Kerrey’s candidacy looks bleak in Neb.

Former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) was at the top of the list when Democrats touted a recruiting class that would help them keep control of the Senate.

But, months later, as other Senate candidates — including Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), former North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D) and former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona (D) in Arizona — have turned their races in Republican states into dogfights, Kerrey’s contest has faded into the background.

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A recent poll from the Omaha World-Herald had Kerrey trailing state Sen. Deb Fischer (R) by 16 points among likely voters. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) spent $1 million in coordinated expenditures with the Nebraska Democratic Party since Kerrey announced he would run, but hasn’t spent a dime there since early August — and has no reservations in the state for this fall.

In contrast, the DSCC recently reserved a half-million dollars in Arizona and has already been on the air in North Dakota and Indiana.

Kerrey, who last held elected office in 2001, always faced an uphill battle to hold onto retiring Sen. Ben Nelson’s (D-Neb.) seat in the heavily Republican state. And while other Democrats in tough Senate races have had things break their way, a few events hurt his chances. 

The biggest blow was Fischer’s surprising win over two much better-known and better-funded Republican primary opponents. Democrats were confident they had strong opposition research against both of her primary foes that could greatly damage their chances, but had very little to attack her on.

“The main complaint about Fischer is she doesn’t have much of a record out there,” one Washington-based Democratic strategist following the race told The Hill. “We certainly didn’t have as many opportunities to go after her as the others.”

But Kerrey didn’t do himself any favors with his campaign launch, at first denying reports that he was running before changing his mind and deciding to get in the race. He also was slow to respond to Republican attacks painting him as a carpet-bagger because he’d lived for the last decade in New York City. His wife, a former “Saturday Night Live” writer, also didn’t help him with a piece in Vogue magazine admitting she didn’t want him to run and poking fun at Nebraska and its people.

“This could have been a better-run campaign — they stumbled right out of the blocks, which put him at a disadvantage initially,” said the Washington Democrat. “Sometimes I get the impression that he’s a reluctant candidate.”

Fischer was so comfortable in her lead she had to be goaded to debate, and when those debates did happen, she acted the part of the front-runner while Kerrey went on the attack, a sign he was looking to shake things up. The last of the three debates occurred Monday without a major misstep from either candidate, a sign there will be little to change the race’s trajectory. 

Kerrey campaign manager Paul Johnson didn’t disagree that Fischer’s primary win and the early days of the campaign hurt Kerrey’s chances. But he argued the race was much closer than public polls and perception had it and said he liked the position the campaign was in. 

Johnson told The Hill that the campaign had raised $1.6 million in the last fundraising quarter, which ended Sunday, and would have plenty of money for the closing weeks, even without help from the national party.

“The campaign is going well, despite being absent from the D.C. radar screen. There is always one campaign that surprises the D.C. crowd, and I think this will be it. The money is good, our polling numbers are much better than any public poll and I believe this will be a barn-burner at the end,” Johnson said, declining to offer specifics but describing the race as a single-digit spread. “I’d bet you’ll be writing about this state and race again before this election is over.”