RENO, Nev. — Former Republican Rep. John Ensign bounced back from a razor-thin loss two years ago Tuesday to become the first Republican to win a U.S. Senate race in Nevada in 12 years.
Ensign, 42, a veterinarian and son of a casino mogul, was leading Democrat Ed Bernstein of Las Vegas by a comfortable 13 percent margin in the race to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Richard Bryan.
Ensign won the first of two House races in the 1994 Republican wave that made Newt Gingrich speaker.
He came within one-tenth of 1 percent of defeating Democratic Sen. Harry Reid two years ago in a recount that stretched into December.
“It’s really been four years we’ve been running,” Ensign said as he watched early returns with GOP faithful at the Peppermill Hotel-Casino in Reno.
“That loss was one of the better things that ever happened to me,” he said.
“Your greatest victories in life come from your greatest defeats. You can learn so much about yourself. I think I needed a good dose of humility back then. It was good for me. I needed to learn a lot about myself. Nothing can teach you that more than a good defeat.”
Ensign, who lost to Reid by 428 votes in 1998, said he sensed more support for his campaign this time around.
“Everywhere I’ve been around the state, the crowds have been huge. Our volunteer base dwarfed our volunteer base of last time. It’s truly been overwhelming,” he said.
“So many people have come up to me and said, ‘I could have got you 428 votes last time.’
There must have been 200 people who told me that personally. People didn’t want that to happen again.
“But we didn’t take anything for granted. Right up until the polls closed we had people working the precincts,” he said.
Bernstein, a Las Vegas lawyer, spent about $1 million of his own money but said he was having trouble overcoming Ensign’s 3-to-1 fund-raising advantage.
Republican ads down the stretch attacked Bernstein’s profession. Keith Kapaun, 50, a telecommunications consultant in Sparks, said that played a role in his decision to back Ensign.
“I don’t want an ambulance-chasing lawyer for my senator,” Kapaun said after he voted.
Collin Ferrari, 19, a student at the University of Nevada-Reno, also voted for Ensign.
“He’s for keeping more local control rather than sending our money and power to Washington,” he said.
Kathy Berry, an independent who works in marketing at a community college in Reno, voted for George W. Bush for president but backed Bernstein for the Senate.
“I know it sounds contradictory, but I didn’t feel Ensign was compatible with women’s issues. So you can see I really had to hate Al Gore to vote for Bush. ... I don’t think I can trust him,” Berry said.