NE-Sen: Ricketts vs. Nelson

Whether the issue is tax cuts, confirmation of Supreme Court justices or other federal judges, or anything of national urgency, Nebraska’s Ben Nelson is often one of a tiny group of Democrats in the Senate who can be counted on to vote with conservatives.

Or at least, Nelson can be counted on sometimes.

In his one term as senator, Nelson has voted to confirm John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court and has supported nearly all of the Bush appointees to the U.S. Court of Appeals, although he did vote “no” on confirming Judge Priscilla Owens of Texas. He has backed the President’s tax cuts, but also supported a measure to increase federal education spending by $8.6 billion—the increase to be financed by taxes. He opposed a measure to continue and extend the “tough love” welfare reform signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, despite its record of success. For all his reputation as a pro-life senator, Nelson was one of 38 senators who opposed a bill (HR 1997) to make it a criminal offense to injure or kill a fetus during the commission of a crime.

“That’s the quintessential Ben, all right,” former State Republican Chairman Chuck Sigerson once said of Nelson, with whom he sparred relentlessly during the Democrat’s eight years as governor. “It’s very difficult to know just what he really stands for because he keeps all his options open.”

Put another way, Nelson’s lifetime American Conservative Union rating is 52%—meaning that he cancels out the Cornhusker State’s Republican senator, Chuck Hagel (lifetime ACU rating: 85%) on close to half the votes before the Senate. Although there are those who say that Nelson is the best conservatives can expect from a Democratic senator these days, there are many others who argue that Nebraska can do better than the 2000 state chairman of Al Gore’s presidential campaign.

Enter Pete Ricketts, fourth-generation Nebraskan and former chief operations officer for the Ameritrade Holding Corp. In winning the Republican nomination to oppose Nelson with nearly half the vote over two strong opponents, the businessman-candidate’s message was simple: “I come from a cost-conscious culture, and we must cut the budget and set priorities.” Taking this message to all 93 counties in the state, Ricketts makes it clear where he stands on virtually every major issue. He opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants, instead favoring very tight border security. He is strongly pro-life and supports all judicial nominees who will interpret the law and not make it. He wants to expand health savings accounts and improve education with “academic and curriculum decisions … made at the local level.”

The contrast between the candidates is clear: Few Nebraskans would have to hold their breath and wait to see how Ricketts would vote on controversial issues.