Sen. John Ensign (R)
Elected: 2000, term expires 2012, 2nd term.
Born: March 25, 1958, Roseville, CA .
Home: Las Vegas.
Education: Attended UNLV; OR St. U., B.S. 1981; CO St. U., D.V.M. 1985.
Family: Married (Darlene); 3 children.
Elected office: U.S. House of Reps. 1994-98.
Professional Career: Veterinarian, 1987–93; Gen. mgr., Gold Strike Hotel, 1991–93.
Republican John Ensign was elected to the Senate in 2000, in his second try for the office. Ensign grew up in northern Nevada and moved to Las Vegas at age 6. For a time his mother had a low-level job at a Reno casino, supporting three children with no help from her ex-husband. Then she married Mike Ensign, who became a top executive at Circus Circus and was chairman of the Mandalay Resort Group until 2005. John Ensign graduated from Oregon State in 1981 and from veterinary school at Colorado State in 1985. While in college, he became a born-again Christian. He built a successful veterinary practice in Las Vegas, with the first 24-hour clinic, and also got involved in civic affairs. At his wife’s suggestion, he became active in Promise Keepers, an evangelical ministry for men. Disturbed at cultural trends in national life, they decided he would run for the House in 1994, against 1st District Democratic Rep. James Bilbray. This was the more Democratic of Nevada’s then two House seats, and Bilbray was an eight-year incumbent. But 1994 was also a Republican year, and with the help of his stepfather’s connections in the gambling industry, he was able to raise substantial funds. On election night, Bilbray claimed victory, but when the totals came in, Ensign had won by 1,436 votes. In the House, Ensign compiled a generally conservative voting record and got a seat on the influential Ways and Means Committee. In the summer of 1996, he and GOP colleague Dave Camp of Michigan persuaded Speaker Newt Gingrich to separate the welfare and Medicaid issues and present President Clinton with a welfare bill, which the president signed. Ensign can reasonably claim to be one of the fathers of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. He was re-elected in 1996, 50%-44%.
|John Ensign (R)||322,501||(55%)||($4,456,881)|
|Jack Carter (D)||238,796||(41%)||($2,264,708)|
|John Ensign (R)||127,023||(90%)|
|None of these candidates ()||6,754||(5%)|
|Edward Hamilton (R)||6,649||(5%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2000 (55%), 1996 House (50%), 1994 House (48%)
Ensign decided to run against Democratic Sen. Harry Reid in 1998. This was a hard-fought, high-spending race, targeted by both national parties and engaged with intensity by the candidates. Reid spent $5 million and Ensign $3.5 million. Reid attacked Ensign harshly as an “extremist” who would gut Social Security and environmental regulation. “You send Ensign to the Senate, you send nuclear waste to Nevada,” he said. The Election Night tally showed Reid ahead by 459 votes. Ensign called for a recount, and it turned out that the Washoe County ballots had been misprinted, preventing some from being read by machines. The hand count there took weeks, and Ensign finally conceded on December 9, with Reid ahead by 428 votes.
Just two months later, in February 1999, Democratic Sen. Richard Bryan announced that he would not run for re-election in 2000. Ensign announced his candidacy the next day. Democrats tried to enlist their strongest candidate, Bob Miller, who had just completed eight years as governor, but he preferred to remain in the private sector in Las Vegas. Then Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa launched her candidacy. An April poll showed Ensign with a narrow 45%-40% lead, but he was much further ahead in money: $1.1 million to $250,000. In September, Del Papa abruptly withdrew from the race, citing difficulties in fundraising; her bad relations with Las Vegas unions did not help. Democratic efforts to recruit Brian Greenspun, owner of the Las Vegas Sun, failed. That left the Democratic banner in the hands of Ed Bernstein, a wealthy personal injury lawyer. Bernstein put in $1.1 million of his own money and emphasized the high cost of prescription drugs and abortion rights. The candidates engaged in six debates. Naturally both candidates promised to fight nuclear waste storage in Nevada, and Ensign was careful to return a contribution from a Yucca Mountain contractor. Ensign won, 55%-40%, carrying Las Vegas and Clark County 51%-45%, Reno and Washoe County 58%-35%, and the cow counties 68%-27%.
Ensign and Reid, bitter rivals in 1998, quickly became cooperative colleagues. In December 2000, they announced that their first priority was blocking the move by Arizona Sen. John McCain and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback to prohibit betting on college and amateur sports—they argued that sports books are well regulated by Nevada authorities. Ensign sponsored a bill to outlaw the slaughter of horses in the U.S. for human consumption in other countries, and in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, he traveled to Louisiana to review federal efforts at rescuing pets displaced by the storm. In 2004, Ensign persuaded Republican Budget Chairman Don Nickles to delete from the 2004 budget resolution a proposal requiring casinos to withhold winnings from gamblers behind on child support payments.
In 2006, Ensign won Senate passage, by a 65-34 vote, of a bill making it a federal crime to help minors cross state lines to avoid parental-notification laws on abortion. Democrats said the vote was engineered to motivate social conservatives for the midterm elections, but Ensign said the bill represented “reasonable restrictions” on abortion that a majority could accept. Democrat Richard Durbin of Illinois blocked the Senate from negotiating a final bill with the House. On foreign policy issues, Ensign has opposed limits on enemy-interrogation methods that fall short of torture, including sleep deprivation and “waterboarding,” in which the detainee has water poured over his or her face to simulate drowning. He moved through Congress an amendment that permits the president to authorize the military to use tear gas against an enemy, as domestic police departments can do to control a riot. Opponents argued the Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits the use of riot-control agents in war.
A prime federal issue for Nevada is the proposed nuclear-waste repository in Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Creation of a temporary storage site in Yucca Mountain was prevented during the Clinton era by President Clinton’s promise to veto it—probably the reason he carried Republican-leaning Nevada twice by narrow margins. In 2002, President Bush designated Yucca Mountain as the permanent site. The law provided for a veto by the governor, which could be overridden by majorities in both houses of Congress. In April 2002, Gov. Kenny Guinn issued his veto. In May 2002, the House cast a large majority for creating the site at Yucca Mountain. In the Senate, Reid lobbied furiously for votes among Democrats, most of whom had stood with him before on the issue, while Ensign lobbied desperately for Republican votes, a difficult task in light of the Bush administration’s desire to go forward with Yucca Mountain. Reid got 35 Democrats and independent James Jeffords of Vermont to vote his way. Ensign could get only two other Republicans, so the site was approved 60-39. But the fight was not over. Lawsuits had been filed against the plan, and the Energy Department had to get approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which threatened to consume many years. Meanwhile, Ensign has worked with Reid to block funding of a Yucca Mountain repository.
Ensign’s re-election in 2006 was not seriously contested, but Democratic nominee Jack Carter, the eldest son of former President Carter, attracted a level of national interest not usually afforded a long-shot candidate. An investment consultant who moved into the state in 2002, Carter benefited from his father’s famous name and campaign appearances, as well as a national donor base, but that was about all. Jimmy Carter had lost Nevada in both 1976 and 1980, the latter election by 36 points. At the urging of Reid, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman considered challenging Ensign but declined. When Ensign launched his campaign in March, he commended Bush for fighting the war on terrorism. He called for adding 10,000 new Border Patrol agents and cutting taxes and government spending. Ensign criticized Carter as a carpetbagger and ran warm-and-fuzzy television ads of himself as a veterinarian, stethoscope in hand, holding a small dog. Carter was forced off the campaign trail for two weeks in September by a severe bout of colitis. Back on his feet, he assailed Ensign for supporting a failed strategy in Iraq and the Bush agenda. He largely ignored such critical state issues as Yucca Mountain and water resources, and his admitted youthful use of marijuana, an admission that got him discharged from the Navy 36 years earlier. During an October debate, Ensign noted his good working relationship with Reid, by then the powerful minority leader of the Senate, asserting that it had brought the state billions of dollars in federal help. Ensign won re-election, 55%-41%.
On the Finance Committee in the 110th Congress (2007-08), Ensign opposed Democratic plans to raise taxes on U.S. corporations operating overseas. He also got into a showdown with the solar industry, which has a growing presence in Nevada, when he opposed plans to raise other business taxes to pay for tax breaks for solar energy. His stance put Ensign in an awkward position with Reid, an enthusiastic backer of the solar industry and its legislative agenda.
Ensign’s desire for a bipartisanship working relationship with Reid was also sorely tested in the 110th Congress (2007-08), when Ensign became chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party’s political arm charged with electing Republicans to the Senate. Reid by then was majority leader, the most powerful position in the Senate, and that role gave him a strong hand in trying to expand the Democrats’ majority. Republicans began the 2008 election cycle with the challenge of defending 21 Senate seats, while Democrats had just 12 senators up for re-election. Ensign’s challenge became more onerous when five Republican senators announced their retirement. Of those seats, the one in Virginia quickly became a likely Democratic pickup, and Democrats established themselves as front-runners in Colorado and New Mexico. Ensign and the Republicans also were seriously tested by vigorous Democratic challenges to incumbents in New Hampshire, Minnesota, Oregon, and Alaska. “There are no easy races this year,” Ensign said in May 2008. “There are just none.” He also was outgunned by Democrats in fundraising, a critical measure of success for a NRSC chairman. Ensign raised $93 million in the two-year election cycle, compared with $156 million collected by Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the chairman of the corresponding Democratic political committee. At one point, Ensign predicted it would be a “terrific night” if Republicans lost only three seats in November. But in the end, in a terrible political climate for Republicans, the party ended up losing eight seats and ceding enormous power to the Democrats, who ultimately expanded their Senate majority to 60-40.
After his leadership at the NRSC, Ensign was chosen by his peers to lead the Republican Policy Committee, giving him an important role in developing party positions. He also made a visit to Iowa to test the water for a possible presidential run in 2012. But in June 2009, his star dimmed considerably when he publicly admitted to having an extramarital affair with the wife of his top Senate aide. The day after his admission, Ensign resigned his leadership post but said he remained committed to remaining in the Senate. In July 2009, Ensign admitted that his parents had paid the woman and former aide $96,000, but said the money was a gift and not intended to buy her silence. The political trouble for Ensign deepened in October 2009 with a story in The New York Times that said Ensign had helped former aide Doug Hampton, his mistress’s husband, get a lobbying job and then assisted Hampton in securing clients. The Senate Ethics Committee opened a preliminary investigation into the case, which raises questions whether Ensign and Hampton violated the one-year ban on lobbying by former staffers.