It was beginning to look like the worst was over for U.S. Sen. John Ensign. But a rash of new revelations last week complicated the political picture for the Nevada Republican, who last month disclosed an extramarital affair with a former staffer.
The news that Ensign's parents paid nearly $100,000 to the family of his former mistress, and the emergence into the media spotlight of her aggrieved husband, served to raise new questions.
"It seems like we were moving beyond the affair itself," said Bernie Zadrowski, chairman of the Clark County Republican Party. "But now, every day there's something new. This thing with the monetary gifts to the family has taken a toll on people who were otherwise quite supportive of the senator."
A lawyer for Ensign said the senator's parents gave $96,000 to Cindy Hampton, Ensign's former mistress, and her family last year. The disclosure came after her husband, Doug Hampton, a former top staffer in Ensign's Senate office, said in a televised interview that he believed the pair were improperly dismissed as a result of Cindy Hampton's affair with Ensign.
Doug Hampton said his wife had been paid a "severance" of more than $25,000 when she stopped working for Ensign's campaign and political action committee in May 2008, which raised legal issues as a possible unreported campaign expense.
Ensign's lawyer said the $96,000 was not related to the Hamptons' employment, but instead was money paid out of concern for the well-being of longtime family friends.
Rank-and-file Republicans increasingly are grumbling that perhaps Ensign should resign and get it over with, Zadrowski said.
"It's disappointing to me, because I think this is still something the senator can rebound from," he said.
"It depends on him doing the things he's got to do for the people of the state of Nevada, and especially Republicans in Nevada. Unfortunately, some people now have gotten to the point where they feel like the damage is too great to fix. I don't share that sentiment, but I hear it from people who are very active in the Republican Party."
Ensign may ride out the storm, analysts say, but he has sustained further damage to his image and prospects.
"What this does is it makes it that much more difficult for John Ensign to be effective" as a senator, said Las Vegas Republican consultant Steve Wark.
"He has no control over the story, over the circumstances anymore. Every day that goes by that the story remains alive makes it more likely he has to seriously consider stepping down."
Ensign, 51, hasn't addressed the question of whether he is considering resigning since news of the payments to the Hampton family came to light Thursday.
The senator acknowledged the affair, which he said began in December 2007 and ended in August 2008, in a hastily arranged Las Vegas news conference on June 16.
Ensign's staff later said that he went public because Doug Hampton was peddling his story to Fox News.
Cindy Hampton, 46, was the treasurer for the campaign committees, while Doug Hampton, 47, was the administrative assistant in Ensign's Washington office. The pair were good friends of Ensign and his wife.
Ensign, previously considered a rising star and possible national candidate for the Republican Party, resigned his leadership position in the Senate and has had any thoughts of running for president extinguished.
Now, the question is whether he can remain a senator.
The new developments in the Ensign saga "have done more damage to him. I still don't think it's irreparable harm," said Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.
"Yes, it's embarrassing to him, but so far I haven't seen a major illegality," Herzik said.
"There's no good way out of this for Ensign. You're going to take some hits. It doesn't look good that mom and dad bailed him out."
If Ensign's parents each wrote four $12,000 checks -- one each to Doug Hampton, Cindy Hampton, and two of their children -- they would have come under the tax threshold for reporting gifts.
"That cuts both ways," Herzik said. "On the one hand, it means you didn't violate any laws; but it makes the payoff look very calculated."
So far, other top Republicans in Nevada and Washington, whether party officials or elected officials, have not called on Ensign to resign. Nor have they risen vigorously to his defense; most have chosen to stay as far from the issue as possible.
"I don't know how he survives all of this," said one Republican consultant who didn't want his name associated with the Ensign scandal.
For now, Ensign can lie low and stay put, but the specter of hypocrisy will be too much if he tries to run for re-election in 2012, the consultant said.
A born-again Christian with a socially conservative political platform, Ensign previously called for the resignations of President Bill Clinton and former Sen. Larry Craig, who was accused of soliciting sex in a men's restroom.
Ensign also has taken to the Senate floor to argue for the sanctity of heterosexual marriage.
"People will create the ads that say, 'He said all this; then he slept with his best friend's wife,'" the consultant said.
Time is on Ensign's side if he chooses to grit his teeth and wait it out, said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan Washington publication.
"This would be a very different situation if he was up (for re-election) in 2010," Duffy said. "Voters have pretty short memories. The bottom line is, he's got two, two and a half years before the re-election campaign gets going, and that is time to try and repair things, if he's willing to put in the effort."
A watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, has filed complaints with the Senate Ethics Committee and the Federal Election Commission, and has asked the Department of Justice to investigate.
Any official investigations would considerably worsen Ensign's situation, Duffy said.
But Duffy noted the additional complication of what would happen if Ensign did resign: It would be up to the isolated and unpopular Republican governor, Jim Gibbons, to appoint a replacement.
Asked for Gibbons' thoughts on the matter, his spokesman, Daniel Burns, said, "The governor believes this is a personal matter between Senator Ensign, his family and others. We have nothing further to say about the personal problems of Senator Ensign."
The state Democratic Party has not called for Ensign's resignation, but it has sought to raise the issue of whether Ensign can continue to do an adequate job for his constituents under the circumstances.
"There are a lot of serious questions remaining about whether the senator violated the law or Senate ethics regulations," Democratic Party spokeswoman Phoebe Sweet said. "We think it's time for him to come clean to the citizens of Nevada and answer any and all questions about his behavior. Nevadans deserve to get the truth from the senator himself."
Conservative activist Chuck Muth said most GOP partisans remain loyal to Ensign. But he believes Ensign should step aside for the sake of his party.
With the state Republican Party broke and disorganized to begin with, the scandal is a further distraction from getting it back on its feet and working on the next election cycle, Muth said.
"This hurts the party. It hurts its image, its ability to recruit candidates, its ability to appeal to supporters," Muth said. "There are plenty of good conservatives out there, Republicans who could represent Nevada without the distractions he's causing."
Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.