Farewell, John Ensign. We knew thee much better than we’d have liked.
As Ensign announced Thursday that he’d resign from the U.S. Senate effective May 3, the tragic question arose: What if he’d done that on June 16, 2009, the day he confessed his affair with the wife of his then-best friend and employee, Doug Hampton?
How much drama could Ensign have avoided by not clinging to office, hoping to be rescued from scandal by time and a forgetful or forgiving public? How much could he have helped the Republican Party in Nevada, by removing himself as an avatar of hypocrisy and by allowing then-Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons to elevate Congressman Dean Heller to the job, giving Heller the advantage of incumbency?
(Yes, the mercurial and unpredictable Gibbons might have considered having himself appointed to the seat. But that would have been Nevada’s problem, not Ensign’s.)
Instead, Ensign stubbornly clung to his office, consistently claiming he’d done nothing wrong and he intended to run again. It’s possible he really meant at least one of those things.
But lackluster fund-raising and a conspicuous lack of support from Nevada and national Republicans finally forced Ensign to conclude he would never be re-elected. In February, Ensign announced to reporters that he wouldn’t seek re-election, but insisted he would finish out his term.
In the end, however, even that proved too optimistic. Speculation immediately centered on the Senate Ethics Committee, which had taken the unusual step of hiring a special counsel to investigate the case. Although two other investigations (by the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission) had concluded without charges, the ethics committee’s jurisdiction was much wider. It’s not clear now if we’ll ever know what the committee turned up.
Now, Gov. Brian Sandoval will appoint someone to fill Ensign’s unexpired term, and that person is widely expected to be Heller, who has already declared his candidacy to replace Ensign. Heller will go into the 2012 race with the sizable advantage of incumbency, and the fund-raising help that affords. That’s surely not lost on Rep. Shelley Berkley, who just last week declared her intent to leave a perfectly safe House seat to challenge Heller in 2012.
If Heller’s seat comes open, Sandoval has seven days to issue an election proclamation, throwing open the doors to a free-for-all, no-primary election for everybody (including minor parties). It’s likely already-declared Republican candidates Sharron Angle and Kirk Lippold will get some company, as the changing dynamics prompt politicians such as Nevada Republican Party Chairman Mark Amodei and Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki to make up their minds on the race far earlier than either had intended.
And since Sandoval can pick a date for the election, he might pull a savvy move and choose June 7, which is election day for municipal races in some places in Nevada. Not only would this save some money, but it would also put certain legislative Democrats who may want a shot at the seat at a distinct disadvantage, since they’ll be otherwise occupied till that date.
But whatever happens in the Senate and House races, we will not have John Ensign to kick around any more. From his bright start in Congress in the revolutionary class of 1994, to his denouement 17 years later, Ensign will always be a cautionary tale. His personal moralism, always displayed on a well-tailored sleeve, was more than he could ever live up to. And since Ensign always appeared to love being a senator more than doing the work of one, the loss of that prize may be that rarest of political codas: justice.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist, and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. His column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.