Kerrey, Nebraska Democrats face a tough Senate Race
April 5th, 2012
Lincoln, NE – Former Nebraska Governor and two-term U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey is back in Nebraska looking to reclaim his old Senate seat. He and the other Democratic candidates face an uphill battle in the race to replace retiring Democratic Senator Ben Nelson.
The stakes are high for Republicans looking to take over the Senate. But before Democratic primary candidate Bob Kerrey even got into the race, the Republican party was launching attack ads calling him a “carpetbagger,” among other things.
“(Kerrey) has a very slim chance of winning,” said University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science professor Mike Wagner. “If they ran this race ten times, he might be able to win one.”
The latest Public Policy Poll shows Kerrey trailing the top three GOP contenders by double digits. But Wagner said Kerrey was well-liked when he was serving as governor and senator, even though he was more liberal than the average Nebraskan and many times took positions on issues that were controversial among moderate and conservative voters.
For example, Kerrey was the deciding vote for then-President Bill Clinton’s first budget, which raised taxes. So what’s changed?
“When Kerrey last ran for office, the voter registration numbers were much more competitive between Republicans and Democrats,” Wagner said. “Now Republicans outnumber Democrats by about 169,000, which in a state of just north of a million people is a lot.”
Wagner says the character of the parties has changed as well.
“Over time, the Republican Party has become much more ideologically consistent than they’ve been in the past – and the Democratic Party has, too, just in the other direction,” Wagner said. “Which makes it harder for Democrats to win statewide elections, at least here in Nebraska.”
“Party registration is in some ways is the least important characteristic of a state,” Kerrey said by phone this week from New York City, where he said he’s finishing up a national fundraising swing. “The values are exactly the same from when I was living in Nebraska.”
After Kerrey left office in 2001, he spent ten years as president of the New School in New York, and served on the 9/11 Commission, a group of five Democrats and five Republicans tasked with compiling a full account of the circumstances surrounding the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. Kerrey said being a part of the commission helped him appreciate working across party lines, something he said he’d take to the Senate seat.
“Don’t worry about Democrats in your caucus getting mad at you. You’ve got to orient and say, I’m a Nebraska senator. I’m a U.S. senator,'” Kerrey said. “I’m going to do what’s right for my state and do what’s right for my country, and not worry about the consequences – and they can be severe in a Congress where party leadership dominates the decision-making for what committee you’re on and where seniority is.”
Kerrey got into the race late, but in March, University of Nebraska Regent Chuck Hassebrook stepped down and endorsed Kerrey, after he’d initially decided not to run. Now, Kerrey faces three lesser-known candidates for the Democratic nomination: Larry Marvin of Fremont, who ran for the Senate in 2008 finishing in the Democratic primary with about 3 percent of the vote; Sherman Yates of Lincoln; and Omaha video production company owner Steve Lustgarten.
“I wish Bob would just go back to New York,” said Lustgarten, who’s been in the race since January and has raised $7,000. “I’m a moderate. I’m between Bob Kerrey and Ben Nelson.”
“I think the biggest problem we’re facing now (is) the gridlock between right and left that’s keeping Washington from getting anything done,” he continued. “Before that gets finished, if we don’t get the big money that’s controlling the Republicans and to some extent the Democrats out of the campaign finance, you can’t clearly see what the issues are.”
But Wagner, the professor, said Bob Kerrey is the best chance the Democrats have to hold on to the seat.
“Republicans are taking him very seriously. They know that it’s possible Kerrey could win,” Wagner said. “They know he’s a formidable debater; he’s not afraid of doing whatever he thinks or wants to do. Whereas a lot more politicians are risk-averse. He’s a good strategic player. They know they have the big advantage, but they have to play their game.”
And Kerrey won’t be sticking to his same political game plan. He said he’d change his approach in the Senate if elected.
“I have a much clearer idea what I’d do, particularly do the work at home because there are two work environments: … one is back in Nebraska where there’s the university to help. It’s our most important public institution. I have a much clearer idea being a university president,” Kerrey said. “There’s lots of work at home. Every single city and community in Nebraska has some problem, and some leader trying to solve that problem, and I think I have a much clearer idea of how to participate in that effort.”
He admitted it’ll be different from the first time he ran in a statewide race, back in 1982.
“They look at me now and see a 68-year-old instead of a 39-year-old,” Kerrey said. “Everybody under the age of 35 or 36, I’m basically meeting for the first time.”
How big of a hurdle that ends up being will likely be seen in November.
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