Nebraska Yet Another Blow to Senate Democrats' Hopes

With Ben Nelson's retirement, the hill for Democrats to climb just get a little steeper.

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The announced retirement of Democratic Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson is reshuffling the Senate battleground map once again. It may not make a difference, with many political analysts predicting a Republican win in the Cornhusker state even before the announcement. But the momentum swing may help the GOP go on offense in the party's hopes of capturing control of both houses of Congress.

The 70-year-old, two-term Democrat, known as one of the moderate deal-makers in the Senate, already faced a steep climb for re-election. Even though he's one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate, he still has a "D" next to his name in an increasingly red state. His involvement with the Affordable Care Act—including the "Cornhusker Kickback," or the perception that he tried to sell his vote for favorable language in the bill—left a bad taste in voters' mouths.

"It was a lot easier for Democrats to get elected in Nebraska at one time," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst and professor at the University of Virginia. Sabato had listed the race as a toss-up before Nelson's announcement, but now is predicting a Republican victory. "It's going to be very difficult for a Democrat to get elected on a ticket that includes Barack Obama," he says.

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But Nelson's announcement changes expectations throughout the national Senate map. Even though Nelson was vulnerable, Republicans were still planning on spending considerable time and resources to defeat him. A Republican campaign operative says that the party will now likely be able to pull money from the Nebraska race and spend it elsewhere, such as open races in Hawaii and New Mexico. That would force Democrats to play defense in an election where they're already at a significant disadvantage. Seven Democratic senators are retiring, and without a miracle they'll likely lose Nebraska's seat and the seat held by retiring North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, most experts predict. Democrats will have to knock off Republican incumbents such as Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown or Nevada Sen. Dean Heller just to keep the playing field level. To keep the Senate, Democrats will also have to win competitive states such as Ohio, Missouri, and Virginia.

Democrats dismiss the idea that Nebraska is lost, noting that the Republican primary, between State Treasurer Don Stenberg and Attorney General Jon Bruning, could be bruising for the GOP. "Republicans will continue to have their hands full with a very divisive primary in the state, which will provide an opportunity for Democrats to remain competitive," Sen. Patty Murray, the chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said after Nelson's announcement.

In Nebraska, whoever the Democratic nominee is can't expect much help from President Obama. Nebraska is one of two states that divides its electoral votes up by district during a presidential election, rather than using a "winner take all" system. So even though Obama had little hope of winning Nebraska in 2008, he still campaigned for Omaha's single electoral vote—and he got it. But due to redistricting, there are no congressional districts friendly to Democrats in the Cornhusker state, and Obama is likely to overlook it and focus on more competitive areas.

Following Nelson's announcement, Democrats began to speculate that former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey might throw his hat in the ring. While Kerrey is a big enough name to make the race competitive again, he also has spent much of the last decade in New York, as the president of the New School, and could face an uphill battle. "The fact that they're trying to get Bob Kerrey to move back to Nebraska from New York tells you everything you need to know," Sabato says.

Twitter: @AlexParkerDC