The battle over health care legislation has taken its toll on U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson's political well-being, despite the Democrat's efforts to sell Nebraskans on his vote.
Nelson, who once enjoyed some of the highest job performance marks in the U.S. Senate, has now seen his approval rating dip below 50 percent in Nebraska, according to The World-Herald Poll.
Nelson said the poll results come as no surprise, especially since Nebraskans have been “bombarded” with millions of dollars in “misleading advertisements.”
He said he expects that people will come to appreciate the health care bill.
“I believe that, over time, as the special interest ads subside, Nebraskans will understand the bill I support will improve their health care, because it ends the denial of coverage due to pre-existing conditions, it reduces spiraling costs and it provides new access to coverage for 220,000 Nebraskans without health care today,” Nelson said in a written statement.
In the survey, Nelson's job approval rating was 42 percent and his disapproval rating was 48 percent. By comparison, Republican Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska, who voted against the bill, had a 63 percent job-approval rating.
Nelson has been under fire since he supplied the 60th vote to win approval for President Barack Obama's principal domestic policy initiative in the Senate. He was called a “sellout” at a political rally.
Critics say a controversial provision — dubbed the “Cornhusker kickback,” which would save Nebraska on Medicaid costs — was inserted in the bill to win Nelson's vote.
Nelson on Friday asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to scratch Nebraska's exemption and instead extend the Medicaid provision to all states.
In the past few weeks, Nelson and his allies have pushed back against the criticism.
Nelson has been aggressively arguing his case on radio shows and in meetings with newspaper editorial boards. The Nebraska Democratic Party has spent more than $350,000 on a media campaign in support of Nelson.
“It's pretty clear he's taken a hit,” said Randy Adkins, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Adkins said any time a politician's disapproval rating is higher than his approval rating, he's in trouble. He predicted that Nelson would have a tough time trying to change people's minds on the issue, saying his research shows that most people stop listening to a political debate after forming an opinion.
“The survey is a snapshot (in time),'' Adkins said. “Public opinion changes and can often be very volatile. And it is possible for politicians to go out there and sell themselves. It's possible, but it's very difficult to do that.''
The World Herald Poll was conducted Jan. 8-12 by Wiese Research Associates of Omaha. It's based on telephone interviews with 500 registered voters. The statistical margin of error was plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
It's clear the bulk of Nebraskans' dissatisfaction with Nelson rests with his health care vote.
More than 60 percent of those surveyed said they opposed the Senate health care bill. A majority said they opposed Nelson's vote for the bill. About one-third favored his vote.
Not surprisingly, the poll results broke along party lines. Three-fourths of Republicans opposed Nelson's vote, as did only 22 percent of Democrats.
The hit to Nelson's political standing is something new for the veteran politician, whose career was launched in 1990 with his election as governor.
For the most part, Nelson has enjoyed the goodwill of voters, including Republicans. The two-term governor left office in 1999 with one poll showing 80 percent of Nebraskans supporting the job he had done.
He continued to keep his constituents happy during his time in the U.S. Senate. In his re-election bid in 2006, Nelson won 64 percent of the vote. That was after his opponent spent millions of dollars on television advertisements, with many of them attacking Nelson's record.
In April 2006, Nelson was named one of the Senate's most popular members after national pollster SurveyUSA reported that 73 percent of Nebraskans approved of his performance.
That appears to have changed — at least for the time being — in the aftermath of the health care vote. Nelson has been called the “most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in 2012” by the respected Cook Political Report in Washington, D.C.
It is nearly three years until the next Senate election in Nebraska. If Nelson decides to run, it's debatable whether the health care vote will be a key factor.
No one knows who Nelson's opponent will be at that time, or what the top issues of the day will be. Also unknown is whether Nebraskans will have become more comfortable with the health care legislation by then.
But at this point, the bill could haunt Nelson. A plurality of voters (44 percent) in The World-Herald Poll said his vote on health care would be counted against him if he ran again.
It gets worse for Nelson when considering the impact his vote has had on Republicans who have supported him in the past.
Nelson's political success can be attributed in large part to his ability to woo Republican and independent voters. With only 34 percent of the state's registered voters, Democrats in Nebraska must go outside their party's base to win a statewide election.
According to the poll, Nelson took a big hit among Republicans who had supported him. Nearly half of the Republicans who said they voted for Nelson in 2006 said they did not approve of his job performance.
Andrew Liebman is one of them. Liebman said it was “unlikely” he'd vote for the Democrat again if Nelson continues to support the Senate's health care bill as it currently stands.
Liebman, a 31-year-old Omaha tech writer, opposes the bill because he fears it will ultimately chip away at his private insurance plan. He believes it is going to cost too much.
“I like Ben Nelson. I have liked him for a really long time,” he said. “But the problem is, I like my health insurance. A lot of Nebraskans like what they have, and they're really afraid this is going to make it so that things will change in their current health insurance.”
Liebman also has not been happy with the way Nelson has defended his vote.
Nelson has argued, among other points, that most people he talks to in Nebraska are supportive of his vote. Liebman said that whenever he hears Nelson say that, he questions whether the senator is actually listening.
“I don't believe I'm living under a rock, and it doesn't feel that way to me,” he said.
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