Ben Nelson’s Retirement Hurts Senate Democrats’ 2012 Chances

Dec. 28 (Bloomberg) -- The uphill climb for Democrats to defend their 53-47 Senate majority next year just got steeper with the decision by Nebraska’s Ben Nelson not to seek re-election.

Nelson, 70, became the seventh member of the Senate Democratic caucus to announce his retirement, saying in a videotaped statement yesterday that “it’s time to move on.”

Democrats are defending 23 seats in 2012, compared with 10 for the Republicans. Nelson’s retirement gives Republicans an edge in Nebraska, where he is the only Democrat currently elected to statewide office, and in their campaign to take over the Senate, political analysts say.

“It qualitatively changes things for Democrats” because ‘I don’t see a path to victory for Democrats in Nebraska,” said Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst for the non-partisan Cook Political Report. Nelson’s retirement next year “puts Republicans one seat closer to a majority.”

To wrest control of the Senate, Republicans need a net gain of four seats in next November’s elections if President Barack Obama wins a second term. A Republican victory in the presidential race would reduce the needed pickup to three seats because the vice president casts tie-breaking votes.

‘Significant Blow’

The retirements of both Nelson and fellow prairie Democrat Kent Conrad of North Dakota dealt “a significant blow to Democrats’ chances of holding the Senate,” said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

Democrats are “defending eight out of the 10 most competitive seats in the country,” Gonzales said in an interview. Other competitive races include freshman Democratic Senator Jon Tester’s bid for re-election in Montana, where he is being challenged by Republican Representative Denny Rehberg.

By contrast, the “two most vulnerable Republicans” are Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts and Dean Heller in Nevada, Gonzales said. Both of their races are tossups as well, he said.

In Nebraska, Nelson, a former two-term governor and state insurance commissioner, was the Democrat best able to defend the Senate seat for his party, Duffy said.

If Nelson had stayed in the race, Republicans “were going to have to fight” to defeat him, she said in a telephone interview. Now, she said, “there is no obvious Democratic replacement to Nelson.”

‘Cornhusker Kickback’

Not always a reliable vote for Democrats, Nelson secured a concession for Nebraska in return for supporting President Barack Obama’s health-care legislation over a crucial procedural hurdle in 2009. Republicans derided the provision exempting Nebraska from paying for expanded Medicaid coverage as the “Cornhusker Kickback.” Nelson later asked that all states be treated equally.

A recent Republican political ad accused Nelson of accepting a bribe for his vote for the health-care legislation.

A maverick in his caucus, Nelson voted against legislation in August to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, saying it “sets up a maze of convoluted procedures that will only continue the chaos and political games Nebraskans are tired of seeing.”

In 2005, when Republicans ran the Senate, Nelson was part of the bipartisan “Gang of 14” senators who agreed not to block judicial nominations except under “extraordinary circumstances.” The agreement averted a threat of legislative gridlock in the Senate over confirmation of President George W. Bush’s appointments to the federal bench.

‘Overlooked’ Trait

In a statement yesterday, Obama called Nelson’s bipartisanship “a trait far too often overlooked in today’s politics.”

Senator Patty Murray of Washington state, chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, played down the impact of Nelson’s retirement on next year’s election.

“We remain confident that we will hold the majority next year because incumbents have built strong campaign organizations in their states,” Murray said in a statement. “Republicans will continue to have their hands full with a very divisive primary” in Nebraska, “which will provide an opportunity for Democrats to remain competitive.”

For its part, the National Republican Senatorial Committee said in a statement that Nelson’s support for Obama’s agenda “left him in a grave political situation” even after his party “poured roughly $1.5 million dollars into Nebraska in the off-year, at the expense of other vulnerable seats.”

Three Republicans

So far, three Republicans, state Attorney General Jon Bruning, state Treasurer Don Stenberg and Deb Fischer, a state senator, are seeking the Republican nomination for Nelson’s seat.

Dave Heineman, Nebraska’s Republican governor, told reporters earlier this month that he had rebuffed overtures by party officials in Washington, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, about running for the seat.

“I understand their arguments,” Heineman was quoted as saying by the Omaha World-Herald. “They’re persuasive. But I also indicated that it would take a lot to change my mind.”

Possible Democratic candidates identified by the newspaper include former Lieutenant Governor Kim Robak and Steve Lathrop, a state senator.

Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, had also been mentioned on political blogs as a possible candidate if Nelson retired. Kerrey, who recently retired as president of the New School in New York, told on Dec. 9 that running for the Senate is “not what I would consider being my logical career path.”

Duffy said that while the former senator, who held the seat from 1989 to 2001, “in theory” is “a really good candidate, in practice, I think it would be tough” because “it’s been a really long time since Bob Kerrey has been on the ballot.”

‘Tough Road’

“It’s a pretty tough road” for Democrats in Nebraska, “where Obama is so unpopular,” she said.

Among the Republicans, two senators -- Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona -- are retiring. A third, former Nevada Senator John Ensign, resigned during an ethics inquiry, and Heller, his appointed successor, is now running for a full six-year term.

Nevada is an opportunity for Democrats because it’s “a swing state” where “the presidential race is going to have an impact over the outcome,” Duffy said.

Democrats “could dramatically help themselves” by defeating both Brown in Massachusetts and Heller in Nevada, Rothenberg’s Gonzales said, adding: “It’s certainly possible but it’s not going to be easy.”

Warren’s Challenge

Brown is being challenged by an electoral novice, Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law School professor whom Obama tried unsuccessfully to install as head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

While Obama is expected to easily carry Massachusetts, Warren “hasn’t been in the race long enough to give her a final grade on candidate skills,” Gonzales said.

In Nevada, Heller faces a potentially strong challenge from Democratic Representative Shelley Berkley, who represents heavily Democratic Las Vegas and Clark County.

“She has high approval ratings in Las Vegas, but how wide is her appeal outside of Vegas? We don’t know yet,” Gonzales said.

Virginia Contest

Another state where presidential politics could affect the outcome is Virginia, Duffy said. There, two former governors, Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen, are vying for the seat being vacated by Democrat Jim Webb, who is retiring. Webb’s defeat of Allen in 2006 helped hand Democrats control of the Senate.

The other retiring Democratic senators are Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, Herb Kohl of Wisconsin and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico. Connecticut independent Joseph Lieberman, who caucuses with the Democrats, also isn’t seeking re-election.

In Hawaii, “Republicans found and got the one candidate to make it a race” -- former governor Linda Lingle, Duffy said.

Lingle’s successor as governor, Democrat Neil Abercrombie, “has an approval rating of 30, so she’s looking pretty good,” Duffy said.

To contact the reporter on this story: James Rowley in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at

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