Ensign Will Not Seek Re-election in 2012

Ensign Will Not Seek Re-election in 2012

By Erin McPike - March 7, 2011

Nevada Republican John Ensign announced at a press conference this afternoon in Las Vegas that he will not seek a third term in the Senate in 2012 as a direct result of an extramarital affair he carried on in 2008.

"As many of you know, the last couple of years have been very difficult for my family, staff, friends and so many of my supporters," he said. "I cannot express how sorry I am for the pain that I have caused everyone. As I have learned through my mistake, there are consequences to sin. When a person is in a leadership role, those consequences can affect a lot of people in a very negative way."

The two-term senator's departure creates an open-seat battle in the fight for control of the Senate in what will be a competitive Western swing state next year in the presidential race, too. Both parties could witness competitive primaries to determine their nominees who will vie to succeed Ensign.

Ensign said he had been planning as late as last week to run for re-election but ultimately decided he could not put his family through another onslaught of negative TV advertising that would certainly come his way.

"I did 348 events in the state of Nevada this year," Ensign said at the press conference. "I just came to the conclusion that I couldn't put my family through it."

Ensign's wife, Darlene, stood at his side during the press conference, but she did not appear with him at a press conference in June of 2009 when he admitted to the affair.

He said the decision not to run again is the most difficult of his life, noting, "It has been difficult because I have never loved a job as much or been as honored to serve in any position than that of your senator."

Ensign stepped down from the Senate Republican leadership in the summer of 2009 after admitting to the affair with a campaign staffer, and the Ethics Committee considered launching an investigation after he confessed that his father had given monetary gifts to the staffer's family. Consistent negative press coverage since that time helped to depress his approval ratings even further, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee has made no secret of its desire that Ensign step down so that untarnished candidates have a clear shot at keeping the seat in GOP hands next year.

The senator had been raising money to run for re-election in 2012 and even appeared at fundraisers at the NRSC headquarters, but he only had about $225,000 in his campaign account at the end of 2010.

GOP operatives have been pushing for months that Nevada GOP Rep. Dean Heller is their strongest candidate for the now-open seat. As of the end of last year, Heller's campaign account had more than triple what Ensign's had with just under $815,000.

But Heller may still not have a clear path to the nomination, as the Republican establishment did not prove adept just last year at anointing a nominee for the 2010 Senate race against Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Democrat. They begrudgingly settled on Sue Lowden, a former chair of the state GOP, as the top candidate, but she ultimately lost a multi-candidate primary to Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, who went on to lose to Reid.

Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, who considered running in the GOP Senate primary last year, issued a statement immediately after the press conference that intimated he may took a look at the 2012 Senate race.

"I respect what must have been an incredibly difficult decision for John, Darlene and the entire Ensign family," Krolicki said. "John has been a respected conservative voice in the United State Senate and a reliable vote for Nevada families."

But just after Krolicki's comment, the statement noted separately, "Today is not the day for any announcement on Lt. Governor Krolicki's political future. In the coming days, he and his family will consider opportunities to best serve the people of Nevada."

NRSC Chairman John Cornyn issued a statement just three sentences long - and it was the first, shortest sentence that mentioned Ensign and thanked him for his service.

He continued, "Next year's Senate race in Nevada will now come down to a clear choice between two competing visions for our country - between a Republican candidate who believes in smaller government, fiscal responsibility and creating good, private sector jobs, and a Democrat candidate who believes in keeping our country on the same reckless fiscal path of more government and higher taxes. Republicans welcome this choice and I am confident we will successfully retain this seat as we work to win back a new Senate Republican majority."

A competitive primary could also be brewing on the other side of the aisle.

Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley has expressed interest in the race, but she made her initial comments after Ensign made clear he was running and suggested an Ensign candidacy would factor into her own decision.

Democratic sources also have suggested that Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto may consider the race and that there could be several other interested candidates, as well.

With Republicans breathing a collective sigh of relief over Ensign's announcement, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee executive director Guy Cecil argued that Democrats have a fair shot at picking up the open seat.

"Nevada is now an open seat, and ripe for a Democratic pickup," he said. "It remains high on our target list. Whoever Republicans field as their candidate will have a tough time holding onto this seat in a blue-trending state with President Obama at the top of the ticket. Democrats will have the resources needed to win this seat and just as important, will build a grassroots organization that matches 2008 and 2010."

Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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