U.S. Sen. John Ensign, a Nevada Republican who was investigated by the Justice Department following his extramarital affair with a former campaign aide, announced today that he won’t seek re-election next year.
Ensign in a statement apologized to his family, staff and supporters for the “pain” caused by his affair, and he said his opting not to run again was “the most difficult decision of my life.”
“I do not want to put my family, those that I care about, or this state through what would be a very ugly campaign that would ultimately cause a great deal more pain than has already been felt as a result of my actions,” Ensign said.
First elected to the Senate in 2000, Ensign was a member of the chamber’s Republican leadership when he disclosed in June 2009 that he had had an affair with the campaign aide. The Justice Department in December said Ensign was no longer a target into a probe of whether a severance payment he made to the aide was an illegal campaign contribution. The Senate’s ethics panel is still looking into allegations stemming from matter.
Ensign, 52, is the third Republican senator to decide to retire from office rather than seek re-election in 2012. Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison, 67, of Texas and Jon Kyl, 68, of Arizona made similar announcements earlier this year.
Democrats Daniel Akaka, 86, of Hawaii; Jeff Bingaman, 67, of New Mexico; Kent Conrad, 62, of North Dakota, and Jim Webb, 64, of Virginia have said that they won’t run again next year, as has independent Joe Lieberman, 68, of Connecticut, who caucuses with the Democrats.
Ensign’s decision avoids a potentially divisive Republican primary in which the two-term incumbent was seen as having little chance to win the nomination, said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. Gonzales said possible candidates for the Republican nomination include U.S. Representative Dean Heller, who has been leading Ensign in polls.
“It’s a headache avoided for Republicans,” said Gonzales, who rates the seat “Lean Republican.”
Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the Nevada race “will now come down to a clear choice” between a Republican nominee’s vision for smaller government and a Democrat “who believes in keeping our country on the same reckless fiscal path of more government and higher taxes.”
Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the seat remains “ripe for Democratic pickup.”
“Whoever Republicans field as their candidate will have a tough time holding onto this seat,” especially with President Barack Obama “at the top of the ticket” seeking re-election, Cecil said in a statement.
Ensign, a former veterinarian and hotel manager, was elected to the House of Representatives in 1994. In 1998 he ran unsuccessfully for the Senate against incumbent Democrat Harry Reid, now the chamber’s majority leader. Two years later, Ensign won an open Senate seat. He headed the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2007 and 2008, and then was chairman of the Senate’s Republican Policy Committee. He gave up that post when he acknowledged the affair after the woman’s husband went to Fox News with an account of the relationship.
Investigations of Ensign came after Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan group known as CREW, complained about the matter to the Senate ethics panel after Ensign disclosed the affair with Cynthia Hampton.
The panel earlier this year announced appointment of outside counsel to review whether Ensign violated federal law and Senate rules in the $96,000 payment made to Hampton. Such inquiries are conducted whether “substantial credible evidence” exists of an ethics violation, according to the committee’s Feb. 1 statement.
CREW urged the panel to investigate allegations by the woman and her husband, a former top aide on Ensign’s Senate staff, that they were dismissed from their jobs because of the affair and were paid severance. The group alleged, in part, that a $96,000 payment to Cynthia Hampton by Ensign’s parents may have amounted to an illegal contribution to the senator’s campaign.
The New York Times reported in October 2009 that Ensign helped Douglas Hampton secure business as a lobbyist for two companies whose executives had made donations to the senator’s political causes. Douglas Hampton lobbied Congress and federal agencies even though he was barred from doing so within a year of leaving his job on Ensign’s staff, the newspaper said.
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