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January 23, 2018

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Ensign fallout could weaken GOP efforts to rebuild party at state, national levels

Analysis: Republican emphasis on faith could backfire when conduct fails to meet ideals


Sam Morris

Sen. John Ensign speaks to the media Tuesday at the Lloyd George Federal Building in Las Vegas about an affair he had with a former staffer.

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.

Sen. John Ensign admits affair

Sen. John Ensign holds a press conference announcing his affair with a staff member at the Lloyd George Federal Building in Las Vegas on Tuesday. Launch slideshow »

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  • Sen. John Ensign read a statement about his extramarital affair with a member of his campaign staff at a press conference on Tuesday, June 16, 2009.

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Sen. John Ensign, with his wife, Darlene, and their children, speaks to supporters during a Republican party at the Red Rock Resort on Nov. 7, 2006.

Beyond the Sun

The Republican Party didn’t make a deal with the devil.

It made a deal with God, or at least people who said they were God’s representatives — a certain class of very political and ideological preachers.

The deal, engineered by Republican operatives such as Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, went like this: Be against gays and abortion and for prayer in the schools, and in return, those preachers would proclaim the GOP the party of God and deliver millions of suburban and rural voters — enough to win elections for three decades.

But the deal carried a risk: Any behavior by Republican officeholders or public figures that seemed at odds with a certain kind of Old Testament morality — a tryst in an airport bathroom, a painkiller addiction, a sexual harassment lawsuit — and voters might feel betrayed and manipulated.

And the deal would collapse.

The risk is surely now outweighing the reward, if the past few years are any indication. As Nevada’s rising star Republican Sen. John Ensign acknowledged an affair with the wife of a top aide who was also a friend, Republican Party fortunes in Nevada and nationwide — already at their lowest ebb in 45 years — fell still further.

Ensign has never been like other Nevada Republicans, who have tended to come from the libertarian wing of the party. Ensign is a proud social conservative.

“The problem is, he’s another one of these Bible-thumping Republicans,” said a Republican operative who asked to remain anonymous to speak candidly about the situation.

“When you take the social conservative banner, there’s a higher level of scrutiny on these kinds of things,” he said. “The public comes down a lot harder on people who carry that banner,” he added.

American social mores have become more tolerant in recent decades, and in the process, voters have become more accepting of different sexual orientations (see Rep. Barney Frank); drug use (see Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama); and extramarital affairs (see President Bill Clinton.)

But there’s still one unforgivable sin: Hypocrisy.

“People have survived extramarital affairs, but he’s got a hypocrisy problem to deal with,” said another Nevada Republican operative who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about a fellow Republican. “He’s got a serious hypocrisy problem.”

During his first Senate campaign in 1998 against Sen. Harry Reid, Ensign called for Clinton’s resignation in light of his acknowledged affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, saying Clinton “has no credibility left.”

Now we know that Ensign had an affair with a member of his staff. He also betrayed the woman’s husband, a close friend who also worked for him — not unlike San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Recall that Republicans like to use “San Francisco values” as an epithet.

Ensign also must now account for his prior defense of “traditional” marriage. In calling for a constitutional amendment to ban gays from marrying, he said, “Marriage is an extremely important institution in this country and protecting it is, in my mind, worth the extraordinary step of amending our constitution.”

Ensign was head of Senate Republican election efforts last year, an effort that failed badly. He tried to get Sen. Larry Craig to resign his seat after the Idaho Republican pleaded guilty in 2007 to soliciting sex from a man in an airport bathroom.

Ensign called Craig “a disgrace.”

A few months later, Ensign’s own affair began.

His news conference Tuesday was like so many others, now almost routine political theater, involving fallen public officials. The head-down contrition. Pledges of solidarity and forgiveness from the wife, though in this case, he had the good sense to leave her at home.

Though, as usual, Ensign was tanned and without a hair out of place, he looked shaken and sullen.

“I know I have deeply hurt and disappointed my wife, Darlene, my children, my family, my friends, my staff and all of those who believed in me,” he said.

The numbers do not lie. Fewer than one-quarter of Americans identify themselves as Republicans, according to recent polls. The Republican Party needs to consider a new deal because this one with the religious right is failing.

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