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Nelson Is Fighting Like It’s 2012

As a dangerous election cycle unfolds for Democrats, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) has been proactive — hitting statewide television to defend his controversial health care vote and on Wednesday becoming the only member of his party to oppose Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) jobs package.

These moves are not surprising for a moderate Democrat who crosses the aisle to vote with the GOP and hopes to win re-election in an overwhelmingly Republican state; but Nelson isn’t up for re-election until 2012.

Some Nelson supporters dismissed the idea that the Senator was already campaigning for a third term, arguing that the Democrat’s actions were consistent with his nearly nine years on Capitol Hill. But Nelson, when asked directly, declined to either apologize or characterize his actions otherwise.

“I’m always running for support from Nebraskans. I used to get kidded when I was governor: ‘When are you going to stop running?’ I’d say, ‘what do you mean? If you never stop you never have to start,'” Nelson said in a statement issued to Roll Call.

Siding with the majority of Republicans who voted against Reid’s $15 billion jobs bill is not uncharacteristic of the fiscally conservative Nebraskan. Running statewide television ads to explain his much-hyped support for President Barack Obama’s health care agenda — within days of the Senate’s Christmas Eve vote — also reflects Nelson’s typical doggedness.

But political preservation is clearly a factor, and winning a third term in 2012 — with a Democratic president atop the ticket — creates its own immediate difficulties. Former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey, whom Nelson succeeded in 2001, said Nelson doesn’t have a choice but to begin campaigning for 2012 now, particularly given the potency of the health care issue.

“He’s got to carry this argument out there because it’s going to be there in 2012. It’s going to be as hotly contested in 2012 as it is today,” Kerrey said Wednesday during a telephone interview. “Human beings are the same everywhere in one way: Once they make up their minds, it’s very difficult to change them. It may already be too late for Ben. I don’t think it is.”

Although Nelson acknowledges that he is in campaign mode, his spokesman, Jake Thompson, explained that this early start to 2012 wasn’t entirely of his boss’ choosing.

Thompson said interest groups on the left and the right brought campaign-style tactics to the state last summer when health care negotiations were heating up, and that Nelson felt obliged to respond. According to one Democratic consultant based in Nebraska, advocacy groups spent $7.5 million on issue advertising in the state last year.

[IMGCAP(1)]”It’s been a campaign environment,” Thompson said. “Nebraska may not be on the national list as a 2010 race, but it’s been like a national campaign in Nebraska trying to persuade voters to think one way or another about Sen. Nelson.”

Thompson added that Nelson and the Nebraska Democratic Party “wanted to make sure people heard his side of the story.”

Nelson responded with ads — which debuted in prime time across the state during a heavily viewed Nebraska Cornhusker football game — explaining his position on health care, which he supported after extracting several concessions from Reid.

Among those concessions was a $100 million deal to cover Nebraska’s portion of a proposed Medicaid expansion. Nelson argued it was meant as a placeholder to ensure that all states were reimbursed for the Medicaid expansion, but the provision became known across the country as the “Cornhusker Kickback” and helped sink the Senator’s political standing at home.

Meanwhile, Nelson said this week that his opposition to Reid’s jobs package was not a protest against the Majority Leader’s decision to scrap a larger bipartisan measure, but instead a result of his belief that the economic stimulus bill passed in early 2008 had not yet been implemented fully.

“It’s premature to be out there trying to get other jobs bills into place when this hasn’t been allowed to work,” Nelson said. “I don’t know how I tell people back home where we’ve got less than 5 percent unemployment that we ought to spend another $15 billion after $787 billion” in stimulus.

Registered Republicans are a plurality of Nebraska’s electorate, and it is impossible for a Democrat to win statewide without carrying about two-thirds of independent voters and half of GOP voters. Nelson has done that four times, including twice as governor, and hasn’t lost a statewide race since his 1996 defeat to former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R).

But the unpopularity of Nelson’s health care vote, combined with disenchantment with the stimulus bill, provides political context for his opposition to Reid’s $15 billion jobs bill. As the Nebraska-based Democratic consultant explained, the word “stimulus” is “a very bad word” in the state right now.

“Every member of the Congressional delegation except Ben has been bashing the stimulus, and people in Nebraska are tired of this spending spree,” the consultant said, noting that Nelson is the only Democrat to represent Nebraska on Capitol Hill. “If he’s hearing from voters and constituents in Nebraska that they don’t like the first one, that’s where he’s coming from.”

Though Nelson informed leadership of his decision to vote against the jobs bill in advance, some Democrats said his reasoning was flawed given his attempts to get special deals for his own state in the health care bill.

“The rest of the country has supported Nebraska on things like Medicare and Medicaid payments, but Nebraska doesn’t have a responsibility to help the rest of the country’s economic problems?” one Senate Democratic aide asked. “That’s an interesting position to take.”

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