Sen. Ben Nelson (D)
Elected: 2000, term expires 2012, 2nd term.
Born: May 17, 1941, McCook .
Education: U. of NE, B.A. 1963, M.A. 1965, LL.B. 1970.
Family: Married (Diane); 4 children.
Elected office: NE Gov., 1991-98.
Professional Career: Gen. cnsl., Central Natl. Group Insurance, 1972–74, Pres. & CEO, 1977–81; NE insurance dir., 1975–76; Exec. V.P., Natl. Assn. of Insurance Commissioners, 1982–85; Practicing atty., 1985–90.
Ben Nelson, a former two-term governor of Nebraska, is a Democrat who was elected to the Senate in 2000. He grew up in McCook, a small town that has produced some of the state’s political giants, including legendary Sen. George Norris, who led the revolt against Speaker Joe Cannon in 1910, and Ralph Brooks, Nelson’s high school principal who became governor in the 1950s. McCook is also the birthplace of Willa Cather, whose novels powerfully depict frontier life on the Great Plains. Nelson graduated from the University of Nebraska, practiced law, served as state insurance director, and headed a major insurance company. He is a man of varied avocations. He has collected several hundred clocks, for instance, and is an avid hunter of turkeys and bears. Disdaining the customary senatorial pretensions, the bushy-headed Nelson has a self-deprecating sense of humor and tolerates his staff’s pet names for him, which include “Hair Force One.”
|Ben Nelson (D)||378,388||(64%)||($6,992,058)|
|Pete Ricketts (R)||213,928||(36%)||($13,417,690)|
|Ben Nelson (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2000 (51%), 1994 governor (73%), 1990 governor (50%)
In 1990, Nelson ran for governor, taking on Bill Hoppner, former staff aide to Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey, in the primary; he won by all of 42 votes. In the general election, he narrowly beat Gov. Kay Orr, 50%-49%. Orr had lost popularity after raising taxes, and her campaign bungled its television advertising, handing challenger Nelson several advantages. As governor, Nelson built prisons, trimmed workmen’s compensation payments, and reorganized the human services department. He cut property taxes and reduced income and sales taxes. His record won him high job ratings and re-election by a 73%-26% vote in the strongly Republican year of 1994. When Nelson ran for the Senate in 1996, he led in polls most of the way, but then fell behind in October and lost to Republican Chuck Hagel, 56%-42%.
Early in 2000, Nebraska’s other Senate seat came open when Sen. Bob Kerrey, one of the Democratic Party’s national stars, shocked just about everyone when he said that he would not seek re-election. Nelson, then practicing law in Omaha, was the strongest possible Democratic nominee, and he entered the race in February. Attorney General Don Stenberg won the Republican primary, with 50% of the vote against five opponents. Nelson and Stenberg both opposed abortion rights and backed tax cuts. But they had significant differences in style and a long history of clashes. Stenberg ran as part of the “Bush-Hagel-Stenberg Team.” Nelson led from the start in the polls, and he raised and spent more money. The popular Kerrey also actively campaigned for his fellow Democrat. Nelson’s lead in the polls narrowed in October, but this time, he won, 51%-49%.
Second only to Zell Miller of Georgia, Nelson turned out to be the Senate Democrat most likely to support Bush. He helped to broker the administration’s tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. In 2002, Nelson was one of the senators who put together a compromise to permit President Bush to cancel collective bargaining rights for homeland security workers, although the measure also allowed future presidents to overturn the decision. Nelson generally supported Bush on the Iraq war, joining Republicans in March 2007 to oppose a plan to start troop withdrawals a year later. With moderate GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, he also authored benchmarks for Iraqi progress. Nelson joined Republicans again to turn back a proposal to restrict funds for Vice President Cheney’s office, and shunned his party on global warming by criticizing legislation for setting what he called unrealistic deadlines for new technologies.
His Democratic colleagues tolerated these apostasies. As one said, “He needs to do what he needs to do to keep his seat” in one of the most Republican states in the nation. Nelson has stuck with his party in a few tough fights. He voted against the GOP’s Federal Marriage Amendment, for example, arguing that same-sex marriage was a state issue. He also was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama for president after being impressed by the record audience that Obama drew at a 2006 Nebraska campaign event for Nelson. He often is found in the middle of battles between the extremes of both parties. He was part of the “Gang of 14” senators who in 2005 sought a middle ground on judgeships, thus scuttling possible filibusters against Bush’s judicial nominees while preserving the Senate’s ability to filibuster future nominations.
During his first Senate term, Republicans tried to persuade Nelson to switch parties. According to the Omaha World-Herald, White House strategist Karl Rove in 2004 offered Nelson the job of Agriculture secretary; Nelson considered it for five days before declining. If he had accepted, then-Republican Gov. Johanns would have appointed his successor, allowing the GOP to pick up a Senate seat.
Nelson has focused much of his legislative work on home-state concerns. When the Great Plains were hit by a drought in 2002, he argued that affected areas should get disaster relief, just as states hit by hurricanes and floods do. He has been fighting for such parity ever since. The compensation, he maintains, would be for crops or livestock lost, rather than property destroyed. Twice Nelson got the Senate to pass drought relief, but the House rejected it both times. In 2003, he called for help for farmers hurt by “Drought David,” following the custom of naming hurricanes. The following year, when a bill for hurricane aid came up, Nelson and Hagel attached nearly $3 billion for farmers affected by drought. The House accepted the bill but reduced farm conservation spending as an offset.
During debate of the 2008 farm bill, Nelson criticized a reduction in drought assistance and was vocally unhappy that fellow Nebraskan Mike Johanns quit as Agriculture secretary before passage of the bill. (Johanns returned home to run for Hagel’s Senate seat.) With Nebraska’s farmers in mind, Nelson in 2007 joined a bipartisan farm-state group that secured an increase in ethanol production to 15 billion gallons by 2015.
With a seat on the Appropriations Committee, Nelson is able to direct federal dollars to Nebraska. His Senate website boasts of his earmarks for the state in defiance of critics who say that the often narrowly targeted special provisions in spending bills are wasteful. In 2008, Nelson touted his work on nearly $9 million for communications at the Air National Guard base in Lincoln, $9 million for Antelope Valley development, and $9.7 million for the University of Nebraska.
Most observers assumed that Johanns would run against Nelson in 2006. But in 2005, Bush appointed Johanns Agriculture secretary. Soon afterward, Republican Reps. Lee Terry and Tom Osborne said that they would not run for the Senate, leaving the Republican nomination wide open. National party officials hoped to persuade Gov. Dave Heineman to run, but Heineman said he had no interest in the Senate. Former Attorney General Don Stenberg, the Republican nominee in 2000, announced he would seek a rematch but he created little enthusiasm; Republicans instead rallied behind Pete Ricketts, an executive with TD Ameritrade and a self-financing multimillionaire.
Running on a platform of tax cuts and smaller government, Ricketts sought to appeal to traditional red-state values. He won the primary with 48% to 36% for Stenberg and 16% for former state Republican Chairman David Kramer. In the general election against Nelson, Ricketts supported a guest-worker program for immigrants, allowing Nelson to position himself to the right of the Republican by making demands to seal the border. Ricketts supported private savings accounts as a first step in “modernizing” Social Security; Nelson opposed such accounts. Ricketts opposed spending earmarks in the federal budget, but Nelson backed them as vital for sparsely populated states. Ricketts spent more than $13 million, most of it from his own deep pockets. The combined $20 million-plus spending by the two candidates was roughly three times the previous record for a statewide contest in Nebraska. But the result wasn’t close. Nelson won 64%-36%, dominating in Omaha’s Douglas County, 65%-35%, and in Lincoln’s Lancaster County, 70%-30%. Ricketts won just 13 of 93 counties, all of them sparsely populated and west of the city of North Platte.