Between sips of an iced latte at a Starbucks in Omaha, Democrat Bob Kerrey counts the ways the odds are stacked against his bid to return to the U.S. Senate.
Republicans outnumber Democrats by 48 percent to 32 percent in Nebraska, where Kerrey was governor before serving two Senate terms from 1989 to 2001. Also, pro-Republican super-PAC attack ads are claiming he forgot his roots after spending a decade in New York City. Further, President Barack Obama isn’t popular here, which also is a drag on his candidacy.
“All taken together, it’s a tough race,” said Kerrey, 68, who lamented that he has been unable to raise much money from the types of donors who get behind an expected victor. “At the moment, it’s not likely that anybody who’s going to contribute to me says: ‘I’m going to contribute to him because I think he’s going to win.’”
A former Navy SEAL awarded the Medal of Honor for his service in Vietnam, Kerrey was a Nebraska favorite son and one of the state’s most accomplished politicians. Today, he’s the underdog in a race to replace retiring two-term Democratic Senator Ben Nelson. Kerrey’s decision Feb. 29 to run -- after earlier saying he wouldn’t -- is supposed to boost Democrats’ chances of keeping the seat and controlling the Senate where they now have a slight majority, 53-47.
So far, nothing has gone according to script.
After leaving the Senate -- and Nebraska -- in 2001, Kerrey spent a decade as president of the New School, a self-described progressive university in New York City’s Greenwich Village. When he returned to Nebraska to run again for the Senate, the Republican Party brought a challenge to his residency that went to the state Supreme Court.
Kerrey won the challenge in March, though the case highlighted that he used his sister’s address for voter registration before shifting to the guest house of a Democratic donor.
Many Nebraskans aren’t buying in to his candidacy.
“A senator is supposed to be a representative of where you are, but he moved to New York,” said Nick Carl, 31, an Omaha independent who was too young to vote when Kerrey last was on a ballot in 1994. “It was 10 years ago. If it was a year or two, he’d maybe have an argument.”
Kerrey said he’s about to complete the purchase of a home in Omaha and that the issue is overblown. He said there’s precedent to what he’s doing; former Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican, won the first of his two terms in 1996 after 20 years living outside Nebraska.
Kerrey had expected to run against Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, a Republican who faces ethics questions over his purchase of a lakeside home with business executives to whom his office was accused of giving special treatment.
Instead, state Senator Deb Fischer surged past Bruning and state Treasurer Don Stenberg to win the May 15 Republican primary. She was boosted by a last-minute endorsement from Sarah Palin, a Tea Party favorite and 2008 vice presidential nominee, and a decision by billionaire Joe Ricketts -- founder of what is now TD Ameritrade -- to spend almost $255,000 on the race, much of it on TV ads attacking Bruning and supporting Fischer.
Kerrey trails in the polls. A Rasmussen telephone survey on May 16 showed Fischer with support from 56 percent of 500 probable voters to 38 percent for Kerrey. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Acting like a front-runner, Fischer hasn’t responded to Kerrey’s call for seven debates. Today, he plans to speak alone at what would have been the first one, before the American Legion Cornhusker Boys and Girls State.
Meeting with a group of Republican women over sweet rolls and coffee last week in western Omaha, Fischer spoke of her opposition to tax increases or a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants and her support for domestic spending cuts. Kerrey, she said, “isn’t getting the traction he expected” in his return-home candidacy.
“It’s up to the voters to reject people like that, and then it won’t happen,” she said.
Kerrey served as governor of Nebraska from 1983 to 1987 and was elected to the Senate a year later. He unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992, making a national health insurance overhaul his central campaign issue. His proposal would have allowed the government to create a publicly run health system.
Kerrey is running in a state that is more Republican than when he left, and where Nelson is the sole Democratic statewide officeholder, said Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
“It’s a pretty big hill,” she said of Kerrey’s run. She rates the Senate seat as likely to switch to Republican control.
Known for his willingness to work with Republicans in the Senate -- where he helped lead commissions that came up with bipartisan plans for overhauling Medicare and the Internal Revenue Service -- Kerrey said he’s running to help curb partisan gridlock.
Kerrey said he’ll campaign on his convictions, though his positions might be unpopular with some state voters.
“I’m not running because I need to be a senator,” he said. “In fact, I barely want to be. I’m willing to do it because I’m worried about our country. There’s a set of problems that aren’t going to be solved unless people are willing to compromise.”
Kerrey said he wants to reduce the budget deficit through a mixture of spending cuts and tax increases. He proposes generating more revenue by narrowing the difference between the 15 percent capital gains rate and the 35 percent top rate on ordinary income, and boosting taxes for investment profits of private-equity fund managers.
Kerrey said he would have voted for the 2010 health care overhaul, though he wants some changes. He would replace today’s employer-provided health insurance with a market-based approach that expands the risk pool. He says individuals could choose between plans with copayments and deductibles that the government sets.
Some voters don’t like Kerrey’s support of the health care law. Nelson was criticized for being the final vote needed to muscle the legislation through the Senate in 2009 after receiving a concession from Majority Leader known as the “Cornhusker kickback.” That provision was later dropped.
“For Kerrey to say he’s supporting it is like poking your finger in the eye of the bear,” said Stephanie Arje, a Republican from Omaha who said she picketed Nelson’s office to protest his health care vote.
Others, though, say Kerrey’s willingness to work across party lines wins their support.
His experience makes Kerrey the more plausible candidate, said Tony Ward, an independent voter who works at Omaha’s Creighton University.
“Right now, I see so much rancor” in the Republican party, Ward said. “It’s become such a circus that they don’t have any credibility anymore. With Kerrey, I trust his record.”
Randall Adkins, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska, said that to win in November Kerrey must appeal to enough Republicans and to voters in Omaha and Lincoln, which have a higher concentration of independents and Democrats.
“If he doesn’t do well in Omaha, he won’t do well,” Adkins said. “He has to win his base.”
Kerrey has had fundraising help from his party, including $43,100 from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. On March 28, Senate Democratic leaders including Majority Leader Harry Reid held a fundraiser in Washington to benefit Kerrey’s election bid.
He has spent most of what he has raised, paying $754,560 for ads to reintroduce himself to state voters, according to data from Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks campaign spending. The ads play up his record of bipartisanship and his war-hero past, and feature voters who welcome him back.
Kerrey has been the target of attack ads by Republicans in their primary and outside groups including Americans for Prosperity, funded in part by Koch Industries Inc. executives Charles Koch and David Koch. That group focused on his support of the health-care law and a cap-and-trade regulatory system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“Tell Bob Kerrey his liberal agenda isn’t welcome in our Nebraska homes,” said an ad by Americans for Prosperity that aired in April.
Republican Hagel said he’s convinced that Kerrey can follow in his footsteps with a home-state comeback win.
“It’s a joke to say he’s not a real Nebraskan and he’s a carpetbagger,” Hagel, who didn’t seek re-election in 2008, said in an interview. “Come on. This is a guy who is Nebraska through and through.”