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Nevada Sen. John Ensign hangs on to his seat despite affair

After delivering a floor speech against the financial overhaul bill last week, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) walked out of the Capitol into the spring sunshine and spoke optimistically of getting back to raising money for his reelection campaign — never mind the looming ethics cloud stemming from his admitted affair with an aide.

Days earlier, the scene couldn’t have been more different when another member of Congress, Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), stood grim-faced behind a lectern and resigned his seat after admitting to an affair with a part-time staff member.

Souder’s final day in Congress was Friday. But Ensign — who like Souder is a conservative Christian who stresses family values — soldiers on, determined to keep his seat in Congress.

The Nevadan has started organizing fundraisers and making calls to donors for help in winning a third term in 2012. Ensign, once a rising star in the Republican leadership, collected a mere $50 during the first quarter of this year, but he’s confident that is about to change.

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“We just took some time off,” Ensign said as he walked back to his Senate office. “We’re getting it geared back up.”

The reasons why one member of Congress stays and one goes are as varied as the egos involved, the politics of the moment and the proximity of the next election.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio made it clear in a talk with Souder, who was seeking a ninth term this fall, that the best choice would be to resign. House Democrats similarly eased out one of their own, Rep. Eric Massa of New York, this year after he was accused of sexually harassing his staff.

In the Senate, Republicans may grumble over Ensign’s continued presence, and they do. But the Nevadan carries on, raising the question of just how effective can he be on behalf of his constituents?

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One perk for those who give robustly to the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm is that they are routinely invited to chats with senators. Ensign headlined one such coffee talk this month.

Given the chance to hear Ensign speak, one GOP donor declined. “They offer Ensign and you think, ‘Who in the hell is going to want to sit through that?’ ” said the donor, who requested anonymity because of his continuing involvement in Republican politics.

“Senators want to keep their distance from the guy,” the donor said. “I don’t think you’re going to see Sen. Ensign championing any GOP initiatives.”

But others predict Ensign’s fundraising efforts will challenge such criticism. After all, he remains a sitting U.S. senator as well as a reliable 41st vote that his party needs in order to maintain its ability to filibuster the proposals of President Obama and Senate Democrats.

If Ensign can persuade his big-name donors to stay with him — namely, the Nevada gaming interests — others will follow, said a Republican strategist in the state, who also declined to speak on the record because of the sensitive political situation.

Ensign’s problems began almost a year ago, when he abruptly arrived in Las Vegas to disclose an eight-month affair with a staffer, Cynthia Hampton, the wife of one of his former top aides at the time, Doug Hampton.

As details of the affair unfolded, so did the story of Ensign’s wealthy parents making a $96,000 payment to the Hamptons as the couple left the senator’s employment. Efforts by the senator to find the husband a new job also surfaced.

Ethics watchdogs seized on Doug Hampton’s claim last year to the New York Times that he went on to lobby Ensign’s office, with the senator’s support, in violation of the ethics laws that require a one-year cooling-off period.

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Ensign has said he has done nothing wrong and will comply with all official investigations.

The Justice Department began making preliminary inquires in January. One Las Vegas tech firm, Selling Source, confirmed being subpoenaed by the Justice Department this year for documents regarding a fundraising pitch Ensign made to its chief executive.

“The Senate Ethics Committee seems to be going full steam ahead and there’s no way that can come out well for Ensign,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, noting then-Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.) resigned in 1995 after a Senate investigation.

Many see Ensign as pursuing a strategy similar to that of Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who kept a low profile after being connected to a prostitute but is now seeking a second term this fall.

The Nevadan benefits from his own healthy ego, as well as a Senate culture that has not expelled a member since the Civil War. He also perseveres thanks to a weak Republican Party in Nevada that is not calling for his head.

“He’s been an AWOL senator for a long time,” said Chuck Muth, a conservative activist in Nevada who is among a handful of political commentators in the state who have called for Ensign to resign.

“Who among his colleagues would want to co-sponsor a bill not knowing when he would implode? His effectiveness has clearly been diminished.”

Yet colleagues have come forward to work with Ensign on several initiatives. Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) partnered with Ensign on an amendment during the healthcare debate and recently engaged in a colloquy on the Senate floor with Ensign and Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) after they returned from a tour of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) teamed up with Ensign last month on legislation to establish a veterinary official in the Department of Homeland Security to protect against animal disease outbreaks or other similar disasters.

“It is unfortunate what has happened,” Akaka said about Ensign, a veterinarian, “but I continue to work with him as a good friend and a colleague.”

In a brief interview last week, Ensign displayed the confidence that has kept him in office. “I think we’ve been doing a lot of good things,” he said.

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com


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