LINCOLN — National Republican leaders must be nervous about knocking off U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson with the announced GOP candidates, given continued pressure on Gov. Dave Heineman to jump into the race.
That's the view, at least, of two veteran political watchers in Washington, D.C.
Norman Ornstein, a senior scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said the push illustrates a “growing nervousness” with Republican prospects to win a majority in the U.S. Senate and general anxiety about the prospects of the leading GOP candidate in Nebraska, Attorney General Jon Bruning.
“It's striking, given the state of Nebraska and national politics, that Ben Nelson is doing so well against his opponents, who are not all patsies,” Ornstein said Tuesday. “That's leading to this aggressive effort to get Heineman to run.”
Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of Cook Political Report, said the urgings of Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell and others doesn't necessarily mean they think the current candidates can't win. But getting Heineman to jump in would almost ensure a victory and allow Republicans to etch in stone a critical race in controlling the Senate.
“If Heineman runs, you can stick a fork in this race,'' Duffy said.
“(Nelson's campaign) can probably find a path to victory against Bruning, Stenberg and Fischer,” she said. “I'm guessing finding that path against Heineman is almost impossible.''
Thirteen months after saying he had no interest in running for U.S. Senate, and after months of saying there was no way he'd reconsider, Heineman said he is pondering a run.
For Heineman, who rarely strays from his script, it was a clear change of tune, though some still speculate that he is offering up the possibility in order to pressure Nelson into not seeking re-election.
At a Tuesday press conference on another issue, the governor said he recently had been contacted by national GOP leaders, including McConnell, who have urged the governor to join the race against Nelson, a former governor first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000.
Heineman said they reinforced the essential importance of capturing the Nebraska seat for the GOP as part of the Republican effort to gain control of the Senate.
“They initiated the phone calls, and I listened to them,” Heineman said. “I understand their arguments. They're persuasive. But I also indicated that it would take a lot to change my mind.”
Previously, he has been giving supporters and GOP leaders an unequivocal “no” when asked whether he would reconsider a run. Heineman's term as governor doesn't end until 2014, but his continued fundraising and appearances on national media have inspired much speculation that he's running for something.
Heineman, 63, reopened the door, albeit slightly, to a Senate candidacy in an interview last week with the New York Times while attending an event of the National Governors Association, which he now heads.
Nelson has said he will decide over the holidays whether to seek re-election. He is considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the Senate.
Heineman's comments come after a Republican pollster, Magellan Strategies, indicated that Heineman would have a much better chance of defeating Nelson than the five currently announced GOP candidates. They include Bruning, the front-runner and best-financed candidate, as well as State Treasurer Don Stenberg and State Sen. Deb Fischer of Valentine.
The poll showed Heineman with a 51 percent to 33 percent edge on Nelson, while none of the three leading GOP candidates had more than a 6 percentage-point edge.
The governor said Tuesday that the poll indicates that Nelson, despite being a well-known quantity, had garnered support of 40 percent or less against all the announced candidates.
“He's in serious trouble and he knows it,” Heineman said.
Ornstein had a different spin, saying he was surprised that Nelson was doing so well in the polls, given the dismal approval rating overall for Congress.
A poll commissioned last month by Nelson showed a 54 percent approval rating, an increase of about 7 percentage points since February 2010. That's when Nelson's approval numbers dropped below 50 percent after his controversial vote in favor of President Obama's health care plan.
Nelson's polling, done by Hickman Analytics Inc., showed him leading all three of the announced GOP candidates, though his lead over Bruning was only 2 percentage points.
Ornstein said Republican prospects for taking over the Senate aren't as bright as a few months ago. There is a growing populist trend in the country, as evidenced by the support for retaining the payroll tax cut, and voters heap more blame on Republicans than Democrats for the gridlock in Washington.
Both Ornstein and Duffy said it was possible that Heineman's reconsideration of a Senate run was just a ploy to make Nelson consider retirement.
A Republican colleague in Nebraska, State Sen Abbie Cornett of Bellevue, said she doesn't consider Heineman's latest comments a bluff.
“Dave Heineman never says anything lightly. I'd have my full radar up,” Cornett said.
Only one of the three leading Republican candidates responded to requests for a comment.
Fischer said that all politicians get “calls” and encouragement to run and that the polls tell her all three leading GOP candidates can defeat Nelson.
Bruning's campaign did not respond to messages. But Monday while in Kearney, Bruning told a Nebraska News Network reporter that the race wasn't about whether Heineman joined the race but about beating Nelson.
Stenberg's campaign declined to comment directly but forwarded an email from Freedom Works, a Tea Party group that has endorsed him, urging the National Republican Senatorial Committee to stop recruiting candidates and let Nebraska voters decide whom to nominate.
Mark Fahleson, state GOP chairman, said he keeps hearing rumors that another candidate will emerge from the Omaha business community. That rumor, as well as the governor's renewed consideration, illustrates the commitment Republicans have to defeating Nelson, he said.
State Democratic Party Chairman Vic Covalt, a Lincoln attorney, said he had no idea whether either Heineman or Nelson would seek the Senate seat.
“If the national people on the Republican side are courting Heineman, it really says they absolutely have no confidence in the existing candidates to beat Ben Nelson,” Covalt said.
Heineman, at his press conference, said he plans to do “everything in my power” to make sure the GOP captures Nelson's seat. He said he had “great confidence” that the announced candidates can do that.
World-Herald staff writer Henry J. Cordes contributed to this report.
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