Not a Target Now?

Posted April 11, 2005 at 5:57pm

Once the No. 1 target of Senate Republicans in 2006, Nebraska Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson has seen his political prospects brighten considerably since the start of the year.

Nelson, who represents a state that President Bush carried by 33 points in 2004, is far from out of the woods, but high-level Republican strategists are increasingly skeptical that he will be ousted.

State Senate Speaker Kermit Brashear, one of a handful of Republicans mentioned for the contest, acknowledged that “it appeared that this [race] had a higher priority than it now may have,” though he added: “It is awfully early to be reading too much into a few tea leaves.”

Privately, Republicans cite two primary reasons for Nelson’s growing electoral strength: his strong relationship with the White House and the GOP’s inability to secure a top-tier challenger to run against him.

“The administration has reached out to him on more than one occasion,” said one Republican strategist. “To a certain extent it is where the process of governing has gotten in the way of the process of politics.”

The administration also robbed Senate Republicans of their top recruit when Bush named then-Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns (R) to be Agriculture secretary in January. Johanns would have been term limited out of office in 2006 and had openly discussed a run against Nelson prior to his appointment.

As a result of the confluence of these developments, Republicans have focused more time and energy on recruiting challengers against — and attacking — Democratic Sens. Robert Byrd (W.Va.), Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.).

Brian Nick, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, insisted that Nelson remains firmly on the organization’s radar.

“He is definitely still a top-priority target,” Nick said. “There is plenty of time to continue to engage Nebraskans about who the best nominee will be eventually and be able to position that nominee to defeat Sen. Nelson.”

The current field of Republican prospects, however, is more defined by the candidates not present.

In addition to Johanns, 3rd district Rep. Tom Osborne and state Attorney General Jon Bruning have passed on the contest. Osborne continues to mull a potential run for governor in 2006 but will not make a decision until early summer.

Brashear, former state party Chairman David Kramer, former state Attorney General and 2000 Senate nominee Don Stenberg are actively considering a challenge to Nelson.

Stenberg, who lost to Nelson by 15,000 votes five years ago, said much of his final decision is based on how dedicated the national party is to winning the seat in November 2006.

“I don’t have a real clear feeling one way or another what the thinking in Washington is on the race right now,” Stenberg said. “Part of what I am trying to determine [is] whether the race will be adequately funded.”

In the 2000 open-seat race to replace Sen. Bob Kerrey (D), Nelson, a former governor, began with a massive lead in the polls over Stenberg that quickly translated into a hefty fundraising advantage as well.

Nelson wound up outraising Stenberg by $1 million even as the two national parties advertised heavily in the inexpensive media markets of the Cornhusker State.

The Nebraska Democrat has continued his solid fundraising since coming into office, collecting nearly $1.3 million since the start of 2001. Capitalizing on the power of incumbency, Nelson raised $835,000 during that time from political action committees. He had just more than $1 million in the bank at the end of last year.

While Stenberg and Kramer appear to be leaning toward the race, Brashear remains undecided and will not make a decision until Nebraska’s unicameral legislature adjourns June 3.

“I have indicated to people that I would consider it, but I have also been clear that I have as much or more than I can do right now being Speaker of the Nebraska Legislature,” Brashear said in an interview last week.

Other Republicans continue to hold out hope that acting Gov. Dave Heineman (R) might end up in the Senate race if Osborne decided to run for governor.

Osborne, the former head coach of the University of Nebraska’s football team, is by far the most popular politician in the state and should he choose to run for governor is likely unbeatable.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Heineman could opt out of an unwinnable primary and immediately become the frontrunner for the Republican Senate nomination.

Aside from lackluster candidate recruitment to this point, Senate Republicans are also hamstrung in their attempts to build a case against Nelson as a result of the White House’s outreach to him.

Late last year, administration officials quietly approached Nelson about the possibility of serving as secretary of Agriculture — an offer he refused.

Bush has also identified Nelson as a potential Democratic supporter of his plan to restructure Social Security and has turned on the presidential charm.

During a February event in Omaha to tout his plan for the retirement system, Bush told the crowd that Nelson was “a man with whom I can work, a person who is willing to put partisanship aside to focus on what’s right for America.”

Nelson Communications Director David DiMartino said that his boss “has a clear record of working with the president when he thinks the president is right and serving as an agent of compromise and progress in the Senate.”

What DiMartino didn’t say but surely knows is that any Republican candidate thinking about the race must find a way to effectively respond to the inevitable television ad featuring Bush’s favorable comments about Nelson.

Stenberg admitted that “White House involvement is something that needs to be thought about” when considering a run.

“Some of these issues that the White House is interested in may affect their willingness to be involved in a Senate race, but it shouldn’t affect the Senate committee,” he added.