It’s just about the last thing the beleaguered Republican Party needed: a Christian conservative with national aspirations admitting to an extramarital affair with an ex-staffer.
Add Nevada Sen. John Ensign’s infidelity admission to an ever-growing list of woes for the out-of-power GOP.
One senator’s predicament hardly condemns an entire party. But the episode is an unwelcome distraction as the Republicans, their ranks shrinking, seek a turnaround after disastrous losses in consecutive national elections.
Since President Barack Obama took office, Republicans have struggled to counter his popularity and the Democrats’ command of Congress.
The GOP’s new national chairman, Michael Steele, got off to a rocky start. Moderate Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter defected to the Democrats. And Democrat Al Franken is favored to eventually be declared the winner of the disputed Minnesota Senate race over incumbent GOP Sen. Norm Coleman.
"Last year I had an affair. I violated the vows of my marriage. It is the worst thing I have ever done in my life," Ensign said Tuesday at a hastily arranged news conference in Sin City itself, Las Vegas.
He didn’t name the woman, but Cindy Hampton came forward later to say through an attorney that she regretted Ensign’s decision to "air this very personal matter." Federal records showed that she was on his political payroll and received a promotion and a pay raise around the time he said the affair began in late 2007.
There also was a report of a previous affair, in 2002, an indication that the drip, drip of dalliance details may only just be beginning.
On Wednesday, as fellow senators remained mum, Ensign resigned his leadership post. The skilled communicator and proven fundraiser was the chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, the No. 4 Senate Republican.
Until his admission, Ensign was trying to raise his national profile. Popular in Nevada though virtually unknown elsewhere, he recently flirted with a 2012 presidential run, visiting the early voting state of Iowa and refusing to tamp down speculation of a bid.
Those dreams now seem dead.
Said Scott Reed, a Republican operative in Washington: "It’s a setback for the GOP in that Ensign is an attractive Republican politician who has national potential but has probably been sidelined."
There is no shortage of ambitious Republicans angling to be the fresh face of a party that many voters consider stale. Yet, other prospects also seem to be falling out of favor.
Stunting one potential threat, Obama recently named a GOP rising star with White House interest — Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman — as the U.S. ambassador to China. Another Republican hopeful, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, has asked supporters to end efforts to draft him for a presidential run.
The 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, seems to be tangled in a new controversy every week. One week, it was an embarrassing high-profile back-and-forth with GOP House and Senate leaders over her attendance at a fundraising dinner. The next, she went after comedian David Letterman.
That said, there are others methodically positioning themselves to lead the GOP — and perhaps be the 2012 nominee. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty opted against running for a third term; confidants believe he’ll run for president. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is fundraising for GOP candidates and criticizing Obama in anticipation of another campaign.
But the GOP is having trouble turning the page on the George W. Bush era. Polls show that it’s the old-timers touting years-old messages — former Vice President Dick Cheney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — who are identified the most as party leaders.
Since Obama won the White House and Democrats padded their House and Senate majorities last fall, Republicans have struggled to consistently challenge the new president. He’s rolled out a bold agenda and is racking up successes. Republicans recently have seized on his sweeping government expansion and giant price tags. But, with fewer numbers in Congress and no singular leader, the GOP’s ability to do anything more than gripe is limited.
Then there are the party’s structural and philosophical problems. Polls show a dwindling percentage of people consider themselves Republican and the GOP has lost its grip on every part of the country but the South. It’s obvious the GOP needs to attract new loyalists. But the party is in the midst of a family feud over whether to return to conservative roots or moderate its pitch to recruit a wider membership.
Sex scandals don’t help, particularly for a party that’s weathered its share in recent years and that’s made up of staunch social conservatives who preach morality. They include Ensign, who is a member of the men’s Christian ministry Promise Keepers, which calls itself committed to building strong marriages.
Over the past two years, Senate Republicans watched Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho plead guilty to charges in connection with an airport bathroom sex sting with a male undercover officer and Louisiana Sen. David Vitter apologize for a "very serious sin in my past" after his Washington phone number was discovered among those called by an escort service suspected of prostitution.
Electorally, the GOP’s situation in the Senate has been disastrous; Republicans lost no less than a dozen seats in 2006 and 2008, when Ensign was in charge of electing GOP senators. And, 2010 is shaping up to be another tough year, with a wave of open seats Republicans must defend because of retirements.
House Republicans, too, sustained back-to-back shellackings. But the GOP has reasonable expectations of gaining seats there next fall; even Democrats say some of their members are in reliably Republican districts.
The GOP hopes its resurgence begins this fall by retaking governorships in Virginia and New Jersey — and even Democrats say they have a shot.
The party has plenty of revival plans. Barring more unpleasant surprises.
Liz Sidoti has covered national politics for The Associated Press since 2003.