Las Vegas Sun

September 2, 2015

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THE SENATOR’S SCANDAL:

In state GOP, Ensign finds few defenders

Governor, who has issues of his own, offers backing

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.

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You know you’re at a low point when the only person willing to stand beside you in your time of marital and political strife is Jim Gibbons, the beleaguered Nevada governor who was once accused of assaulting a cocktail waitress, is in the middle of an ugly divorce and has approval ratings below the freezing temperature of water.

But that’s where Sen. John Ensign stood last week, after he disclosed that he had a nine-month affair with a campaign staff member, who happened to be the wife of his top administrative aide. The silence among Nevada Republicans in the wake of the sex scandal has been deafening, making Gibbons’ statements of support, well, unique.

On Friday, Gibbons told the Reno Gazette-Journal he felt “very badly” for Ensign and his wife, Darlene, and that he would do whatever he could to help the couple.

Ensign’s office did not return a call seeking comment.

Republican operatives attribute the silence to the distance Ensign has placed between himself and the state party over the years. A fundraising firebrand as a freshman congressman, Ensign drifted from state party politics as his career in the Senate took off and his national star rose, said Steve Wark, a Republican consultant and former executive director of the state party.

The Nevada junior senator was never known for his grass-roots spadework, he said.

“This isn’t John Ensign’s Party. He doesn’t have the connections,” Wark said. “When a man finds himself in deep waters, it’s those relationships that give people the freedom, the obligation to issue statements and stick their necks out.”

He added: “Republicans have wanted him to step up for 14 years and they’re disappointed. Now they’re waiting on the sidelines to see what happens next.”

Chuck Muth, the conservative activist and onetime head of the Nevada Republican Party, said Ensign’s famous nonaggression pact with Sen. Harry Reid has angered partisan Republicans for years — and that the anger only intensified as Reid ascended to majority leader and now shepherds President Barack Obama’s agenda through Congress.

By contrast, Reid has invested heavily in the Nevada Democratic Party, in part to ensure his own political survival. Dogged by poor approval ratings and haunted by a razor-thin election win over Ensign, he turned the party into an organizing machine, helped cultivate a deep bench of political talent and maneuvered to win an early Nevada presidential caucus.

For Republicans, the effects have been devastating.

Last year, Obama won the state by 12 points and state Democrats won control of the Legislature for the first time in two decades. Democrats retain a 100,000-voter-registration edge.

For his part, Ensign was working to protect Republicans in the U.S. Senate as head of the party’s reelection arm. Republicans lost at least eight seats but Washington leadership applauded Ensign for the effort in a tough year and rewarded him with the Senate Republican policy chairmanship, the No. 4 slot in the party leadership. He became a fixture on the cable news circuit and even visited Iowa this month, stoking speculation that he was testing the political waters for a presidential run.

The plan, before last week’s revelations, seems to have been to turn his cachet into dollars for the Nevada Republican Party. After the 2008 election defeats, Ensign announced something called the Republican Renewal Project, a political action committee dedicated to rebuilding the state party, which has struggled to regain its footing after years of lackluster leadership.

A fundraising barbecue featuring Ensign set for Friday was canceled.

State Chairwoman Sue Lowden told the Associated Press last week the senator’s scandal “has no impact on the party or our plans for 2010.”

But the troubles could have dire consequences for the state party, said Eric Herzik, a University of Nevada, Reno, political scientist and registered Republican. He noted Gibbons’ deep unpopularity and Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki’s indictment over his handling of a state college savings program while state treasurer.

“Ensign was one of the few Republicans who could talk to all sides of the party, raise money, and all the factions in Nevada liked him,” Herzik said. “All the people you would look to for leadership are under a cloud now.

“You don’t have an established leader who opens doors, raises money and introduces new candidates to the public. Nevada doesn’t have a Republican who can do that with any credibility.

“Who’s left to say anything?” Herzik said. “The bench was thin to begin with. Ensign was the one remaining player, and now he’s on the disabled list.”

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