“Therefore, I am announcing today that I will not seek reelection,” he said. “Simply put: It is time to move on.”
In the past decade in the Senate, Nelson has built one of the most conservative records of any Democrat in Congress, often irritating the party’s liberal base and causing repeated political headaches for Democratic leaders both on Capitol Hill and in the White House. He voted with Republicans on a range of issues from abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research to the Iraq war and campaign finance reform.
Despite that record, or maybe because of it, Democratic insiders understood that he represented the best chance Democrats had of wining in a state such as Nebraska, and the national Democratic Party spent more than $1 million in advertising this year trying to boost Nelson toward reelection.
Recent Democratic-sponsored polling suggested that the ads were increasing the senator’s personal approval ratings, albeit slightly.
But Republicans also signaled they would be willing to spend heavily trying to defeat Nelson, by casting him as an enabler of President Obama, particularly after Nelson voted for Obama’s health-care bill.
While Nelson has often differed with his party’s position, he delivered the deciding vote for the health measure, Obama’s signature piece of legislation. Nelson negotiated some Nebraska-specific provisions into the law before he would agree to support it. Critics of the law have referred pejoratively to the deal that Nelson cut as the “Cornhusker Kickback.”
Early GOP advertising efforts have focused heavily on this arrangement, which included exempting his home state from paying billions in Medicaid expansion costs.
That vote was expected to make Nelson’s reelection a tough proposition, but questions remain about whether the GOP would have been able to field a candidate strong enough to defeat Nelson.
Those in the running for the GOP nomination are state Attorney General Jon Bruning, state Sen. Deb Fischer and state Treasurer Don Stenberg, a favorite of the tea party.
There has been some talk in recent weeks that the state’s popular governor, Dave Heineman (R), might also run, but he has shown little interest. Other possibilities, now that Nelson is out, include members of the state’s all-GOP congressional delegation, particularly Reps. Lee Terry and Jeff Fortenberry.
It was unclear who might replace Nelson on the Democratic side, as the Democrats’ bench in Nebraska is pretty thin. But former senator Bob Kerrey has been mentioned and would instantly give his party a fighting chance in a state where Obama took just 42 percent of the vote.