- Associated Press - Monday, April 25, 2011

LINCOLN, Neb. | The last time Sen. Ben Nelson ran for re-election, in 2006, Democrats held four of the six Senate seats representing the 650 miles of plains from Nebraska north to the Canadian border.

If the Nebraska senator’s political fortunes don’t change, soon there will be just one.

As Mr. Nelson quietly prepares for his 2012 re-election campaign, he is doing so in a region that is trending away from him. As recently as 2004, the Great Plains wasn’t just a place where Democrats could win it was a power center, led by then Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. Today, the region is tilting toward the GOP.

Republicans have taken control of two Senate seats and two House seats long held by Democrats and solidified statehouse majorities. Another seat is likely to be on the way in 2012, after North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad announced he wouldn’t seek re-election earlier this year. That would leave just two Democrats in the Plains: South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson, who is up for re-election in 2014, and Mr. Nelson.

Polls have shown Mr. Nelson struggling. Some have had him down as many as 10 points to prospective opponents. Even his supporters say he’s in a tough spot.

“He’s got some very tough votes coming up, on some really tough issues,” such as the upcoming votes on debt ceiling and the federal budget, said Mike Fahey, the former mayor of Omaha and a friend of Mr. Nelson’s. “He will need to try and find a balance. I think 2012 will be a real test for him.”

Although the election is more than a year away, Democrats are already concerned. The party holds control of the Senate by a precarious margin, 51-47, with two seats held by independents. The outcome of races like Mr. Nelson’s could determine whether the party stays in power or loses control of Congress to the Republicans, who already dominate the House.

Three Republican candidates have announced plans to run against Mr. Nelson. Mr. Nelson raised more than $1 million in the first quarter of 2011 and has more than $2 million cash on hand, providing a strong financial base for defending his seat. He also plans to step up his home state political appearances.

Still, voters here wonder whether Mr. Nelson, once an overwhelmingly popular, two-term governor, can survive in a place where the population is becoming steadily more conservative and more Republican. Registered Democrats have dropped from 38 percent to 33 percent just since 2008. The Republicans hold a 48 percent share.

“They’re going to shovel him out,” said Leslie Alsop, an unemployed Lincoln resident who is not registered with either party and says he’s not sure how he will vote.

State maintenance worker Larry Simonson, a Republican who has backed Mr. Nelson in the past, said the sentiment here seems to be against “the good old boys in Washington.”

“I don’t think people are really happy right now,” he said.

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