In the battle for control of the U.S. Senate, Nebraska stands on the front line of a national tug-of-war between Republicans and Democrats.
It is one of 10 states expected to decide whether Democrats maintain control or Republicans grab the reins of both houses of Congress.
Republicans need an additional four seats to take control. Because of Democratic retirements, the GOP has more opportunities next year to pick up those seats. Of the 10 seats in play, Democrats hold eight.
The tight partisan fight is why national political leaders such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada are pressing so hard for Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat, to seek re-election. Nebraska has no Democrats sitting on war chests or waiting to run if Nelson chooses retirement over another six years in Washington.
It's also why Republicans such as U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas are trying to persuade a reluctant Gov. Dave Heineman into the race, though there already are three elected officials running for the GOP nomination.
Cornyn met with Heineman during a visit to Nebraska last month. Heineman has acknowledged taking telephone calls from other high-ranking Republicans.
Some Republicans see Heineman, a popular two-term governor, as a safe bet to unseat Nelson, while the three GOP contenders in the race — Attorney General Jon Bruning, State Treasurer Don Stenberg and State Sen. Deb Fischer — offer less certainty against a veteran incumbent.
"Nebraska is probably the single-most-targeted state in the country by Republicans," said Randy Adkins, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. "This is one seat Republicans think they can take."
Along with Nelson, Republicans would also like to depose moderate Democrats Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jon Tester of Montana, and covet seats opened up by retirements from Virginia to Hawaii.
Political observers say the value of Nelson's seat could lead campaigns and various third-party groups to spend up to $50 million in the state.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has pumped $1.2 million into Nebraska this year on behalf of Nelson.
Of course, the anticipated national campaign and all its hoopla could fizzle quickly if Nelson decides to retire. It would be his third term and, at age 70, it could be one of his toughest elections.
Nelson says he will end the waiting game this month.
He has said he enjoys his Senate work, but at times he has raised the specter of family concerns.
Both sides agree that if Nelson runs, Nebraskans will be inundated with political ads. In fact, that's already happening.
American Crossroads — the group founded by Karl Rove, the political strategist behind President George W. Bush — is running new TV spots in Nebraska blasting Nelson for casting the critical vote for President Barack Obama's health care law.
"National money will pour into this state like you've never seen before," said Mark Fahleson, chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party.
Paul Johnson, Nelson's campaign manager, agreed, estimating total spending in such a race at $50 million. That would far outpace the Nebraska-record $22 million spent by both sides during Nelson's last re-election campaign, in 2006. He defeated Republican businessman Pete Ricketts.
"This will be the epicenter of campaign ads," Johnson said.
The money underscores the stakes of the race.
If Republicans take control of the Senate, they will control the agenda and have considerable sway over budget debates.
Most political observers expect the Republicans to maintain control of the House, regardless of the outcome of the Senate and White House races. In the 10 elections since 1952 in which the president's party did not control the House, the largest seat gain for either party has been 21. Democrats would need to pick up 25 seats to take back the House.
Senate control would allow a full assault on Obama's health care law, though the GOP would likely need to win the White House, too, to get a repeal across the president's desk.
"You'd need the third leg. You'd need control of the White House to cut out Democratic control completely," said Kevin Smith, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
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