John Ensign Announces Retirement

Posted March 7, 2011 at 3:00pm

Nevada Sen. John Ensign (R) announced Monday that he will not seek a third term, ending nearly two years of speculation over whether he could politically survive the affair he had with a former campaign staffer.

“I do not want to put my family, those that I care about, or this state through what would be a very ugly campaign that would ultimately cause a great deal more pain than has already been felt as a result of my actions,” Ensign said, according to prepared remarks. “For these reasons, I will not seek re-election in 2012.”

His exit could speed up Rep. Dean Heller’s (R) entrance into the race. Heller had been expected to run regardless of whether Ensign remained in the race, and his presence likely added to the hurdles Ensign saw in his path to re-election.

While it came earlier than expected, many Republicans in and out of Nevada felt he would eventually come to this decision. It came after weeks of touring the state and attempting to raise money after ending 2010 with only about $225,000.

Two Republican operatives in Nevada said Ensign’s reception at a Lincoln Day dinner in Las Vegas on Saturday was polite at best.

“I was at the Clark County Lincoln Day Dinner this past Saturday night at the Venetian in Las Vegas,” GOP strategist Robert Uithoven said. “While I think the decision had already been made, the reception he received had to lead people, and Senator Ensign, to believe that the move he’s making today is the right one.”

Much of Ensign’s campaign cash since his June 2009 announcement that he had an affair with Cynthia Hampton has gone to legal fees, and he remains under investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee. He also ended last year with just more than $100,000 in his legal expense fund.

Meanwhile, recent fundraisers held around Capitol Hill were not going well. A GOP source told Roll Call that only about four people showed up two weeks ago to an Ensign fundraiser at Cava, near Eastern Market.

Ensign told the Las Vegas Review-Journal at about the same time that he estimated the Senate race could cost $12 million.

In statements, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and National Republican Senatorial Committee each expressed optimism about winning the open seat next year.

NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said he is “confident we will successfully retain this seat as we work to win back a new Senate Republican majority.”

Besides Heller, Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki (R) is also looking at running. On the Democratic side, Rep. Shelley Berkley is taking a hard look at the race, as are Secretary of State Ross Miller and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto.

DSCC Executive Director Guy Cecil called the seat “ripe for a Democratic pickup” and said “it remains high on our target list.”