Twenty-one days ago, after weeks of reflection and a whirlwind media tour de Nebraska, Kerrey decided against a run, saying familial considerations came first. But today he reversed course abruptly, saying he had a change of heart after a conversation with his wife over the weekend.
“She saw that I wasn’t happy and she said to me that if this’ll make you happy I think you should do it, let’s talk about what it really means,” Kerrey said in an interview with Nebraska Watchdog. “She’s never been through a campaign and they’re hard, they’re hard on families.”
Kerrey said she was worried about the impact of a campaign on their 10-year-old son, Henry. She told him he should reconsider his decision, and they concluded they could manage a campaign and not interfere with their family.
In a statement to the press, Kerrey said he realized his prior decision not to run was the easy decision, but not the right one.
And with that, Nebraska became a battleground state once again as Democrats struggle to hold onto control of the Senate in the November elections. Before Kerrey joined the race, the Nebraska seat was considered a lock for Republicans.
Kerrey served as Nebraska’s governor from 1983 to 1987 and then served in the U.S. Senate from 1989 to 2001. He was a presidential candidate in 1992.
Now it’s too late for Nebraska’s heavy hitter, Gov. Dave Heineman, or Nebraska’s Congressmen to jump in the race because the filing deadline for incumbents has passed. When asked about Kerrey’s turnabout today, the governor said his own decision not to get in the race had nothing to do with Kerrey’s earlier decision not to run.
“I’m glad Bob Kerrey has found Nebraska from New York,” Heineman said. “What he does has absolutely no bearing on what I do.”
But Attorney General Jon Bruning is far from a pushover, as the leading Republican contender in a field of five. Kerrey said both Bruning and State Treasurer Don Stenberg are strong candidates and Nebraska is a Republican state where President Barack Obama is unpopular. He said polling would likely show him trailing Bruning or Stenberg.
“It’s likely I’m going to start this campaign as an underdog,” Kerrey said. “I don’t start off saying, ‘Gee I can win this easily.’ I look at this thing and I say, ‘I think it’s winnable.’ I don’t know how winnable. I think I can persuade Nebraska that I should be their senator. But I’m not afraid of losing, so if I lose, I lose.”
The rejiggered race is sure to attract millions in TV ads and spending by outside groups. Kerrey is a household name in Nebraska, even though he’s been living and working in New York City for the past dozen years. Even as Kerrey pondered a run earlier this year, Republicans immediately howled about carpetbagging in ads and sound bytes.
But perhaps the larger issue is whether Kerrey’s politics align with Nebraska’s. Kerrey is still a household name in Nebraska, but there’s a whole generation of voters who’ve never seen his name on a ballot. And Nebraska is much more Republican than it was when Kerrey’s name last appeared on a ballot.
“The state is more conservative than it used to be, but he has won a number of statewide races in Nebraska,” said Mike Wagner, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska.
He thinks it will be tough for Kerrey to win the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Ben Nelson.
“I think he’s got a long row to hoe,” Wagner said. “It’s going to be very difficult for him to win. This matchup is one that Republican elites in Washington were most worried about. But short of some unforeseen scandal and enormous long-lasting gaffe, it would be very difficult for Kerrey to overcome the Republican registration advantage, carpetbagger attacks, the ‘Do I really want to do this?’ question.”
Kerrey is a more seasoned candidate and will have a lot of money behind him, and Bruning still faces questions about his conversion from liberal to conservative and hasn’t faced a competitive election before.
“He’s won statewide races before but hasn’t faced searing attacks,” Wagner said of Bruning.
But will Nebraskans elect a man who’s been in New York for the past decade?
“I think it would be silly to decide that Nebraskans are a bunch of provincial people who reject all things big city or that people from New York are snobs who look down on all things Great Plains,” Wagner said. “But I do think it’ll be tough for Kerrey to say I moved away for 12 years, and only when I decided to run for the Senate did I move back.”
He thinks Kerrey will run a competitive race that will be good for the Democratic Party in Nebraska, although his entry into the race makes it harder for a new crop of Dems – like the other Democrat in the race, Chuck Hassebrook — to edge into the picture.
“They need to move beyond Ben Nelson and Bob Kerrey to have a serious statewide candidate,” Wagner said.
Hassebrook said he still had not heard from Kerrey directly as of Wednesday afternoon, although they had an email conversation Wednesday morning in which Kerrey still didn’t acknowledge he was running. Contrary to some media reports that Kerrey apologized to Hassebrook in that email, Hassebrook said, “Not exactly.”
“I’m disappointed that Bob broke his word on this but he does have a right to run,” Hassebrook said. “At least now we know what the target is – it’s a primary election.”
Kerrey said he feels badly but doesn’t think it’s fair to say he cost Hassebrook his regent seat.
“We’re both adults. You make decisions, you live with the consequences of those decisions. I feel badly that he’s in this race because he might not have been in this race had I announced earlier, but I’m not certain about it. He really wanted to run for the Senate. He wanted to become a candidate. And I admire him, I like what he’s talking about but I don’t feel any personal responsibility for the decision he made.”
Kerrey also said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made some promises to him, but wouldn’t get specific, saying he’ll divulge that in the coming weeks.
“I asked for them (promises) and he agreed, but it was a private conversation,” Kerrey said. “I wouldn’t cut any deal unless it’s beneficial to Nebraska.”
Nebraska Right to Life immediately promised to “vigorously oppose” Kerrey.
“If Bob Kerrey had his way, partial birth abortion would still be legal, given that he voted against banning it five times while in the Senate,” said Julie Schmit-Albin, executive director of Nebraska Right to Life. “Pro-life Nebraskans rejected Ben Nelson after his abandonment of pro-life language in health care reform. They are not going to embrace Bob Kerrey whose voting record on this issue is more abysmal than Ben Nelson’s ever was.”
Republican contender Deb Fischer said she welcomed Kerrey to the race because his “liberal views” will be a stark contrast to her conservatism.
“His statements in support of government-run health care, cap and trade, tax increases and partial-birth abortion are just a few of the issues where I believe it’s evident how out of touch Mr. Kerrey is with Nebraskans,” the state lawmaker said in a press statement.
Reported by Deena Winter,
// < ![CDATA[
Editor’s note: to subscribe free of charge to News Updates from Nebraska Watchdog click here