Sen. Ben Nelson’s semi-surprising announcement last month that he wouldn’t seek re-election has left Nebraska Democrats scrambling to find a replacement candidate to hold onto one of the party’s most vulnerable seats this fall.
Their party has targeted former Sen. Bob Kerrey, a big name and former presidential-primary contender who is widely considered the only Nebraska Democrat who could make the race competitive. But his time away from elected office, his longtime New York address, and speculation he won’t run anyway have given Republicans great hope they can win.
“There is a very, very small chance that the Democrats could eke this out without Ben Nelson on the ticket,” said Michael Wagner, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska. “On any given Sunday, the St. Louis Rams can beat the New England Patriots. But they usually don’t, and it’s really, really surprising when they do.”
Democrats faced a challenge to win even with the moderate Mr. Nelson in race, which was considered a tossup before his exit. The senator appeared ready to defend his seat, amassing a hearty $3.1 million in the bank as of Sept. 30.
But despite the hopes of national Democratic officials, the 70-year-old lawmakers announced last month it was “time to move on,” a decision that disappointed but did not shock party officials.
Facing a thin talent pool in the Nebraska, Democrats are wooing Mr. Kerrey, who represented the state in the Senate from 1989 to 2001 and was its governor from 1983 to 1987, but who has lived in New York City for more than a decade.
A Kerrey candidacy would jump-start enthusiasm, media attention and cash for Democrats in a state where registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats, 48 percent to 32 percent.
“We do want him to run. We welcome him back home with open arms,” said Jane Kleeb, executive director of Bold Nebraska, a liberal advocacy group. A Kerrey ticket would “not only be critical for national funding, but it’s critical for our spirit here in Nebraska, because independents and progressives are feeling a little beat down by the Republican Party.
“And we need a rock star, to be quite honest, like Bob Kerrey to help us punch above our weight.”
But a Kerrey candidacy would face numerous hurdles. His time away from Nebraska could be a liability. And he would face questions regarding his 2001 to 2010 tenure as president of the New School, a university in New York City known for its experimental approach to education, but an institution conservatives have labeled a “liberal haven.”
His name-recognition among young and new voters in the state also is limited, as he hasn’t been on a Nebraska ballot since 1994.
American Crossroads, a conservative super PAC affiliated with former Bush aide Karl Rove, has aired radio advertisements in Nebraska accusing Mr. Kerrey of being a liberal New Yorker out of touch with Nebraska values. The spot also poked fun at Mr. Kerrey’s 2005 flirtation with running for New York City mayor and for living in Greenwich Village.
Mr. Kerrey responded with a letter to Mr. Rove inviting him to one of the several restaurants and health clubs the former senator owns in Nebraska.
The former senator has said he will make a decision within the next couple of weeks, but many political experts are betting Mr. Kerrey won’t run.
“I think he’s going through the motions. I’m not sure he is ultimately going to get in,” said Jennifer E. Duffy, who covers Senate races for the Cook Political Report.
Added William Galston of the Brookings Institution: “If, against the odds, [Democrats] can persuade former [Mr. Kerrey] to take a shot at it, then they have a shot at [winning], and if they don’t, they don’t,” he said. “But I suspect he’ll end up not doing it.”
If Mr. Kerrey forgoes a Senate run, former Nebraska Lt. Gov. Kim Robak and state Sen. Steve Lathrop have been mentioned as possible candidates, though both are considered second-tier possibilities compared to the former senator.
On the Republican side, state Attorney General Jon C. Bruning, state Treasurer Don Stenberg — also a former Nebraska attorney general — and state Sen. Deb Fischer are vying for the seat. Although the primary fight is expected to be tight and possibly contentious, whoever wins likely will be the odds-on favorite in the general election.
“There isn’t much of a Democratic [candidate] pool,” Mr. Wagner said. “It’s a really uphill battle now for the Democratic Party.”