By Paul Kane and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), considered a rising star in the Republican Party, yesterday acknowledged an extramarital affair with a former campaign staffer who is married to one of the lawmaker's former legislative aides.
Ensign, a member of the Senate Republican leadership, disclosed the affair at a hastily arranged news briefing in Las Vegas, his home town. He flew home yesterday morning after informing GOP leaders on Capitol Hill of his impending announcement, missing a vote on tourism legislation considered important to Nevada's casino industry.
The news was the latest setback for a party that suffered losses of at least 13 Senate seats in the past two elections and saw Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) defect to the Democrats in April. Any further instability in their ranks is unwelcome news for Republicans, who viewed Ensign as a telegenic communicator who could deliver the conservative message on political talk shows in a congenial matter.
Ensign did not directly comment about his political future but said he was "committed to my service in the United States Senate." He does not face reelection until 2012 and had taken preliminary steps to explore a run for the White House that year, making a trip three weeks ago to Iowa, the first testing ground on the presidential primary calendar.
"I deeply regret and am very sorry for my actions," Ensign said, reading from a prepared statement and leaving without taking questions. Ensign's wife, Darlene, was not at her husband's side during the short briefing but issued a statement saying the couple's marriage has become "stronger" after the affair.
"I love my husband," she said in her statement.
Other members of the Senate Republican leadership declined to comment yesterday on Ensign's admission. GOP leaders had hoped to spend the next few months focused on Nevada's other senator, Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D), who is up for reelection in 2010 and is considered potentially vulnerable to a challenge.
Ensign is considered a leading voice among social conservatives in the GOP. In 1998, as a House member running against Reid, he called on President Bill Clinton to resign after revelations about his affair with a White House intern. "He sent taxpayer-paid staff out to lie for him, and that is a misuse of office," Ensign said, adding that the president had "no credibility left."
In September 2007, Ensign called then-Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) "embarrassing" after Craig was arrested in an airport men's restroom and pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in a sex sting. Ensign played the leading role in an unsuccessful effort to force Craig into resigning from the Senate immediately.
Ensign's affair began a few months after he called for his colleague to resign, according to a timeline provided by his office. Beginning in December 2007 and continuing until last August, Ensign had a "consensual affair" with a campaign staffer who was "married to an official Senate staffer," the statement from his office said.
Ensign said both the husband and the wife had left his political or legislative payrolls by May 2008.
GOP strategists were divided yesterday about the impact of this latest revelation on the party's image. Some argued that it would reinforce voter impressions of a Republican brand that has been dogged by controversies over the past several years, from Craig's sex scandal to the investigations of imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff's dealings with congressional Republicans.
"This is yet another reminder as to why the American people have chosen new management for the foreseeable future," said John Weaver, a former senior adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "Nothing is shocking in Washington, of course, except the audacity of politicians who believe rules don't apply to them."
Others suggested that Ensign's affair was an isolated incident that would have little impact on the party. "This news is a personal issue affecting John Ensign, his family and their privacy," said Kevin Madden, a Republican consultant and senior adviser to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. "I'd argue that it's an analytical reach for opponents to try and assign a negative political impact on the fortunes of the national party because of this revelation."
Ensign acknowledged in a recent interview with The Washington Post that he was seeking to raise his national profile out of a belief that a dearth of effective GOP messengers was handicapping the party's comeback. "We have a responsibility to get our message out," Ensign said. Asked directly about his presidential ambitions, he said that most children dream of being president one day and that it was "not something I would ever rule out."
Ensign's political career appeared to be all but dead a decade ago, after he lost to Reid by the razor-thin margin of 428 votes in their bitter 1998 race. But then Nevada's other senator, Democrat Richard H. Bryan, announced his intention to retire in 2000, and Ensign jumped into that race, easily winning office and quickly becoming a favorite of GOP leaders.
The son of a casino magnate, Ensign is a prodigious fundraiser and was tasked with chairing the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the 2008 election cycle, a brutal period for Republicans. Despite overseeing the loss of at least seven seats, Ensign was not blamed and instead was promoted to be chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, the No. 4 leadership position for Senate Republicans.
Ensign's personal life has caused other absences from the Capitol in the past.
In February 2002, Ensign took an unexplained two-week leave from the Senate, citing "personal reasons." When he returned, he told the Las Vegas Sun that he was "not making any comments one way or the other. I'm just asking people to respect my privacy."
Staff writer James V. Grimaldi contributed to this report.