Republicans on John Ensign’s retirement: Phew!

March 9, 2011


Sen. John Ensign’s decision to retire rather than run for reelection in 2012 is a huge boost for Senate GOP leaders, who feared the Nevada Republican was waging an unwinnable battle for a third term and might cost the party a Senate seat.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other top Senate Republicans appear to have played little direct role in forcing Ensign out, but the relief over that decision was palpable in GOP circles on Monday. There were virtually no public tributes to the scandal-plagued Ensign from his colleagues of the kind one would usually expect when a senator retires. McConnell was not exactly effusive in his Monday evening statement, saying, “I appreciate his willingness to make the tough decision, and I wish him well in his future endeavors.”

“He finally saw the writing on the wall,” a top Republican official said of Ensign. Another former colleague said Ensign “made the right decision. There was no way he was going to win; he could read the polls. It’s better for him and his family.”

Ensign’s announcement will have little, if any, impact on the ongoing investigation by the Senate ethics committee into his affair with Cindy Hampton, a former campaign aide and the wife of Doug Hampton, himself a former top Ensign aide, according to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the committee. Boxer told POLITICO the Ensign investigation “will continue on course.”

Regardless of the ethics inquiry, Republican leaders are happy that Ensign is no longer their problem.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn of Texas mentioned Ensign’s “nearly two decades of public service” in a statement released by the committee, but the normally garrulous Cornyn had little to say about Ensign personally when pressed for further comment.

“It eliminates some obvious issues in the race, but we still have to see who gets into the primary,” Cornyn told POLITICO. “But the obvious issues won’t be involved.”

Asked whether Ensign’s departure would help the GOP hold onto his seat next year, Cornyn added, “I would tend to think so.”

Ensign began calling Senate GOP leaders Monday just hours before a Las Vegas news conference to inform them of his decision. Ensign told his colleagues that he “had given this a lot of thought” about the race but decided against running again out of concern for the impact on his family, several Republican aides said.

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