Ben Nelson Bows Out

Senator Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska), a veteran of the shady backroom deals that got ObamaCare through Congress, has announced he will not seek re-election.  Nelson’s infamous “Cornhusker Kickback,” a special Medicaid subsidy for his state that became emblematic of ObamaCare corruption – not to mention the absurdity of a centrally planned one-size-fits-all health care makeover imposed upon the entire nation – had already left him looking unlikely to win re-election.  The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee nevertheless poured a million bucks into shoring him up, and his poll numbers had begun to pick up a bit, but now it’s all dust in the wind.

Politico explains why Nelson’s retirement is bad news for the Democrats:

Republicans are expected to pick up control of the Cornhusker State seat, although popular former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) has been talking to top Democrats about possibly running again.

Other vulnerable Democrats like Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Jon Tester (Mont.) also face difficult – although winnable – reelection fights.

There will also be costly races in Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania, featuring Democratic incumbents Sherrod Brown, Bill Nelson and Bob Casey. President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign is expected to spend heavily in those states, potentially giving a boost to Democratic incumbents.

Overall, 23 Democratic-controlled seats are up this cycle, while Republicans have to defend only 10. Senate Republicans need to only pick up four seats to grab control of the chamber.

Nelson is 70 years old, so even with $3 million in his campaign war chest, an uphill battle to retain his seat might not have seemed like an appealing prospect.  Roll Call has officially classified Nebraska a “toss-up,” partially because a bare-knuckle GOP primary is on tap, with national Republican leaders urging Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman to jump into the primary, as they believe he could all but lock up Nelson’s seat:

Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), an influential player among conservatives, said he was displeased after hearing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell(Ky.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) have been pressing the popular governor to reconsider his earlier decision not to run.

“Obviously I’m just disappointed that the party folks in Washington think they need to recruit someone else,” DeMint, who supports another GOP candidate in the race, said in an interview Tuesday. “Nebraska is a race the Republicans should win. … There are some good candidates in that race already.”

But those good candidates have been dealing with a variety of campaign issues:

So far, none of the three GOP challengers in the race have proved to be Nelson’s perfect foil — stoking fears that the Nebraska Senate race could escape the GOP’s grasp. Over the past several months, state Treasurer Don Stenberg, DeMint’s endorsed candidate, struggled with fundraising, Attorney General Jon Bruning has confronted ethical issues, and state Sen. Deb Fischer failed to raise the kind of money needed to boost her name identification.

Some observers think Heineman was only toying with a run to get under Nelson’s skin.  With Nelson officially retiring, we should know soon enough.  There is said to be “no love lost” between Governor Heineman and current front-runner Bruning, who backed a primary challenger to Heineman in the 2006 gubernatorial election. 

Stenberg actually came close to defeating Nelson in the 2000 Senate race, besting all predictions to lose by only 2 points.  Roll Call points out “there’s still grumbling in Nebraska GOP circles about whether it was Stenberg’s lackluster campaign or the [National Republican Senatorial Committee’s] last-minute messaging that caused Republicans to come up short.”  Current Minority Leader McConnell was running the NRSC at the time.

A sufficiently ugly GOP primary could raise Democrat hopes of retaining Nelson’s seat, and perhaps control of the Senate… but it doesn’t look like Ben Nelson wanted to bet on that outcome.