Bob Kerrey opts out of Nebraska Senate run

Democrats saw their hopes of holding onto retiring Sen. Ben Nelson’s (D-Neb.) seat all but vanish Tuesday when their last, best hope — former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) — opted against a comeback bid.

The scramble is on to find a candidate to keep the race competitive, but in the absence of a viable bench of contenders, Democrats are turning their attention to other states, acknowledging privately that Nebraska no longer offers them a strong chance for success.

“Nebraska was going to be difficult to win,” said a Democratic strategist. “In some respects, it frees up our resources for other states.”

But Democrats are on the defensive in more than twice as many states as Republicans, and every seat they surrender puts the GOP one seat closer to the four it needs to capture to retake control of the Senate (if President Obama wins reelection).

Democrats had aggressively urged Nelson to run for reelection, seeing him as their best option to hold onto the seat in a conservative state where Obama is underwater. When Nelson announced he wouldn’t run again, recruiting efforts turned to Kerrey, the popular former governor and presidential candidate.

But Kerrey, who has turned down other calls to run for major office in the past, announced Tuesday that he had decided against a Senate run. American Crossroads, the super-PAC founded by Karl Rove, had already gone on the air in Nebraska with ads attacking Kerrey.

Potential Democratic candidates who could step in to the empty field include state Sen. Steve Lathrop and Chuck Hassebrook, who heads the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb. But without heavy name recognition or a major fundraising network, neither would start the race in a position to pose a major challenge to the winner of the Republican primary.

“Kerrey is unlikely to have won, and the others are viable candidates but even less likely to win,” said John Hibbing, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Democrats in Nebraska have to be more than viable.”

Former Lt. Gov. Kim Robak, who served under Nelson when he was governor, had also been on the Democrats’ shortlist for potential recruits, but announced Tuesday she too would not be running, citing the amount of money she would need to compete with conservative outside groups that would attack her.

Attempting to downplay the setback, Democrats pointed to a GOP primary where they said Republicans had been “at each other’s throats” and said the proxy war between the GOP establishment and the Tea Party being waged in Nebraska would allow them to remain competitive.

“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 Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Canter.

Nebraska Republicans and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) had pre-empted speculation that Kerrey would enter the race by pointing out that he had moved to New York City, presaging future attacks that would dub him a carpetbagger.

“Even Kerrey knew that Obama’s reckless tax-and-spend agenda made it an uphill battle, just as it will be for many Democrats running in key battleground states,” said NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh.  “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.”

On the Republican side, a crowded field has so far failed to produce a standout. Nebraska state Attorney General Jon Bruning has been running ahead of state Treasurer Don Stenberg and state Sen. Deb Fischer. But Stenberg has been endorsed and aggressively supported by conservative kingmaker Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).

Republicans were also reportedly recruiting Gov. Dave Heineman (R-Neb.) to run, perhaps as a warning signal to keep Kerrey out of the race. Kerrey’s decision not to run makes it less likely that Heineman will jump into the GOP primary.

This was story was posted at 10:01 a.m. and updated at 8:07 p.m.