Path to Power
Nelson was born May 17, 1941, in McCook, Neb., to Benjamin and Birdella Nelson and is an only child. A community foundation in McCook announced plans in 2009 to commission a sculpture of Nelson with his parents. The statue will portray a scene from his younger days, with Birdella pinning Nelson's Eagle Scout award on his chest while Benjamin looks on. Nelson said he is "humbled" by the recognition from the town, where he is viewed as something of a favorite son and still owns his boyhood home.
Nelson's earliest experience in politics came in high school, when he was elected governor of Nebraska's model legislature, a statewide event for teens called the Hi-Y. Nelson says he was inspired to run by Ralph Brooks (D), a former principal at his high school who won an unlikely term as governor in 1958. "I grew up realizing that being from McCook, Nebraska, was not a handicap," Nelson said. "You didn't have to be from somewhere else to be successful."
Many observers consider Nelson to be the most conservative Senate Democrat. He is opposed to most abortion rights and voted against expanded federal funding for stem-cell research in 2006. He has consistently positioned himself to the right on gay issues during his political career, and has at times expressed concern about "activist judges." Nelson was also a staunch ally of President George W. Bush, who often turned to him for support during contentious fights with Congress.
In 2004, then-White House strategist Karl Rove reportedly offered Nelson the job of agriculture secretary. When Nelson declined, the White House instead nominated Nebraska Gov. Michael Johanns, a Republican who posed the biggest threat to Nelson's reelection chances (Johanns was elected to the Senate in 2008). Then-Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) approached Nelson around that time and gently broached the idea of him switching parties. Nelson denied seriously considering it.
Nelson has built a friendly rapport with Susan Collins , and his alliance with her will be increasingly crucial to Democrats as they try to build moderate support for new legislation that is part of the Obama agenda.