Two-term Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada on Thursday announced his resignation ending a once-promising career that had the former veterinarian and casino manager eyeing a possible presidential bid before an ugly sex scandal and subsequent ethics probe snuffed out his ambition and, eventually, his Senate tenure.
Ensign, 53, began notifying Nevada friends of his intentions late Thursday. The senator has kept his distance from official GOP circles in Washington for months, but word quickly spread to GOP figures inside the Beltway who confirmed a report by Nevada politics watcher Jon Ralston of the Las Vegas Sun to NJ.
Ensign quickly put an end to the speculation, releasing a statement Thursday evening confirming the reports, and announcing that his retirement would be effective on May 3.
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"While I stand behind my firm belief that I have not violated any law, rule, or standard of conduct of the Senate, and I have fought to prove this publicly, I will not continue to subject my family, my constituents, or the Senate to any further rounds of investigation, depositions, drawn out proceedings, or especially public hearings," Ensign said. "For my family and me, this continued personal cost is simply too great."
Ensign was elected in 2000 after serving in the House from 1995 to 1999. He ran and lost narrowly to current Majority Leader Harry Reid in 1998, losing by 428 votes in one of Nevada's closest elections ever.
He rose to lead the National Republican Senatorial Committee from 2007 to 2008 and later won election to run the Republican Policy Committee, a substantive leadership post. He traveled to Iowa in the summer of 2009, mere days before he admitted to an extramarital affair with Cynthia "Cindy" Hampton, his campaign treasurer and the wife of one of his top staffers, Doug Hampton.
A month later, Ensign admitted his parents paid Cynthia Hampton $90,000 in a gift he insisted was not designed to buy her silence. Ensign had been close friends with the Hamptons for years before the affair.
Ensign, a vocal proponent of Christian family values, was cleared of wrong-doing by the Justice Department. The Senate Ethics Committee has continued its probe but would have no jurisdiction over a former member.
Ensign said the Ethics Committee will drop its probe into his actions following his extramarital affair. "As is its right, the Senate Ethics Committee is continuing its investigation of issues into which it has been inquiring for the past year and a half," Ensign said his statement. He also faulted the committee for hiring an outside counsel for the investigation "even though the issues have been viewed and reviewed by so many others." Whatever it finds, the panel has no power over private citizens. It can only criticize Ensign. Since he is unlikely to run for another office soon and has already absorbed major damage to his reputation, the investigation is unlikely to effect him.
Heller may face Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., in next year’s Senate race, which promises to be a crucial matchup that could determine control of the Senate. It also means there would be three open House seats in the swing state. If things break right, the presidential race and both Senate and House control could be decided in the Silver State.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released a statement on Thursday, pledging that "Nevada will remain a top target for Senate Democrats."
Cameron Joseph and Dan Friedman contributed.