Birds of a tar-and-feather

Suppose you’re a handsome Nevada Republican who thinks you should be headed for bigger things. Your opponents don’t consider you the sharpest knife in the drawer, and not even your Republican allies adore you. But at least you all usually get along, and you consider them as convenient as they consider you. You have won some elections and lost some, but now you’re in a great position. Then you walk into a scandal. And once caught in that web, you keep getting in deeper and deeper. Finally, you end up almost a pariah, with your party wishing you would just go away.

Say, what is Jim Gibbons doing these days, anyway? Oh, you were thinking of John Ensign? Well, that’s the point.

To say Ensign and Gibbons have a lot in common compliments neither of them. Beyond that, they have some history: Reportedly, Gibbons wanted to challenge Harry Reid for his Senate seat in 2004, and, with the famous Reid-Ensign Non-Aggression Pact in place, Ensign showed little interest in helping him. When Ensign sought re-election in 2006 and Gibbons ran for governor, they didn’t exactly appear to be comrades-in-arms on the campaign trail.

But both embarrassed themselves, their state, their party and their families.

Gibbons had been an assemblyman who theatrically departed to serve in the Gulf War of 1991, with his slot filled by his devoted, loving wife, Dawn. He ran for governor in 1994 and lost big to incumbent Bob Miller in a supposedly Republican year. He did manage to get a measure on the ballot requiring two-thirds of the Legislature to approve any tax hike, thereby enabling Nevadans to commit state suicide.

Two years later, when Barbara Vucanovich retired after seven terms in the House, Gibbons easily won her seat and settled in as a back-bencher noted mainly for the number of times he made one-minute speeches and how his colleagues wouldn’t let him chair the Intelligence Committee.

Meanwhile, as Gibbons lost his bid for governor in 1994, Ensign, a little-known veterinarian, benefited from a badly run opposition campaign and the Newt Gingrich wave to win a House seat. He won two terms before coming within a whisker of beating Reid for a Senate seat in 1998.

Ensign’s next chance came when Richard Bryan decided two terms in the Senate were enough—not due to any scandal, but because he disliked the place’s cutthroat nature. Ensign cruised to two terms. While his legislative record never exactly inspired comparisons to Ted Kennedy or Bob Dole, he moved into the Senate leadership and even visited Iowa—presumably not to see Field of Dreams, though he certainly dreamed big.

So did Gibbons. He decided to come home in 2006 to run for governor. During the campaign, he faced accusations of hiring an illegal immigrant as nanny, feeding at a defense contractor’s trough and having an encounter with a cocktail waitress that culminated in an attempted assault (her version) or his trying to help an obviously drunken woman find her car so she could endanger lives on the road (his version).

Matters never improved while Gibbons was in office. As the economy collapsed and he sought to dismantle Nevada government, he dissembled about why he had to take the oath of office at the stroke of midnight (so he could block his predecessor Kenny Guinn’s appointments), spent more time texting and hanging out with alleged mistresses than governing, divorced his wife and accused The Wall Street Journal of being paid off by the Democratic party.

Meanwhile, Ensign figured, as a good Christian, he could have an affair with a staffer’s wife and no one would be disturbed if his parents gifted them $96,000 and he tried to help his friend win lobbying jobs.

Ensign and Gibbons weren’t exactly the gold-dust twins, but if you’re a Nevada Republican, you might want to be careful. If stupidity, hypocrisy, dishonesty and immorality are contagious, have you been infected?

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