If Ben Nelson doesn't run for the U.S. Senate, the Nebraska Democratic Party will find itself scrambling for a candidate, with no ready prospects in sight.
And with a sitting Democratic incumbent out of the picture, more Republicans could take a second look at the race.
Whether Nelson will run is the Big Unanswered Question in the U.S. Senate race in Nebraska. Nelson has said he will meet with family members over the Christmas holiday and make a decision.
Five Republicans are vying for Nelson's seat, including Attorney General Jon Bruning, State Sen. Deb Fischer and State Treasurer Don Stenberg.
Nelson's closest advisers say they believe Nelson truly hasn't made a decision. He isn't being coy, said Paul Johnson, Nelson's campaign manager.
Johnson said Nelson always told his campaign team that he would make a decision late this year. In his last election, Nelson waited until January before telling advisers and the public he was running, Johnson said.
"He's got a plan and he's sticking to it. Once he's made a decision, we'll all know about it," Johnson said.
Nelson began earlier this year to assemble a campaign team, whose job it was to make all the preparations necessary for a run.
Others also have tried to pave the way for a Nelson bid. The national Democrats funneled more than $800,000 into pro-Nelson advertisements in Nebraska over the summer.
Democrats hold a slight majority in the Senate. The party's best chance of keeping Nelson's seat in Democratic hands rests with Nelson.
When it comes, Nelson's decision will have far-reaching consequences for members of both major political parties.
Democrats could find themselves without a candidate a mere nine months before a statewide election. There is no apparent Democratic candidate waiting in the wings, and so far the party appears to have pinned all its hope on Nelson.
"We are strongly encouraged by the prospect of Sen. Nelson running," said Jim Rogers, executive director of the Nebraska Democratic Party.
Rogers later added: "While somebody is in office, we're not going to go out recruiting anyone else to run."
Any Democrat would have a tough time running in a Republican-dominated state in a non-presidential cycle. He or she would have to start from scratch and be expected to quickly build a campaign.
The past several Democrats who were recruited late in the game to run for statewide office experienced trouble mounting credible campaigns. For example, Omaha businessman Mark Lakers decided to run for governor in 2010, but his campaign quickly fell apart amid criminal charges that he falsified campaign finance reports. (Lakers later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and dropped out of the race.)
That fact that Democrats don't have a seasoned candidate waiting in the wings heightens the importance of the GOP primary in May. In fact, the winner of that primary has a good shot of being the next U.S. senator — which would result in an all-Republican congressional delegation from Nebraska.
With Nelson out, the race could become a lot more attractive to Republicans, especially those with name recognition and ready bankrolls.
It's likely that several Republican officeholders, including the state's three sitting congressmen, would reconsider whether to enter the race. But time and money will be of the essence, said David Kramer, a Republican and former U.S. Senate candidate.
"I think a lot of people will probably think about it, but the later Nelson goes, the harder it is," Kramer said.
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