Sen. John Ensign’s political career continued its free-fall Wednesday, with his resignation from a top Senate leadership post and increasing uncertainty on Capitol Hill about whether more damaging details of his infidelity would continue to leak out.
Frustrated GOP leaders moved swiftly to distance themselves from the sex scandal, with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) accepting Ensign’s resignation as chairman of the Republican Policy Committee.
Yet there are several lingering questions over the Nevada Republican’s extramarital affair with a former campaign aide: Was there an attempt to blackmail Ensign? Have there been other affairs, as The Associated Press has reported? What were the circumstances of the aide and her husband’s departure from Ensign’s staff? Have there been any violations of Senate ethics rules in how the situation was handled with the staffers?
After making a public apology Tuesday, Ensign stayed away from Capitol Hill and made no public appearances Wednesday. He has yet to fully disclose the extent of his romantic relationship with his former campaign staffer, 46-year-old Cynthia Hampton, which aides say took place between December 2007 and August 2008.
The senator has yet to publicly explain the circumstances of the resignations of Hampton and her husband, Doug, from Ensign’s staff last year during the affair. The two left his staff in the spring of 2008, even though the affair carried on for months after their departure. Questions continue to linger over why Ensign came forward Tuesday — nearly a year after the relationship ended — whether his admission followed an attempt to extort money from him and if the Hamptons’ departure from his staff was related to the affair.
If Doug Hampton was removed from his office to cover up the affair, “that’d be a big problem,” said Melanie Sloan, head of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
An attorney representing the Hamptons issued a statement late Wednesday confirming that Cynthia Hampton was the woman with whom Ensign had an affair.
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“It is unfortunate the senator chose to air this very personal matter, especially after the Hamptons did everything possible to keep this matter private,” attorney Daniel Albregts said. “It is equally unfortunate that he did so without concern for the effect such an announcement would have on the Hampton family. In time the Hamptons will be ready and willing to tell their side of the story.”
Rumors of another Ensign affair surfaced Wednesday when The Associated Press cited an anonymous source who said Ensign had a relationship with another former aide in 2002 before he took a two-week leave of absence to deal with a personal family matter. An Ensign aide strongly denied the report.
For Republicans still reeling from last year’s election and eager to spotlight their message in advance of big summer battles on the Hill, the Ensign drama was unwelcome news.
This is the third sex scandal that McConnell has had to deal with since he became GOP leader, and the first to befall a member of his leadership team. Former Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) was involved in a men’s room sex sting in 2007, and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) was implicated in a prostitution scandal in the same year.
The swift movement by Republicans — with Ensign’s consent — to clear him out of leadership was a sign that Senate Republican Conference now has “zero tolerance” for this kind of scandal at a time when the party is struggling to rebuild, several aides said Wednesday.
“He’s accepted responsibility for his actions and apologized to his family and constituents,” McConnell said in a statement. “He offered, and I accepted, his resignation as chairman of the Policy Committee.”
The departure of Ensign — a one-time rising star with his eye on the GOP presidential nomination in 2012 — creates a domino effect in the GOP hierarchy.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), currently the vice chairman of the conference, now has the inside track to take the plum leadership position, which helps GOP senators form policy positions. And Thune’s departure then would open the door for other senators to move up the chain as well; Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski is in the race for vice chairwoman, and aides pointed to North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr as a possibility for the vice chairmanship, as well.
In the meantime, the Ensign scandal leaves Republicans looking for ways to change the subject.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), one of the most conservative members of the Senate and a housemate of Ensign’s in Washington, said he was “surprised” by the news and called Ensign “a good friend” who he hoped would continue to serve in the Senate. But DeMint, a social conservative like Ensign, didn’t know whether Ensign could reemerge as a leader of the party and said all politicians have credibility problems now.
“People don’t like hypocrites, so we’ve got to live up to what we say,” DeMint said.
A born-again Christian and a crusader for traditional values, Ensign was a member of the Promise Keepers, a Christian evangelical ministry that emphasizes family values. In a statement, Promise Keepers said that the group “prays for John Ensign, and we are encouraged that he is pursuing reconciliation with his family.” Most Republicans withheld judgment, and none called on him to resign. Still, the story of his affair continues to unfold, and more damaging details could add pressure on the senator to resign, aides and strategists said.
“I think he will be welcomed back by his colleagues and go back to being a good senator,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who said Ensign shouldn’t have resigned his leadership spot.
Graham downplayed the political impact this would have on the GOP, saying, “Most Americans look at this as a personal situation.”
Graham let out a laugh and said: “I’ve got plenty of sins that I’m not going to share with anyone else.”
“There are a lot of senators and staff who feel a lot of sympathy for Sen. Ensign, who is obviously confronting an incredibly difficult time,” a senior GOP aide said.
But another aide said: “One thing is for sure: He cannot go any further in Senate leadership, or higher in electoral politics, now.”
Still, the rhetoric is softer than what was espoused in 2007, when Ensign and others pushed Craig to step down after he was charged with soliciting sex in a Minneapolis airport bathroom.
“He’s apologized to his constituents and his colleagues and acknowledged a grave error,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said of Ensign. Asked if he should resign his seat altogether, Cornyn said: “No.”
“John has to make his own personal decision relative to his family as well as the political side of this,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said of Ensign. “He’s got to get his personal life in order, and that comes first.”
Chambliss said Ensign shouldn’t resign.