Aside from relatively favorable polling, the murky Republican picture is also good news for the Democrat. The New York Times reported
last week that national Republicans are courting Gov. Dave Heineman
to run against Nelson, should he make a reelection bid. Heineman hasn't closed the door on a bid, but one Republican strategist familiar with the race said that a Heineman bid would be a "long shot." In his own public statements, Heineman does not sound like someone itching to run.
There is also incentive for Heineman to simply want to irk Nelson a bit, both Democrats and Republicans agree. Nelson has recently been blasting
Heineman over a grant to create state-based health insurance exchanges, arguing that Heinemann should return the money or embrace exchanges.
"My take based on talking to a lot of people is he is not that serious about it. He does not have interest in it. ... It hasn't really impacted the campaign at all," said a Republican source close to Bruning's campaign of the Heineman speculation.
But the fact that Heineman - who would be the strongest candidate against Nelson -- has been recruited should not be overlooked. Bruning's had problems with fundraising, has been gaffe-prone, and recently reshuffled his campaign team. Meanwhile, state Treasurer Don Stenberg
, who would be a less-formidable general election candidate (he lost to Nelson in 2000) has secured the endorsement of Sen. Jim DeMint
, R-S.C., which should give his downright anemic fundraising pace at least some kick. Even if it is just national Republicans doing their due diligence, it could still result in Heineman joining the race and upending the field.
Still, there are reasons for Nelson to pause. The airwaves won't just be dominated by Democrats next year; the ad war will be much more even. And Bruning has shown signs of improvement in his fundraising and has kept the negative headlines to a minimum lately. If Nelson's simply running even following a big boost from outside groups and an awful year for the likely GOP nominee, where will he be if both of those trends don't continue?
Johnson says Nelson's Christmas season timeline still stands. We'll know a great deal more about the race come January, including, but not limited to, whether Nelson will be on the ballot. Stenberg's fundraising question marks, Bruning's viability, and Heineman's intentions will also come into clearer view.