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Ensign quits leadership post in wake of extramarital affair

By Dave Cook / June 17, 2009

Only a couple weeks ago, Nevada Senator John Ensign was visiting an ice cream shop in Iowa fueling speculation of his grander political aspirations. This was all before he admitted having an extramarital affair thus putting a dark cloud over his political future.

CHARLIE NEIBERGALL/AP

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The scandal surrounding Nevada Senator John Ensign is the last thing Senate Republicans need.

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On Tuesday, Ensign went home to Nevada to announce that he had had an extramarital affair with a woman on his campaign staff. Today, Ensign stepped down from his post as chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, the fourth highest raking spot in the Senate GOP leadership. Ensign remained in Nevada on Wednesday.

A former rising star

Before the news of his indiscretion, Ensign had been a rising star in the party. He recently had spoken at events in Iowa, raising speculation he was considering a run for his party’s presidential nomination. In 2008, he ran the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), in charge of electing Republican candidates. Colleagues did not appear to hold him responsible for the losses his party suffered in the Senate where they now control just 40 seats.

It is not clear yet how much political impact the Ensign scandal will have. The senator is not up for re-election in 2010, so his seat is not immediately in peril. But the controversy surrounding his affair could make it harder for Republicans to mount an effective challenge for the state’s other Senate seat, held by Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, which is up in 2010.

Reid is being careful not to seem to capitalize on Ensign’s problems. Reid told Politico, “This is a private family matter.”

A distraction during rebuilding

Ensign’s problems are a distraction at a time when the GOP needs to rebuild in the Senate and the odds of picking up seats are challenging. His successor at the NRSC, John Cornyn of Texas, recently told a Monitor breakfast that in the 2010 senatorial elections, “Success would be stemming the tide.”

Cornyn cautioned that “the math is not particularly friendly to us this time, there are 18 Republicans up and 18 Democrats” in 2010. “I am not going to name a number. Obviously, we want to move forward and not backward.”

With Ensign stepping away from his visible leadership post, it will be easier for Senate Republicans to try to regain focus on mounting an effective opposition to the Obama administration’s health care, financial regulation, and climate legislation.

A familiar story

The story of older males misbehaving is an old one in Washington. Some found to have strayed -- like Senators Larry Craig and John Edwards -- find themselves heading to political obscurity. Others, like Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, are rehabilitated and regain influence.

It's too early to tell which future will be John Ensign's.