Sunday, September 03, 2006

Nebraska U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

September 3, 2006
65 Days Until Election Day

Nebraska U.S. Senate

Status: Democrat Incumbent
2004 Presidential Result: Red State (Midwest)

Outlook: Likely Democrat

Republicans have now spent several months wondering "what might have been" as Nebraska voters seem poised to split their tickets in order to reelect a conservative leaning Democrat freshman Senator in this heavily Republican state.

As people started talking about this election cycle after the 2004 general election, it looked like Democrat Senator Ben Nelson would be highly vulnerable to a 2006 challenge from popular outgoing Republican Governor Mike Johanns. However, the President threw those plans for a loop when he nominated Johanns to be U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, thus taking him out of consideration for a Senate race.

Many wondered at the time just what exactly the President and his highly touted political team were up to? Was this a deal made to get Nelson to switch to the Republican Party in order to save his seat? Was the legendary former Nebraska football coach and current Congressman Tom Osborne going to now run for the U.S. Senate instead of a planned race for Governor? Neither of those things happened and Dave Heineman, who had been elevated to Governor also decided instead to tangle (ultimately successfully) with Osborne in a GOP Gubernatorial primary.

Three credible Republican candidates eventually emerged to take on Nelson, including the man that Nelson narrowly beat to win the seat in 2000, in a race he had been expected to win more easily. The winner though of the Republican primary was the wealthy former COO of Ameritrade, Pete Ricketts. National Republicans were happy when Ricketts won the primary, as he was considered the candidate with the right mixture of political skills and personal money to invest in the race in order to give the favored Nelson a decent challenge.

With the primary completed though, there is no evidence to suggest that Ricketts is capable of pulling off an upset against the popular incumbent. The most recent poll from Rasmussen Reports shows Nelson polling in the mid 50s with Ricketts languishing behind in the low 30s.

Nelson has cast some noticeably conservative votes in the Senate as of late, setting himself up in an extremely small minority of Democrats, such as his vote for the Federal Marriage Amendment and voting for a constitutional amendment outlawing flag desecration. Nelson also was one of the few Democrats to support a hardline House bill on immigration reform, rejecting a Senate compromise, and he has even gone as far as to try to run against Ricketts on the issue of illegal immigration, a popular position in Nebraska. The Pro-Life Nelson has definitely compiled a voting record that puts him siding far more often with Republicans than a Senator such as Joe Lieberman has, but realizing the political realities of heavily conservative Nebraska, he is sometimes referred to as a DINO, but there has not seemed to be any serious effort made within the party to defeat him.

Taking Nelson’s voting record and ideology into consideration, the past talk about a potential party switch to the GOP is likely to continue, but Nelson is probably unlikely to do so, realizing his position as a swing vote in what looks like what will be a very closely divided U.S. Senate will make him even more influential on Capitol Hill.

Expect Nelson to win handily, but the race will probably tighten a bit as the race enters the final stages and many Republicans will come home to rally around their ticket. Democrats around the country probably remember the situation in 2000, when Nelson was expected to be a somewhat easy winner in an open seat race, but only eked out a victory on Election Night by a few small points, against an opponent who was regarded as a weaker campaigner than Ricketts. The millionaire challenger will be expected to spend freely from his own pocket in order to attempt to make headway in this race, as Republican Party money will be more usefully spent elsewhere.

As he prepares for a second term in the U.S. Senate, Ben Nelson might look back at the decision of President Bush to remove Mike Johanns as a likely opponent, as what was the turning point for his reelection hopes. While Nelson has not joined the GOP as many have hoped, and probably will not, he might keep that decision by the President in mind as he continues to vote within the U.S. Senate, and perhaps be known as President Bush’s favorite Senate Democrat, at least outside of Connecticut.

Ricketts campaign link:

2006 Senate races predicted thus far: 10 D, 6 R
Post-election Senate balance of power thus far: 37 D, 46 R