Bob Kerrey Won't Run for Senate in Nebraska

Bob Kerrey Won't Run for Senate in Nebraska

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - February 7, 2012

Democrat Bob Kerrey opted Tuesday not to run for Nebraska's open Senate seat, virtually clearing the way for a Republican win in the Cornhusker State.

Kerrey, a former senator, governor and one-time presidential candidate, was considered the Democrats' last best chance to keep the seat being vacated by Ben Nelson.

But his no-go decision isn't all that surprising: Even with his past record and national profile, it was clear he would be a long shot in a state that has been trending redder since Kerrey's days in office. Even Nelson, considered among the most moderate of Democrats in the upper chamber, faced an extremely difficult re-election campaign, which is why he chose retirement. Republicans had already been attacking Kerrey as a liberal who left Nebraska to run the progressive New School in New York City, where he now resides. Kerrey also toyed with running for an open seat in 2008, but opted out that time too.

In a statement, he apologized to those who had urged him to run but said, "I have chosen what I believe is best for my family and me."

Though Kerrey faced tall odds, his candidacy would have forced Republicans to expend a significant amount of money and resources in the state. Without a top Democratic contender in the race, the GOP is poised to move closer to winning the majority in the Senate. Completing that quest requires a net gain of just four seats, and the party has been intensely focused on Nebraska since well before Nelson announced his retirement.

Republicans say Kerrey's exit reflects the challenge Democrats face in battleground states, especially with President Obama at the top of the ballot. "Kerrey’s decision to stay in New York is a blow to the Democrats’ hopes of holding their Senate majority and reiterates why we believe Nebraskans will elect a fiscally-responsible, conservative Republican Senator next fall," said National Republican Senatorial Committee Spokesman Brian Walsh in a statement.

The NRSC vows to remain neutral in Republican primaries. The establishment has privately coalesced around Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, but Tea Party groups are split between him and rival Don Stenberg, the state treasurer. Democrats have been hammering Bruning for campaign gaffes and ethical questions about his purchase of a lakefront home. Stenberg is also on the attack. He recently accused Bruning of running for public office to advance his personal wealth and called him a "conservative of convenience," the Nebraska Watchdog reported.

But publicly, Democrats insist they have a fighting chance. The GOP primary will be so brutal and divisive, they say, that whoever emerges as the nominee will be weakened. "The Republican primary in the state has become a proxy war between Mitch McConnell’s ethically challenged candidate Jon Bruning and Jim DeMint’s tea partier Don Stenberg, which will provide an opportunity for Democrats to remain competitive," said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Canter in a statement.

Democrats argue that divisive Republican primaries in other key races will hurt the GOP's chances at winning the majority. DSCC Chairwoman Patty Murray has thrown her support behind candidates in some Democratic primaries to avoid such bloody battles.

With Kerrey out of the Nebraska race, Democrats are eying Omaha state Sen. Steve Lathrop and Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs.

But in a statement, Democrats implied they don't need to hold on to the state to keep their majority in the Senate.

“We continue to play offense this election cycle in Massachusetts, Nevada, Arizona, and Indiana, and remain fully confident that we will hold the majority next year," said the DSCC's Canter. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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