- The Washington Times - Monday, March 7, 2011

Sen. John Ensign, a Nevada Republican mired in an ethics investigation stemming from a sex and lobbying scandal, said Monday that he won’t seek re-election in 2012.

The two-term senator said stepping down was “the most difficult decision that I have ever made” but that the investigation had “zero to do with any of this.”

“At this point in my life I have to put my family first,” said Mr. Ensign during a Las Vegas news conference with his wife, Darlene, by his side. “As you all know campaigns are ugly enough today, and this campaign would be exceptionally ugly.”

Mr. Ensign, 52, admitted in 2009 to having an extramarital affair with Cynthia Hampton, a member of his campaign staff at the time. The senator is accused of helping the aide’s husband, Doug Hampton, set up as a lobbyist after he found out about the affair.

The Senate’s ethics panel is investigating the matter. Federal law bars former Senate aides from lobbying in the Senate for a year after they leave their congressional jobs.

The Justice Department previously dropped a criminal investigation of Mr. Ensign.

The senator’s wealthy parents also have said they paid their son’s former mistress and her family almost $96,000, saying that the gift was part of a pattern of financial largesse that they, the senator and his wife had given to the Hamptons’ over several years.

Mr. Ensign said he similarly has helped other members of his staff as they moved back into the private section. The Federal Election Commission has dismissed a complaint against him over the payment.

The senator, as he has done previously, apologized for having the affair but denied violating any Senate rules or breaking any laws.

“If I was concerned about that I would resign, and that would make the most sense because then it goes away,” he said. “Resigning would be admitting guilt, and I did not do the things that they’re saying.

“I made a mistake, I owned up to that mistake.”

Mr. Ensign, who had been rumored as a potential GOP presidential candidate when the scandal surfaced almost two years ago, said he will finish out his term “in a strong way.”

“It has truly been the greatest honor to serve as your United States senator,” he said. “I have tried very hard during that time to vote consistently with what I believe are the values of our state represent.”

His retirement sets up a potentially fierce political battle for the seat.

The Senate Democrats’ fundraising arm immediately put out a statement saying that the seat is now “ripe for a Democratic pick-up.”

“It remains high on our target list,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) Executive Director Guy Cecil. “Whoever Republicans field as their candidate will have a tough time holding onto this seat in a blue-trending state with President Obama at the top of the ticket.”

Nevada’s senior senator, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, won re-election in November by almost 6 percentage points over Sharron Angle, a conservative Republican and tea party favorite.

But the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee — the DSCC’s GOP counterpart — said Republicans welcome a race between a Republican who believes in smaller government and fiscal responsibility and a Democrat who professes a “reckless fiscal path of more government and higher taxes.”

“I am confident we will successfully retain this seat as we work to win back a new Senate Republican majority,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said.

Republicans say Mr. Ensign’s retirement may actually help their chances next year, giving the party the chance to recruit a stronger candidate not tarnished by scandal. Mr. Ensign significantly trailed Republican Rep. Dean Heller in early polling for a possible 2012 GOP primary match-up.

Mr. Ensign is the third Republican senator to announce he won’t seek re-election in 2012, following Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.

Four Senate Democrats also have said they’re calling it quits after 2012: Sens. Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Jim Webb of Virginia. The Democrats also are losing Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who caucuses with the Democrats.

In other Senate news Monday, former Republican Rep. Heather Wilson announced Monday that she will enter the race for New Mexico’s Senate seat being vacated by Mr. Bingaman.

Mrs. Wilson said she was running in part because the country’s free-market system, economy and “tradition of limited government” are “under assault.”

“We face great challenges, but we are a great nation,” she said before a crowd of supporters in Albuquerque.

Mrs. Wilson, 50, who represented the Albuquerque-area in the House for more than 10 years, gave up her seat at the end of 2008 after an unsuccessful bid for Senate.

• Sean Lengell can be reached at slengell@washingtontimes.com.

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