Senator John Ensign announced Monday, “As you all know, campaigns are ugly enough today. I don’t want to put my family through that. For that reason, I won’t be seeking re-election in 2012,” he told a press conference. For that reason? No, for every reason but that.
As a Review-Journal report noted, Ensign gave no signs to fellow Republicans that his announcement impended. Why? That actually ties in with a problem that ultimately may have been bigger than his affair and whether his wife and God have forgiven him: Republicans apparently hadn’t, and not over his hypocrisy.
That Ensign played this close to the vest is telling. As a U.S. senator, Ensign has been the state’s highest-ranking Republican for a decade. His Senate counterpart, Harry Reid, has spent a lot of time building up the Democratic party (and annoying some Democrats in the process) for reasons good (he brought the early presidential caucus here and heavily touted it when others doubted it would be successful) and bad (he has involved himself in some lower-level campaigns). Ensign has displayed little to no interest in similar activities. Many rank-and-file Nevada Republicans resented his lack of attention to building their party.
Nor have fellow Republicans liked his longtime non-aggression pact with Reid. Wisely, the two of them agreed to avoid personal attacks that might present the picture of a divided Nevada when the state was under attack, or at least under threat of a nuclear waste dump. Unwisely, Ensign even gave Reid the right to appoint every fourth federal judge when that was a Republican selection. (Reid used it to sideline a popular Republican named Brian Sandoval, albeit not permanently.)
Thus, Ensign didn’t have interest at the bank of party goodwill to draw on. Consider David Vitter, the senator from Louisiana who was tied to prostitutes. Granted, Louisiana and Nevada are very different places (except during Mardi Gras), with very different party structures. But Vitter had few problems within his party in pursuing re-election.
So, Ensign wanted to avoid ugliness in the form of endless commercials about the $96,000 his parents gave to his former mistress and her family; the claims that he then helped the husband (a former member of his staff) of his former mistress in possible violation of Senate rules; and his transparent hypocrisy. (Ensign voted to impeach Bill Clinton, hanged former colleague Larry Craig out to dry, was part of the Christian C Street group, belonged to PromiseKeepers, and despite all that, forgot that commandment about coveting somebody else’s wife).
All of which begs the question: Didn’t he know that before Monday? If so, why was he trying to raise campaign money as recently as last week? Did his family start mattering to him only when the decline in his fund-raising ability and bad polling numbers (Heller had a poll showing Ensign losing to him by 15 points) became clear?
So, by not seeking re-election, he may well save face, because chances are he would have lost. It would have given him even more in common with former Gov. Jim Gibbons than hypocrisy. Nevada Republicans might question Ensign’s judgment, but they might want to ponder their own.
Michael Green professor of history at CSN.