WASHINGTON -- When Sen. John Ensign announced last month that he would not run again for U.S. Senate, he said the move was to protect his family from an ugly campaign in which opponents would be sure to spotlight his marital infidelity.
That might have been true, but federal records released this week suggest another reason the Nevada Republican might have called it quits: He could not raise money.
While Ensign was still under the cloud of a Senate ethics investigation, his bid for a political comeback yielded less than $100,000 over two months.
The damaged incumbent held at least three fundraisers in Washington in January and February, trying to rebuild a treasury that had been depleted since he admitted in June 2009 that he had carried on an extramarital affair.
The campaign finance report that became available this week showed he raised $97,650 in the months before he announced his planned retirement.
The small sum serves to confirm rumors around Capitol Hill that Ensign's events were sparsely attended and that enthusiasm for him was lacking.
The report suggests about two dozen or so Washington-based lobbyists and representatives of political action committees linked to communications and financial services companies attended the fundraisers and brought with them checks totalling about $27,750.
For a senator serving on the PAC-lucrative Senate Finance Committee and as the top Republican on a communications subcommittee with jurisdiction over the big-dollar world of high tech, the draw was glaringly low, political professionals said.
At the start of the year, Ensign said the response from supporters to his plans to run for a third term "has been very good," and he did not expect cash to flow into his campaign until later this spring.
When he announced on March 7 that he was not going to run again, he said it was for family reasons.
Ensign's office did not respond to emails and phone calls this week regarding his fundraising efforts.
Ensign's $97,000 take "is enough for a funeral fund" and a sign of his isolation, said Mark Peplowski, a political science professor at the College of Southern Nevada. When Ensign counted the checks, "he knew he was dead on arrival," Peplowski said.
Republicans are three seats shy of capturing the Senate majority in the 2012 elections.
Under normal circumstances, "every interest group that tends to support Republicans should have been throwing money at him hand over fist," Peplowski said. "He should have been clearing $1 million or more per quarter."
But circumstances were anything but normal for the Nevadan since he admitted sleeping with Cindy Hampton, his wife's best friend, and the wife of Doug Hampton, a longtime friend and one of his top Senate aides.
Fallout from the affair, including accusations by Doug Hampton that Ensign helped him violate a federal lobbying statute after Hampton left Ensign's staff, generated an inquiry by the Justice Department.
Ensign was not charged with a crime in that investigation, but the Senate Ethics Committee continues its probe into the allegations, and Senate Republican leaders reacted coolly to the prospect of Ensign running to keep his seat.
The Ethics Committee announced it had hired a special counsel to lead its investigation on the same day in February that Ensign held a meeting of advisers and fundraisers to plot his campaign.
From late 2009 until this year, Ensign largely ceased fundraising while redirecting parts of his campaign account to pay for lawyers representing him and staffers questioned by investigators.
Ensign's latest report showed he spent $52,332 on legal fees in the first three months of the year, bringing to more than $600,000 the sums diverted from donors to lawyers.
The report showed Ensign loaned his campaign $25,000 from personal funds on March 31, a move that has been unexplained.
As of March 31, $190,137 remained in Ensign's campaign fund, a far cry from the $1 million that sat there on the day the Nevadan confessed to an affair .
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760.