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September 21, 2019

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The Senator’s Scandal:

For now, Ensign in GOP’s good graces

Senators won’t publicly second-guess Nevadan’s 2008 job performance in light of affair

Ensign in Washington

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., is seen talking with reporters on his way to a vote on Monday, June 22, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Launch slideshow »

Republican Sen. John Ensign was never much blamed for his party’s electoral losses in the Senate in 2008, when he was chairman of the electoral committee and handed Democrats a nearly filibuster-proof chamber.

Even now, with Ensign admitting an affair with a campaign aide during that time and e-mails emerging this week showing Ensign’s top staff at the National Republican Senatorial Committee struggling with the fallout from the affair in the months before the election, senators declined to play Monday morning quarterback on Ensign’s job performance.

Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, whose race became the sleeper hit of the 2008 cycle when he was forced into a run-off, had no complaints when asked if Ensign’s affair could have been a distraction.

“In my case, looking back, I don’t see it,” Chambliss said Tuesday.

“He’s said he’s sorry,” Chambliss said. “He’s moved on and we’re trying to move on.”

Yet under the surface, in less guarded discussions among Republican strategists in Washington, the time line of Ensign’s affair has provided a ready road map to help explain the party’s devastating losses in 2008.

“The buzz around Senate Republicans is, ‘No wonder we weren’t doing as well … they were distracted,’ ” a Republican strategist said Tuesday. “What were they doing over there this whole time? Clearly they didn’t have their eye on the ball.”

E-mails disclosed this week between the woman, Cynthia Hampton, and her husband, Doug Hampton, who had been a top Ensign aide, and the two top committee staff members show the emotional toll the affair was taking.

Ensign’s affair with Cynthia Hampton began in December 2007, just as the election season was getting under way.

By February 2008 Ensign was confronted about the affair by his peers, including fellow Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, at the Christian home they share with other lawmakers on C Street in Washington.

The Hamptons stopped working for Ensign in April, and that month Ensign’s wealthy parents gave the Hampton family $96,000. The senator’s attorney called it a gift during a difficult time, but an ethics group wants it investigated as a possible felony violation of campaign finance law.

The July e-mails between the Hamptons and the political committee’s top aides, the husband-wife team of Mike and Lindsey Slanker, came after Ensign helped Doug Hampton get a job at November Inc., the Slankers’ political firm in Nevada.

That summer the Hamptons’ teenage son worked at the political committee as an intern.

The senator has said the affair broke off by August. The election was a few months later.

Republicans lost eight seats in the November 2008 election, including the long-disputed Minnesota contest, and put Democrats within one seat of the 60 needed for a filibuster-proof majority.

The Senate has not had a 60-seat majority in 30 years. Sixty seats are needed to cut off debate in the Senate and advance legislation without protest from the minority party.

With Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter’s switch from Republican to Democrat this year, Democrats now have a 60-seat majority.

Yet Ensign was not punished for the losses, as his colleagues understood the bad political environment they faced. Then-President George W. Bush was highly unpopular, and Barack Obama was winning in states, including Nevada, that had not voted Democratic in years.

In fact, Ensign was promoted, winning an internal election to Senate leadership in the Republican Party, a position he resigned after going public with the affair.

Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, who took over as chairman of the committee for the 2010 election, said “2008 was a miserable year for Republicans. That was the biggest influence on the outcome.”

“Is someone suggesting his behavior, his private behavior, while he was chairman of the NRSC had an impact on the election?” said Republican Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah. “That’s a reach too long.

“The case could be made he did an extraordinary job because the losses weren’t worse than they were.”

When asked if Ensign’s situation had an effect on the races, former Republican Sen. John Sununu, who lost reelection last year in New Hampshire, said, “I’m sure it didn’t.”

Yet since Ensign went public with the affair seven weeks ago, Republican operatives in Washington have stitched together the time line and had an “aha!” moment.

The scuttle among those in the trenches when the news broke was what another Republican source in Washington called “the icing on the cake in a series of missteps.”

But now, even with the revelation of e-mails between the Hamptons and Slankers, Republicans in the Senate seem reluctant to engage in a story they hope will simply go away.

No one in Washington seems to be overtly calling for Ensign’s head, unless new developments emerge. They say Ensign’s fate is in the hands of Nevada voters when he is up for reelection in 2012.

“That’s frustrating to Senate Republicans to see the drip, drip, drip that was going on, because they trusted Ensign with their campaigns,” the Republican strategist said. “We’ll continue getting the drips. It’ll fill half a bucket.”

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