Monday, August 20, 2012

Nebraska U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

Nebraska U.S. Senate

August 20, 2012
78 Days Until Election Day

Status: Democrat Open
2008 Presidential Result: Red State (Midwest)

Outlook: Likely Republican

In the Cornhusker State, we have the most likely Senate turnover in the country up this year, despite the highly touted recruitment and candidacy of the Democrat nominee and the surprise underdog primary win of the Republican candidate.

Currently, the seat is held by two term Democrat Senator Ben Nelson, who like several of his state's former Governors, eventually moved on to the Senate in a somewhat odd Nebraska tradition. One of the more conservative Democrats in the Senate, Nelson has been talked about for years as a critical swing vote or as a potential party switcher to the Republican Party, but it was clear that his image had helped him win elections, even as Nebraska moved strongly towards the GOP.

Nelson was at the heart of controversy though during the debate over the health care bill, as after much public consideration, he eventually sided with Barack Obama, when he elicited an exception from a provision for his state, in what was termed the "Cornhusker Kickback." Nelson had been expected to seek reelection at that point, but after that deciding vote, many started to write his political obituary. Soon, Nelson who was already anticipating a stiff challenge, was down by a sizable margin in the polls to the person considered his likely opponent, and by the end of 2011, Nelson announced he would retire.

Leading up to the 2012 cycle, Nebraska's extremely popular GOP Governor Dave Heineman was thought of as a likely Senate candidate, as so many Nebraska Governors had run before, but he opted to keep his job for a full final term, and while Nelson was still in the race, the leading Republican became the state's Attorney General Jon Bruning. Other candidates entered the field as well, but Bruning was considered a strong primary favorite over chief opponent Don Stenberg, the state's newly elected Treasurer, who when he had been serving as Attorney General, made two previous Senate bids, including a narrow 2000 open seat loss to Nelson.

Polling had Bruning ahead of Nelson, and he became even more of a likely Senator after the incumbent announced his retirement. Few Democrats expressed interest in an uphill race that was looking like much of a sacrificial lamb situation, but the person considered the most credible candidate in the field was pushed aside in the early spring of this year as the Democrats did manage to recruit the one person they felt could hold the seat.

Bob Kerrey was once one of the most prominent Democrats in the country. The Vietnam War veteran who had lost a leg in the conflict served a term as his state's Governor and then two in the United States Senate before retiring in 2000, when Nelson would win his seat. In between, Kerrey made a run for his party's Presidential nomination in 1992. When he left politics though, he seemed to be gone for good, as he left Nebraska behind to become a University President in New York City and also spoke candidly about a Vietnam War incident in which he admitted that he took part in a civilian massacre. In 2005, he flirted with a run for Mayor of New York, and when speculation came that he could seek a Senate comeback in Nebraska he demurred, before surprising many by saying he would run in 2012 after all.

With Kerrey entering the race, Democrats across the country breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that he would stand a very good chance of holding an endangered seat. Nonetheless, some polling indicated that Bruning would still be favored, indicating that Kerrey was no longer considered a Nebraska institution and that the state was inclined to support sending a Republican to Washington.

In the meantime, there was not all smooth sailing for Bruning in the primary he had been expected to dominate. Stenberg, who had been considered a weaker general election candidate, received the backing of some Tea Party groups and started hammering the frontrunner from the right. Bruning fired back in going after Stenberg, and both hurt each other politically as the state's GOP voters expressed frustration over the intraparty attacks. There would be talk that a third candidate in the crowded field was starting to gain traction as an alternative.

Deb Fischer is a rancher who serves as a State Senator in Nebraska's unicameral, technically non-partisan legislature. Lesser known than either Bruning or Stenberg, both of whom held statewide office, she did not run as strong in the polls against Kerrey, but started to receive some newsworthy endorsements, both from Nebraskans and national figures such as Sarah Palin. While both of her opponents had major Tea Party type endorsements as well, Fischer surged late in the primary process and won the nomination with an impressive 41 percent of the vote in the May primary.

Suddenly, the person who had been expected to finish a distant third literally just days before, was the party's nominee for the Senate, as second place finisher Bruning found himself shockingly on the outside looking in, and the infighting between him and Stenberg clearly benefited Fischer as an alternative.

While Fischer's "outsider" status helped propel her to a surprise victory, largely with conservative voters, it is also probably true that by the time of the primary, she had indeed emerged as the most electable GOP candidate with the least amount of political baggage.

Many observers and Democrats speculated that Fischer would not face heavy scrutiny for the first time, especially against a seasoned political pro like Kerrey, but all polling, before and since the primary has shown Fischer ahead of the Democrat by double digits. At one point, Kerrey would have been a heavy favorite over a previously little known Republican, but the people of the state seem to really like her on a personal level and Kerrey's electoral history from the 80's and 90's matter little in 2012. Presently, Kerrey seems to be trying very hard to get Fischer to agree to face him in multiple television debates.

Republicans have dominated Nebraska politics in recent years and in the state that roots for "Big Red" on the football field will see the Senate seat switch to Red by a sizable margin. Barring a major upset at this point, Kerrey's return to politics will probably prove to be for naught and he might be wondering to himself if it was worth it to leave his comfortable life in New York City to campaign in the small towns and rural communities of a state that seems to have long moved on and away from him.

Fischer campaign link:

2012 U.S. Senate races predicted thus far: 9 D, 7 R
Predicted U.S. Senate Balance of Power thus far: 39 D, 44 R