign was “very, very sincere, very heartfelt and very well received by the conference,” said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. “I just appreciate the way that he was today and I think everybody in our conference did. He was obviously somber, serious.”

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch said Ensign appeared “humble,” while Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia described the Nevadan as “contrite.”

“He expressed some great regret and I think it was sincere,” said Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is readying a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee, seeking an investigation into questions that remain about the affair — such as how the Hamptons were compensated, why they left their jobs and whether any severance pay was offered to Cynthia Hampton, as some news outlets have reported.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader from Kentucky, dismissed calls for an investigation, saying, “I think Sen. Ensign will address whatever needs to be said from here on.”

Ensign “apologized and indicated that he was going to do his job,” McConnell said.

But others were not so sure the issue was over.

Muth, the Nevada conservative activist, said Ensign should resign “for the good of the state, the good of the Republican Party.”

Hushed talks continue about Ensign’s sudden absence in 2002, which the Associated Press has reported involved his marriage.

Ensign’s office said Doug Hampton’s attorney demanded an “outrageous” sum of money and the senator came forward because the husband was approaching the media with the story — though the senator’s office has stopped short of saying Ensign was being blackmailed as sources identified as close to Ensign initially told some news outlets.

“This is not a clean have-a-press-conference-and-get-out,” a Democratic strategist said. “There are a lot of unanswered questions. I just think most people think there’s a lot more to come.”

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