Senator Ben Nelson retiring from the Senate

Nebraska’s Senator Ben Nelson made the following announcement on 12-27-2011 regarding his plans to retire. The entire letter to Nebraskans can be found here:

In this letter, Nelson stated that he was bowing out, because he wanted to spend more time with his family, and that it was “time to move on.” Former Fox football analyst John Madden once said: “Anyone who tells you he’s retiring because he wants to spend more time with his family is lying.” To be fair, when Madden eventually retired in 2009, the second and final time, he said that he wanted to spend more time with the family.

Nelson’s retirement gives Republicans an edge in Nebraska, where he is the only Democrat currently elected to statewide office, and in their campaign to take over the Senate, political analysts say.

“It qualitatively changes things for Democrats” because ‘I don’t see a path to victory for Democrats in Nebraska,” said Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst for the non-partisan Cook Political Report. Nelson’s retirement next year “puts Republicans one seat closer to a majority.”

To wrest control of the Senate, Republicans need a net gain of four seats in next November’s elections if President Barack Obama wins a second term. A Republican victory in the presidential race would reduce the needed pickup to three seats because the vice president casts tie-breaking votes.

“It’s a pretty tough road for Democrats in Nebraska, where Obama is so unpopular,” Duffy said.

Not always a reliable vote for Democrats, Nelson secured a concession for Nebraska in return for supporting President Barack Obama’s health-care legislation over a crucial procedural hurdle in 2009. Republicans derided the provision exempting Nebraska from paying for expanded Medicaid coverage as the “Cornhusker Kickback.” Nelson later asked that all states be treated equally. He still ended up voting for it though.

A maverick in his caucus, Nelson voted against legislation in August to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, saying it “sets up a maze of convoluted procedures that will only continue the chaos and political games Nebraskans are tired of seeing.”

In 2005, when Republicans ran the Senate, Nelson was part of the bipartisan “Gang of 14” senators who agreed not to block judicial nominations except under “extraordinary circumstances.” The agreement averted a threat of legislative gridlock in the Senate over confirmation of President George W. Bush’s appointments to the federal bench.

No one would say that Senator Ben Nelson was a liberal. The National Journal tabulated his votes as a Senator and found that he voted conservative 57.7% of the time and 42.3% liberal. It was one vote that did him in the minds of most Nebraskans I know: The vote for Obamacare, and the shenanigans that went on to secure that Nelson vote. The shenanigans are what we Nebraskans call The Cornhusker kickback. How much blame does Nelson deserve for the Cornhusker kickback compromise? No one knows. In the end, he still voted for Obamacare, so no one cares.

Some have pointed to the “Cornhusker kickback”, and the penetrating ads that the GOP has run to reveal the nature of the compromise, as the number one reason that Nelson would have had a great deal of difficulty getting re-elected to Nebraska’s Senate seat. Others have pointed to the pressures that Nelson faced among extremist Democrats as one of the primary reasons that Nelson decided to retire. Former House speaker Nancy Pelosi once commented that she wouldn’t mind certain Democrats losing, because it gave her party the chance to purge those who wouldn’t toe the party line. In other words, blue dog Democrats like Nelson should fend for themselves. In other words, those without party purity would not receive the same kind of vocal support that the purists received. Pelosi was primarily speaking of House Democrats of course, but many believe that this has been a general line of thinking for most extremists Democrats (see Joe Liberman). One has to wonder if the pressure from these two factions proved to be too much for Nelson.

Clear-minded Democrats understood how important Ben Nelson was to them, and they saw to it that his campaign received more than one million in campaign finances for campaign ads. Some say this was done to attempt to convince Nelson not to retire.

The DNC leadership may not have loved Nelson, but they decided to focus on the fact that he was the only Democrat elected statewide in Nebraska, and that he generally delivered a vote they would not get otherwise. They knew that having another Mike Johanns (R,NE), or Jon Thune (R, SD) would be disastrous to their attempts to pass their agenda in the Senate in other words. According to a Senate Democratic leadership aide, Senators Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer tried to convince Nelson to stay in Congress after Nelson told a Nebraska newspaper a few weeks ago he was still deciding on whether to run.

“Over the last several weeks, there were intense conversations with Reid and Schumer trying to make Nelson understand how needed he was and how valued he is as a member of the caucus,” the Senate aide said. “Ultimately they understood that this is a personal decision.”

A Democratic strategist who spoke on condition of not being identified characterized Nelson’s decision as disloyal to the party.

“He typically takes the easy way out,” the strategist said. “The party has stood by him, but when the going gets tough, he abandons the party.”

During the first two years of the Obama administration, Senator Nelson’s vote proved crucial time and again in ending Republican filibusters, and Democratic leaders were willing to go to great lengths to meet his requirements — including handing him a $100 million special Medicaid allocation as part of the health care bill that was derided as “the Cornhusker kickback’’ and eventually repudiated by Senator Nelson. Even though that was taken off the table, Nelson still decided to vote for the Obamacare legislation.

It was that one vote from Nelson that did him in. It was political suicide in the minds of Nebraskans. It was taking one sixth of the economy and nationalizing it. Nelson could’ve survived other votes, and he has in the past. He could’ve even survived voting for the Obama stimulus in 2008, but voting to change the face of this nation was unforgiveable in the minds of most Nebraskans. Others (above) can say that Obama is popular in Nebraska, but he’s not. He won one district, Omaha’s district, a district that has since been reshaped by the state legislature. In 2006 bid for re-election, Ben Nelson lost every other town, hamlet, and city in Nebraska, except for Omaha. The votes were so overwhelming in Omaha that Nelson won re-election. Minds have obviously changed.

For all of his conservative votes, Nelson still decided to vote for one of the most partisan pieces of legislation this country has ever seen. The pressure must have been intense for him. After casting the vote, Nelson started getting booed out of Omaha pizza joints, and he started ordering protestors’ cars towed away from in front of his offices. It hasn’t been pretty for him, and I’m sure he’s just had enough of it.


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