What do Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., and Ken Kesey’s 1964 novel Sometimes a Great Notion have in common? Not much.
Except there was a time when Ensign’s career carried the aura of a “great notion.” When he flew to Sioux City, Iowa, in June of 2009—arriving as chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee and the former head of its National Republican Senatorial Committee, he was immediately thought of as a potentially serious 2012 White House contender.
No one bought Ensign’s declaration he was not thinking about running. They were sizing him up in Iowa and D.C. “What I’m doing is raising my profile. I believe we need new voices and fresh voices in the Republican Party who can articulate a message of our core Republican principles,” Ensign told Iowapolitics.com.
New Voices. Core Republican principles. Sometimes a great notion.
Less than three weeks later, Ensign confessed to an affair with his wife’s best friend, Cynthia Hampton, a woman who also happened to be married to his best friend, Doug Hampton. To add to the revulsion factor, both Hamptons worked for Ensign—Cynthia in the political operation, Doug as a top legislative staffer. Sometimes a great notion.
Ensign’s political career, defined by a loner complex and a disdain for grassroots party-building, also bears some resemblance to Kesey’s mythical Stamper family of loggers who defy a union strike and continue producing lumber for the local mill.
Throughout his career, Ensign ignored political advice to cement relationships throughout Nevada and acted and spoke as if he alone understood his divinely inspired destiny and cause—though both eluded his party stalwarts and Senate contemporaries. “Never give an inch” was Henry Stamper’s defiant credo in Sometimes a Great Notion.
Until Ensign announced Monday he would not seek reelection, it was his, too. He routinely ignored private appeals in Nevada to drop out of the 2012 race and pretended tepid statements from Washington party bosses like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.—“I don’t have any observations to make”—and NRSC Chairman John Cornyn of Texas—“I’ve already told all incumbents to expect primaries”—were not signals to pull the rip cord.
Ensign was similarly obtuse about Nevada GOP National Committeeman Bob List’s public urging to “take a hard look at getting out.” Ensign’s stubbornness even extended to his refusal to take seriously what every Republican in Nevada saw coming—and many top Republicans in Washington were rooting for: a primary challenge from Rep. Dean Heller, who represents Nevada’s heavily Republican 2nd District and is former Nevada secretary of state.
Heller has been eyeing a challenge to Ensign for months but Ensign, who hasn’t had a marquee policy victory in Congress since welfare reform in 1996, acted as if Heller either wouldn’t run or could be beat.
In November, Nevada’s top political journalist, Jon Ralston, described Ensign as “a walking political corpse.” Ensign’s infidelity was bad enough. His subsequent admission that his parents paid Cynthia Hampton and her family more than $96,000 created a backlash of epic proportions.
In January, polling started to show that even the least-known possible Democratic candidates could beat him, and showed abysmal approval ratings. Heller also released a poll showing him beating Ensign, a sign widely portrayed as trying to inch Ensign out.
For weeks after, Ensign still contended he was running and could beat the odds.
To many in Nevada political circles, this intensified the sense Ensign’s isolation was not only pitiable but taking a monumental toll on his judgment. Ensign has operated as his own political helmsman for months, a loner who was truly alone, as all those who formerly put up with his flinty, I-know-best ways had long since fled.
It’s true, Ensign was not indicted by the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission closed without action an investigation into possible campaign violations. But the Senate Ethics Committee recently hired an outside special counsel, a move only undertaken when the committee is ramping up, not closing down, an investigation.
“There are consequences to sin,” Ensign said on Monday by way of explanation for his announcement not to seek reelection.
Ensign finally gave an inch. Sometimes a great notion.
This article appears in the March 8, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.