Sen. John Ensign and his wife, Darlene, were being escorted into the VIP reception at the Clark County Republican Party Lincoln Day Dinner by Civil War re-enactors when I walked into their path Saturday night.
Holding his arm was a woman in ballroom regalia of the 1860s. Strolling behind them, Darlene held the arm of a man garbed as a Union soldier.
Ensign knew then he would be announcing on Monday his 4-month-old re-election bid was over. He would serve out his term, but would not run again. Nevertheless, at the dinner he looked and acted like a man looking for votes in a Republican-friendly crowd.
“It was a little uncomfortable at the Lincoln Day dinner because people were coming up and saying: ‘Whatever we can do, we will do it,’ ” Ensign recalled Wednesday. He said people were offering to do fundraisers for him. From his account, he was warmly received by the party faithful.
But the applause meter told a different story to my ears. When Ensign was introduced, the applause was respectable, but not enthusiastic. When Rep. Dean Heller was introduced, the applause grew stronger. When Rep. Joe Heck was introduced, the applause resembled a roar.
In less than two minutes, I knew Ensign’s campaign was floundering because this was his GOP base. (Ensign said he wasn’t all that aware of the applause because he didn’t hear himself introduced.)
Monday morning he told his staff of his decision. At the news conference afterward, he looked pained.
In contrast, Darlene was smiling, looking happy, even upbeat.
She hadn’t advised him what to do, telling him there was no way she was making that decision. “Days before that, she had much more anxiety than I did,” Ensign said. “She knows how much I love this job and doing what I’m doing. When we made the decision not to run, it gave her a lot of peace.”
I never thought Ensign would be on the ballot in 2012 following his disclosure of his affair with his wife’s best friend, who was also his best friend’s wife and a member of his staff.
A year ago, I wrote a column saying if he loved his family, he would have resigned June 16, 2009, the day he announced his eight-month affair with Cindy Hampton.
His family was adamant and unanimous, Ensign said. “They didn’t want me to resign because then you’re admitting guilt.”
He insisted he did nothing wrong in his post-affair dealings with Cindy and Doug Hampton, dealings now the subject of a Senate Ethics Committee investigation. Ensign is adamant he has not broken any ethics rules, and a criminal investigation ended with no charges being filed.
In November, Ensign said he was running again. But four months after he’s in, he’s out, because the kids wouldn’t be all right with an ugly campaign.
He has known since that humiliating day in 2009 that, if he ran for another term, he would be putting his family through the horrors of political ads hammering his affair and the $96,000 his parents paid the Hamptons.
Suddenly a revelation hits him that his three kids (a freshman in college, a 15-year-old and a 13-year-old) are going to be watching these ads? It doesn’t ring true.
Referring to the affair, Ensign said part of his bad behavior came from his arrogance. That insight certainly rang true. His arrogance also surfaced in his short-lived re-election bid that wasted other people’s money and time.
Ensign now can spend the next 21 months rebuilding his image, convincing people his repentance is sincere and he’s not just another politician saying what has to be said to get re-elected.
That’s only possible, however, if the Senate Ethics Committee gives him a pass. After all, he’s not running again.
Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/morrison.