07.16.09

GOP Plots Ensign's Ouster

Republicans are turning against Senator Ensign in the wake of revelations that his parents paid off his mistress. The Daily Beast's Margaret Carlson on the GOP plan to save his seat in 2012.

Republican Sen. John Ensign did what any red-blooded American would do upon returning to the floor of the Senate after the revelation that his parents paid off his mistress and her family. He gave a speech about a bill to help families of our wonderful veterans and brought his young son along as a human shield.

But compared to the first time Ensign showed up on the Hill after news broke that he'd had an affair with the spouse of his top aide, the reception was much less fulsome. The earlier attitude was the whole thing would blow over. Members of the Club are never eager to discipline another member of the Club unless the conduct in question is clearly outside the bounds of accepted sexual deviance. Calls for Sen. Larry Craig to quit were immediate and loud.

Ensign, said a colleague, should “leave now so the Republican governor can appoint someone new who has time to get a leg up on holding the seat for the GOP.”

At first, Ensign's case seemed closer to that of Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter, who apologized, wife at his side, for his brush with the "D.C. Madam" Deborah Jeane Palfrey and held on—although he could have a rough reelection race in 2010. Now Ensign’s standing is shakier. On the heels of his cameo at the Capitol on Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, asked whether Ensign should stay and run for reelection, replied brusquely "Sen. Ensign will have to speak to those issues himself" before walking away from reporters.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has a personal pact with his fellow senator from Nevada not to speak ill of each other, was asked the same question. All he could muster in response was "this is Ensign's own personal decision to make."

One former Republican member of Congress told me this week that sentiment shifted decidedly against Ensign after details of the affair, and the payoff, emerged. The best chance of keeping his seat, he said, is for "Ensign to leave now so the Republican governor can appoint someone new who has time to get a leg up on holding the seat for the GOP in 2012."

It was revelations about a "Christian intervention" and his parents' involvement that turned Ensign’s colleagues sour. Ensign's parents, casino moguls (Ensign himself worked on The Strip), funneled nearly $100,000 to the family of Doug Hampton, the cuckolded husband who blew the whistle on Ensign. Not only do these "gifts" raise tax issues, they also infantilize the senator and makes him look foolish.

Then there is the colorful group of conservative men who came together to "save" Ensign at a group Christian residence on C Street on Capitol Hill. Former NFL star and Republican Rep. Steve Largent, who no longer lives there but visits frequently, said that the group got involved because their friend was "wandering off the reservation."

To pull him back, they forced him to sit down and write a letter (there's a picture of his shaky penmanship online) dictated by his roommate Sen. Tom Coburn to the effect that he and his mistress had to get straight with God and their families and that he was ending the affair. Like a hostage at gunpoint, Ensign was taken to FedEx to send the letter. But love trumped overnight mail. Ensign called immediately to tell Cynthia Hampton to ignore the note coming her way.

While cool heads in the GOP would like Ensign to disappear, the part of the plan where the Republican governor appoints a successor is complicated by the fact that Nevada’s current governor is a media circus all his own. Just last week, a court ruled that the lawsuit filed by a cocktail waitress against Gov. Jim Gibbons for hitting her outside a Las Vegas nightclub could go forward. Gibbons' wife is suing him for a divorce that gets nastier by the day.

Records came out recently showing that Gibbons had texted a woman not his wife 800 times over six weeks on a state cellphone. He arrives at his office mid-morning, if at all, calls meetings he doesn't show up for, and is ignoring his state's economic freefall now that tourism and housing have cratered.

Meanwhile, the Republican lieutenant governor, Brian Krolicki, is facing prosecution on felony charges that he mishandled a multibillion-dollar college-savings program when he was state treasurer. Unsurprisingly, the nonpartisan National Journal just ranked Nevada the second most dysfunctional state in the country after New York, where all state business has ground to a halt because the legislature locked itself out of the Capitol.

A recent Mason-Dixon poll has Ensign at a 39 percent approval rating. Doug Hampton is threatening to sue both Ensign and his parents, and an independent ethics group has filed a complaint about the tax consequences of the parents’ payoff. For his part, Ensign’s stalwart ally Coburn has refused to answer questions from reporters about his roommate citing doctor-patient privilege. Coburn is an obstetrician.