Dem candidate clears the way for Kerrey in Nebraska Senate race

Democrat Chuck Hassebrook dropped out of the Senate primary in Nebraska on Thursday and endorsed former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), restoring unity to Democrats as they struggle to hold on to retiring Sen. Ben Nelson's (D-Neb.) seat.

When Nelson announced he would retire and Democrats' next-best option — Kerrey — said in February he wouldn't run, Democrats recruited Hassebrook, a University of Nebraska regent. Hassebrook quit his job to pursue the longshot Senate bid, but then Kerrey changed his mind and jumped into the race.

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With Kerrey, the well-known former governor and senator, in the race, Hassebrook stood little chance at winning over donors or primary voters. Hassebrook acknowledged that reality in backing Kerrey, whose election he said was best for Nebraska and the nation.

"I want Bob Kerrey in the Senate because he understands that we have a responsibility to invest in the future for our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren," Hassebrook said.

The optics of the announcement — Hassebrook appeared with Kerrey at a news conference in Omaha, Neb. — were key. Democrats need to quickly move on from the appearance of an awkward family squabble to focus on winning in the general election — no easy slog for a Democrat in Nebraska.

Because Kerrey entered the race after the filing deadline for incumbent office-holders in Nebraska had passed, Hassebrook was unable to refile for his position as a university regent. He had given that position up when he agreed to run for the Senate seat after Democrats found themselves without a viable candidate.

When word broke in late February that Kerrey was weighing getting back in, Hassebrook said in a statement that he didn't believe the reports, calling Kerrey "a man of integrity."

"I gave up my seat on the University of Nebraska Board of Regents based on his word," he said. "I do not believe he would go back on it."

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee declined to comment on whether it had encouraged Hassebrook to exit the race. But Republicans mused privately about what Hassebrook could have been promised in exchange for bowing out and supporting Kerrey.

"I think there is a tremendous amount of guilt among Democrats, because they feel really bad this guy gave up his job to do this, and now he's basically been left out to dry," said a Republican strategist involved in the race.

It's too late for Hassebrook's name to be removed from the ballot for the May 15 primary, but Hassebrook said he would be voting for Kerrey. In accepting his endorsement, Kerrey said Hassebrook would be offering advice and counsel on the campaign trail.

“Chuck has as high integrity as anyone I have met in public life,” Kerrey said. “It isn’t often in life or politics that you see someone do the things Chuck has done."

Nelson's exit from the Senate created a vulnerable open Democratic seat, and Democrats worked hard to recruit Kerrey to run, including making promises to Kerrey that he has declined to disclose.

With Hassebrook out of the race, Kerrey is essentially assured to be the Democratic nominee. Three Republicans are engaged in a tough primary to pick their nominee, with much of the establishment supporting Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning and much of the conservative, Tea Party wing backing state Treasurer Don Stenberg.

The Hill rates this race as leaning Republican.

- This post was updated at 1:54 p.m.