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Early Money on Nelson

The national Democratic Party is shoring up its incumbent in Nebraska, knowing control of the Senate is at stake.

Nelson: Fast out of the gate.(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

photo of Reid Wilson
September 21, 2011

Holding only 53 Senate seats and defending nearly two dozen next year, Democrats have little room for error when it comes to their majority in the upper chamber. And they are demonstrating that they won’t cede much turf to Republicans—even in Nebraska.

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National Democrats are taking an early stab at bolstering Sen. Ben Nelson’s electoral foundation, setting him up as a Washington outsider bringing some order to the chaos. The Nebraska Democratic Party has already run $210,000 worth of television ads on Nelson’s behalf over the past two weeks.


Now the party is extending that buy for another two weeks, dropping an additional $220,000, according to Republican sources who watch the advertising market. That’s enough money for reasonably sized ad buys of about 400 gross ratings points each in Omaha and Lincoln, the state’s two biggest media markets.

The ads will run with the disclaimer that the Nebraska Democratic Party paid for the advertisements but that the money is coming from Washington. Through August, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had transferred nearly $225,000 to the Nebraska party, while the Democratic National Committee had shifted tens of thousands of dollars more (discounting the national money, the state party raised barely more than $2,000 last month).

Running early advertisements is a risky business; if the move fails to bolster the incumbent’s approval rating and establish a brand, it leaves a campaign with less money to spend once the race heats up. Nowadays, with the proliferation of outside groups spending millions of dollars to beat up a candidate at the drop of a hat, shelling out money early is a way to build a foundation before unaffiliated interests poison the well.

In an atmosphere in which most incumbents are viewed with scorn by the electorate, Nelson’s job-approval number is decent—a Democratic poll released earlier this week pegged it at 46 percent—but not great. Nelson’s goal, Democratic consultants familiar with his strategy said, is to boost that number before outside groups turn their attention to driving down his favorable rating.

One other factor to consider: Advertising rates are cheap now but will skyrocket next year, thanks to outside groups, party committees, and candidates at all levels scrambling for severely limited inventory. It’s a problem that campaigns across the country will face, even if they budget for late, massive buys.

The Wu Watch

Call it the Anthony Weiner Rule: If a member of Congress resigns in disgrace, it’s a good bet the seat will be up for grabs in the next election. Over the past decade, members driven to resignation have left their parties with major headaches.

After a special-election upset last week in New York, Democrat Weiner’s seat is now held by Republican Rep. Bob Turner. Disgraced Empire State Republican Chris Lee was succeeded by Democrat Kathy Hochul. New York Democrat Eric Massa, Texas Republican Tom DeLay, and South Dakota Republican Bill Janklow, all of whom resigned under clouds, were all succeeded by members of the opposite party.

It’s not a perfect trend: Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., took over for imprisoned Republican Randy (Duke) Cunningham. But even in Cunningham’s case, his San Diego-area constituents almost picked a Democrat to succeed him; Bilbray won 49 percent of the vote compared with nearly 45 percent for Democrat Francine Busby in that 2006 special election.

Still, the odds might have Democrats sweating. After all, the next special election is the Jan. 31 contest to succeed ex-Rep. David Wu, the Oregon Democrat who quit after his antics made him an embarrassment to the party.

Wu’s old district stretches from the Portland suburbs through Washington County to old logging towns on the Pacific Ocean. Three prominent Democrats are fighting for the party nod in advance of the Nov. 8 special primaries. Republican businessman Rob Cornilles, who lost to Wu last year, is likely to secure the GOP nomination.

Oregon is a blue state, and the district has been held by a Democrat since Les AuCoin won it in the Watergate landslide in 1974. But that doesn’t mean Democrats can take the seat for granted; electorates in special contests don’t resemble a district’s overall makeup, as New York Democrats just discovered the hard way.

A “New” New Hampshire Republican

How is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who exists where the tea party movement meets social conservatism, doing well in normally staid, libertarian New Hampshire? Maybe because the Granite State’s Republican Party is rapidly changing. For evidence, look no further than the GOP front-runners hoping to succeed retiring Democratic Gov. John Lynch.

Those two Republicans, lawyer Ovide Lamontagne and conservative activist Kevin Smith, are much more closely aligned with the party’s social-conservative wing than previous candidates. Lamontagne was the candidate of the Right in the 2010 Senate race when he nearly defeated establishment favorite Kelly Ayotte, while Smith’s influence has expanded recently.

Lamontagne, who has spent months laying the foundation, is in the race. Smith says he will make a decision next week.

The lack of centrist candidates, who have captured the last few GOP gubernatorial nominations, is telling: Despite the state’s libertarian reputation, the New Hampshire Republican Party’s social-conservative element is ascending. Its eventual gubernatorial nominee will find out whether the rest of the state is amenable to that faction.

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