Wednesday, June 17, 2009 | 2 a.m.
- 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.
Beyond the Sun
Nevada politics were thrown into turmoil, and the state’s Republican Party suffered another serious setback Tuesday as Sen. John Ensign acknowledged an extramarital affair with a staff member who was the wife of a top aide to the senator.
The woman is believed to be Cynthia Hampton, then-treasurer of the senator’s campaign and political action committee. Her husband, Doug Hampton, was a senior member of Ensign’s Senate staff.
Ensign’s afternoon news conference at the Lloyd D. George Federal Courthouse was just the midpoint of one of the strangest days — and most damaging for Republicans — in recent Nevada political history.
Ensign read a brief prepared statement in which he expressed regret and took no questions.
“I came back home to Nevada to come forward to explain to the citizens of our state something I was involved in about a year ago. Last year I had an affair. I violated the vows of our marriage. It is absolutely the worst thing I have ever done in my life,” Ensign said in a meeting room at the courthouse.
Ensign said he sought and received forgiveness from his wife and that the couple had gone to counseling. He said he is still committed to serving the people of Nevada.
Still, the day’s events are likely to distract him from his efforts to rebuild the Nevada Republican Party.
It is not yet clear what impact Ensign’s affair will have on his apparent move toward national prominence.
Ensign has a history as a strong social conservative — he is a member of the Promise Keepers and is likely to face charges of hypocrisy.
The affair took place between December 2007 and August 2008. The Hamptons, who could not be reached for comment, have not worked for the senator since May 2008.
“I take full responsibility for my actions,” Ensign said. “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.”
Darlene Ensign released a statement about the affair:
“Since we found out last year we have worked through the situation and we have come to a reconciliation. This has been difficult on both families. With the help of our family and close friends our marriage has become stronger,” Darlene Ensign said.
John Ensign, first elected to Congress with the Republican wave in 1994 and then to the U.S. Senate in 2000, was thought to be a rising star in both state and national politics. He’s become a fixture on the Beltway talk show circuit and had been thought to be a potential national candidate in 2012, offering reliably conservative views and TV good looks.
He ran Senate Republican election efforts last year — an effort that failed badly with Republicans losing eight and as many as nine seats if Al Franken of Minnesota gets seated.
Still, he rose to become chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, which is the No. 4 position on the leadership ladder.
He traveled this month to Iowa, which holds the first presidential caucus on the nominating calendar, to test the waters.
Nevada political operatives said Ensign could recover but added he has a “hypocrisy problem” because he has been a social as well as fiscal conservative.
He called on Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, who pled guilty in 2007 to soliciting sex in a Minneapolis airport bathroom, to resign. He said during his 1998 Senate campaign that then-President Bill Clinton should resign because of his affair with an intern. And he has defended the “sanctity of marriage.”
For Nevada Republicans, the revelations interrupt hopes that Ensign would help rebuild the party following massive losses in 2008. Ensign, who consistently polls the best among Nevada elected officials, had pledged to help rebuild the party by raising money and organizing grass-roots support.
Robert Uithoven, a Republican operative who got into politics by volunteering for Ensign’s 1994 campaign, said Ensign can come back.
“Since 1994 John Ensign has established a lot of good will. He’s been an effective member of the House and Senate, and is one of the most effective elected figures in Nevada. Because of that he has a very good chance of healing this situation,” he said.
“These things are not the career killers they used to be,” said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races at the Cook Political Report in Washington.
But Ensign’s personal life would seem to be intruding on his efforts to rebuild in Nevada, as several Republican operatives acknowledged Tuesday.
Sun partner Politico, as well as Fox News and other outlets, reported that Ensign was the subject of an extortion threat related to the affair. They also reported that Ensign had given Hampton a severance when she left the employ of his campaign committees.
The Sun could not confirm the reports.
Nevada Republicans began trading rumors early Tuesday.
In the front of their minds, Republicans were reminded that Ensign had been suddenly absent from Washington in 2002 and declined to offer details about why he took two weeks off from his job in Congress to tend to a “personal matter,” which was assumed to be related to his marriage.
“I’m not making any comments one way or the other,” Ensign said at the time. “I’m just asking people to respect my privacy.”
Washington started whispering Tuesday afternoon when Ensign failed to show up for the Republican Party’s weekly policy lunch or attend a leadership news conference that followed.
Ensign, as the fourth-ranking leader in his party and chairman of the Senate’s Republican Policy Committee, is often central to both.
The Washington Post first reported the story Tuesday.
Ensign’s office did not respond to several e-mailed questions from the Sun.
The questions included:
• Was Cynthia Hampton given a severance, and if so, why?
• Did Ensign secure employment for Doug Hampton after his departure from Ensign’s political and legislative orbit?
• If Ensign was the victim of an extortion attempt, did he alert authorities?
While Ensign confronts these questions, Nevada Republicans are temporarily without a leading figure. Gibbons is going through a messy divorce and is one of the least popular elected officials in the country.
Sun reporters Michael J. Mishak, Mary Manning and Steve Kanigher contributed to this report.