High Infidelity

HIGH INFIDELITY…. When it comes to political sex scandals, the electoral implications are entirely counter-intuitive. It’s tempting to think that, even when the public is predisposed to overlook personal failings, Americans would be repulsed by hypocrisy — those who boast of their pro-family values, condemn those who fail to meet their alleged high moral standards, and nevertheless get caught up in humiliating affairs.

But that rarely seems to happen. Take Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), for example.

The new survey of Nevada by Public Policy Polling (D) has a startling result about Republican Sen. John Ensign: Despite the sex scandal that obliterated his presidential ambitions last year, and has raised questions about payments made by Ensign’s parents to the family of his ex-mistress, Ensign could still get reelected in 2012.

Only 38% of Nevada voters approve of Ensign’s job performance, with 44% disapproving. However, he still leads three Democrats in hypothetical match-ups. He leads Rep. Shelly Berkley by 49%-40%. He leads Secretary of State Ross Miller by 47%-36%. And he edges out Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman by 43%-41%, within the ±3.6% margin of error.

PPP’s communications director joked, “Cheating on your wife is a deal breaker for Republican voters — but only if you’re a Democrat.”

That’s a good line, but it’s worth emphasizing how accurate it is.

In Ensign’s case, his humiliation initially broke in June, when we learned the conservative, “family values” senator carried on a lengthy extra-marital affair with one of his aides, who happened to be married to another one of his aides. Ensign’s parents tried to pay off the mistress’ family.

The scandal grew far worse in October, when we learned that the Republican senator pushed his political and corporate allies to give lobbying contracts to his mistress’ husband. Despite laws prohibiting aides from lobbying for a year after leaving the Hill, Ensign and the aggrieved husband seemed to ignore the rule, and the senator used his office to cater to the needs of those who hired his mistress’ spouse.

It’s a scandal in which Ensign violated his family’s trust, contradicted all of his purported values, and probably violated congressional ethics rules. Confronted with this, a plurality of the senator’s constituents seem to think, “No biggie.”

The same is true in Louisiana, where right-wing Sen. David Vitter (R) not only cheated on his wife while claiming to be a “family values” conservative, he did so with at least one prostitute. He’s now favored to win re-election anyway.

On the national level, Newt Gingrich is still taken seriously in some GOP circles as a presidential candidate despite his sex scandals, and in 2008, John McCain was the first ever admitted adulterer to win a major party’s presidential nomination.

But notice the standards applied to the other side of the aisle. Eliot Spitzer resigned fairly quickly as governor of New York after his sex scandal, and John Edwards’ reputation is likely tarnished forever in the wake of his affair.

The moral of the story: adultery is fine, and hypocrisy is fine, just so long as you have an “R” after your name.