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Posted at 2:19 PM ET, 03/ 7/2011

John Ensign to retire in 2012

By Chris Cillizza and Paul Kane

Updated 3:21 p.m.

Nevada Sen. John Ensign (R) will retire rather than seek reelection in 2012, he announced Monday afternoon. The decision brings to an end a tumultuous several years that saw him go from one of the party's rising stars to persona non grata.

"There are consequences to sin," Ensign declared at a news conference in Las Vegas. He said he did not want to put his family though an "exceptionally ugly" campaign. (Read his full statement here.)

"I thank Senator Ensign for his nearly two decades of public service," said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (R-Texas) in a statement. "Next year's Senate race in Nevada will now come down to a clear choice between two competing visions for our country."

Ensign, who was first elected to the Senate in 2000 after two terms in the House, is the third Republican to announce his retirement in this year. He follows Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) and Jon Kyl (Ariz.) to the sidelines. Four Democrats, as well as Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who caucuses with Democrats, are also retiring in 2012.

The retirement decision comes in the wake of an ongoing Senate ethics committee investigation into whether Ensign acted improperly in an extramarital affair with Cynthia Hampton, who worked for Ensign's political committees and whose husband, Doug, was a top legislative staffer for Ensign.

In the spring of 2008, Ensign, trying to repair his marriage, dismissed both Hamptons from his payroll. His parents, casino magnates in Las Vegas, issued nearly $100,000 in checks to Doug and Cynthia Hampton and the Hampton children, what were officially termed as gifts.

In the months that ensued, Ensign allegedly helped Doug Hampton land a lobbying job back in Nevada and then also helped him sign clients and get them access to officials in Washington. This came during the "cooling-off" period for Hampton, when he was legally barred from lobbying Ensign.

In early 2009 Hampton became upset with the state of his employment and asked Ensign for more money, something that Ensign's circle of advisers have privately called blackmail. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), once a close friend and former roommate of Ensign's, tried to negotiate a settlement with Hampton and Ensign, believed to be worth several million dollars.

The Senate ethics committee recently decided to dramatically ramp up its investigation of the senator, announcing that it had hired an outside counsel to handle the probe. (Such outside counsels are hired usually after the six-senator committee has decided to go to the public trial phase of an investigation, a step so rare that ethics hearings have not been held in a public setting in two decades.)

Given all of that, Senate Republican strategists will breathe a big sigh of relief that Ensign is now out of the race. Rep. Dean Heller, who had been preparing for a primary challenge to Ensign, will now almost certainly run, and the party establishment will do everything in its power to clear the primary for him. "This must have been a very difficult decision for John to make," said Heller in a statement after Ensign's announcement. "He and his family have been through a lot. Lynne and I wish them the very best."

It remains to be seen whether any of the GOP candidates who ran for Senate in 2010 -- including Republican nominee Sharron Angle -- will get into the race.

For Democrats, Rep. Shelley Berkley has been the most outspoken about her interest in campaigning, although it's not clear whether she would be the strongest candidate. Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller and state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto are also mentioned as candidates.

Nevada voters have shown a willingness to bounce back and forth between the two parties in recent years. President Obama won the Silver State by 12 points in 2008, but the 2010 election saw Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) win in a walk. Of course, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) also won an against-all-odds reelection bid in Nevada in November.

Given that competitiveness, both national parties will almost certainly target the state next fall. Nevada joins Arizona and New Mexico as states hosting open seat Senate races -- making the Southwest perhaps the central battleground of the 2012 cycle.

By Chris Cillizza and Paul Kane  | March 7, 2011; 2:19 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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