The reason U.S. Sen. John Ensign gave for abandoning his re-election bid — to spare his family the depredations of an "extraordinarily ugly" campaign — is certainly true. It would have been a brutal undertaking.
But the notion the campaign’s toll was the actual reason Ensign decided to exit public life is almost certainly false. After all, Ensign had to have known since June 16, 2009, when he confessed to having an affair with his best friend’s wife, that his next turn before the voters would be ugly.
Instead, Ensign undoubtedly added up the mounting obstacles on his uphill path to victory and realized what the rest of the state’s political establishment has known for some time: He was going to lose.
"There are consequences to sin," Ensign acknowledged at his news conference Monday. "I know that God has forgiven me."
But vox Dei is not vox populi.
Ensign said he attended 348 events in Nevada last year. He had to have noticed — as the Review-Journal’s Laura Myers noted in a story in Monday’s newspaper — his reception was downright chilly compared to fellow Republicans.
A poll in January showed 50 percent of voters disapproved of the job Ensign was doing as senator, and 59 percent wanted him to step aside.
Those are numbers almost impossible to survive. Just ask Ensign’s fellow senator, Harry Reid, to whom Ensign compared himself more than once.
But Reid ran a well-funded and nearly perfect campaign against a deeply flawed opponent all too willing to self-destruct on the campaign trail. Had he chosen to stay in the race, Ensign would have had none of those advantages.
Then there was the fundraising.
Ensign’s numbers would have had to improve to become lackluster. A sitting U.S. senator with just $250,000 in the bank (as Ensign showed in his year-end report) is virtually unheard of in politics.
He was spending much of his campaign money (and money from a legal-defense fund) on lawyers defending him from myriad investigations. It was money well spent — the Federal Election Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice opted not to prosecute Ensign for alleged violations.
But it was money he badly needed in a re-election. Asked on KNPR’s "State of Nevada" radio show about money, Ensign set for himself a modest goal of raising $1 million by June. It remains an open question whether he would have made it.
Then there was the Senate Ethics Committee’s pending investigation, which Ensign said had "zero effect" on his decision.
But a strong finding of wrongdoing from the committee would have been a disastrous blow to any hope Ensign harbored for re-election.
Then there was the notable absence of support from fellow Republicans. Former Gov. Bob List, now the Republican national committeeman from Nevada, mused aloud in December about how an "unscarred, well-liked, clean candidate" would have an easier time on the campaign trail than one bloodied and battered by scandal.
Heidi Smith, the Republican national committeewoman, said flatly "it would be easier if he didn’t run."
Meanwhile, top Republicans in Washington, D.C., gave Ensign no signs of support. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn have both declined numerous opportunities to defend Ensign. Their neutral comments are how bigwigs tell wayward politicians it’s time to move on.
An "extraordinarily ugly" campaign? Yes, that was a factor.
But John Ensign’s career came to an end on Monday for much more ignoble reasons than sparing his family further pain.
As the senator might say, as a man sows, so shall he also reap.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the daily blog www.SlashPolitics.com. His column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/SteveSebelius or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.