First Ben Nelson disappointed Nebraska Democrats when he decided not to seek a third term.
Now Bob Kerrey has dashed their dreams of a high-profile 2012 candidate for U.S. Senate.
Kerrey ended his flirtation with a Senate bid Tuesday, leaving the Democrats with a field of two potential candidates, neither of whom has ever run a statewide race: State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha and University of Nebraska Regent Chuck Hassebrook of Lyons.
The two have until next Wednesday to file for office. Both have expressed interest, but both said they will be talking to potential donors over the next couple of days to see if enough money will be available to run.
And money will be important.
Democrats will be getting into the game later than their Republican counterparts, including two statewide officeholders who have been running and raising money for more than a year: Attorney General Jon Bruning and State Treasurer Don Stenberg.
It will be harder for lesser-known candidates to raise money, especially on the national stage, said Randy Adkins, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“Without a high-profile name, it may be harder for Democrats to raise money and to draw the media attention needed to deliver a message,” Adkins said.
Still, he said, Tuesday wasn't all bad news for Democrats. Neither Lathrop nor Hassebrook will draw the same national scrutiny as Kerrey from Republican super PACs, political fundraising organizations that had already run negative advertisements against Nelson and Kerrey before either had made a final decision about a run.
Nelson announced his pending retirement in December, setting the stage for a possible run by Kerrey. The former Nebraska governor weighed a run before saying Tuesday that a bid would not be good for his family.
“Nelson and Kerrey were both going to be lightning rods to Republicans,” Adkins said. “These guys have a track record. ... They were perfect foils.”
Kerrey's decision will undoubtedly turn up the heat in the Republican primary battle.
Many Republicans think that with Kerrey out of the picture, the Republican who wins the May 15 primary will be Nebraska's next U.S. senator.
Stenberg clearly thinks so. He wasted little time in going on the offensive Tuesday against Bruning, arguing that the primary will most likely decide the race.
He again accused Bruning of “flip-flopping” on key conservative issues, noting that Bruning supported abortion rights and gun control as a law school student at the University of Nebraska in the 1990s.
“I'm the only genuine, lifelong conservative in the race,” he said.
Bruning then countered that Stenberg has lost five statewide races, including three for U.S. Senate, because of his propensity for negative campaigns.
“There is a reason Don has lost five statewide races. It's because he's a mudslinger. I'm going to stay focused on balancing the budget and cutting spending,” said Bruning, who put out his first major television ad Tuesday, attacking Democratic President Barack Obama's “reckless spending.”
Kerrey's decision may have solidified the Republican field, and it squashed much of the talk that Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman might get into the race. Many think Heineman kept the door open to a Senate bid only in case a top-flight Democratic candidate emerged.
Heineman declined to talk about Kerrey's exit Tuesday, but in his most recent statement on the race, he described a possible run as “so unlikely at this stage I can't imagine what would change my mind.”
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