Democrats Move On Without Kerrey

By: John Chapman & Gary Smollen Email
By: John Chapman & Gary Smollen Email

Democrat Bob Kerrey said Wednesday that he won't enter the Nebraska Senate primary, a blow to party members who saw Kerrey as their best chance to win the seat.

The former governor and U.S. senator from Nebraska cited family and unfinished plans at New School University in New York, where he is president, in his decision not to run, but said, "I got much closer to saying yes than I thought I would.

"Bringing a voice of moderation in the Senate was very important to me," Kerrey said. "I'm very worried about the direction of the country. We're polarized on many issues."

The 64-year-old Kerrey would have brought Washington connections and fundraising ability to the race to replace Republican Chuck Hagel, who announced in early September he wouldn't seek re-election.

Kerrey has been president of New School University since 2001.

As a political newcomer in Nebraska, Kerrey ousted Republican Gov. Charles Thone in 1982, then bypassed a bid for re-election to run for the U.S. Senate in 1988, soundly defeating Republican Sen. David Karnes. Kerrey launched an unsuccessful bid for president in 1991, withdrawing after running out of money and failing to win much primary support in any state except South Dakota.

He was re-elected to the Senate in 1994, then four years later surprised many when he decided not to run for president again, then stunned supporters again in 2000 when did not seek a third term in the Senate.

That experience is why many thought Kerrey would be a strong candidate for the upcoming Nebraska Senate race.

Steve Achelpohl, chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said he's disappointed in Kerrey's decision, but is certain the party will field a strong candidate.

"We're not going to cede the Senate race to Mike Johanns or Jon Bruning, I'll tell you that," Achelpohl said.

"Sure, and it’s a disappointment, there’s no denying that Bob Kerry would have been a great candidate, but we've got other people who are interested in this and we'll be moving to those other options," said Achelpohl.

Democratic candidates have enjoyed some success, but major victories in Nebraska seem few and far between.

UNO Political Science Professor Dr. James Johnson says in Nebraska, the Democrats haven't always been the party on the outside. "The Democrats were pretty successful, late 30s."

That was a long time ago, but more recently Nebraskans have voted Jim Exon, Kerrey and Ben Nelson into the governor's office. All three then turned those victories into successful Senate bids. But the three beat some pretty long odds.

According to one estimate, there are a little more than a million registered voters in Nebraska. Of those, nearly half are registered Republicans and a little more than a third are Democrats. The remaining 14% are made up of other political parties or have no affiliation.

Considering that, how does any Democrat win in the Cornhusker State?

"It's obvious that the Republican voters are willing to vote for a Democratic candidate if the Democratic candidate is the right candidate," says Dr. Johnson, who adds Democrats will be looking for someone who can tap into the Republican base.

Hastings College Professor Scott Kleeb is another name that has been mentioned, but he too is still in thinking mode. "I don’t know if it’s something that I'm gonna do. I'm focused on my job at Hastings College and loving it and really investing in it right now, these decisions will come later."

Kleeb lost the Third District Congressional race last year.

Locally, in last year's Second District run for the U.S. House of Representatives, Jim Esch gave Republican incumbent Lee Terry a closer than expected race. State Democratic leaders may be calling on Esch in the coming days.

Esch did not return any of our phone calls. No word on whether or not he's considering a run.

Some of the Democrats’ other options have yet to make up their minds about a Senate race. Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey is one of those options.

In a statement released Wednesday, Fahey said he loves his job as mayor and still has issues to deal with, securing a long-term contract with the College World Series, addressing the needs of the homeless and keeping citizens and neighborhoods safe.

The statement continued that Fahey is encouraged by the many Nebraskans asking him to run and for that reason, he will take the next few weeks to think it over.

Either Fahey or Kleeb would face a tough general election. Former Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns is seeking the Republican nomination after resigning last month as U.S. agriculture secretary. Attorney General Jon Bruning and Schuyler businessman Pat Flynn are also seeking the GOP nod.

While leading the New School, Kerrey has remained politically active and he served on the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

He said his decision not to run doesn't mean he'll retire from political debates. "My board does not object to me being politically involved," Kerrey said.

Kerrey has embraced New York and said he seriously considered running for mayor in 2005. His name also surfaced as a possible vice presidential candidate for 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry.

A Vietnam War hero who lost part of his right leg in combat, Kerrey riled many when he spoke out against the Persian Gulf War. Even though a Democrat, he never hesitated to clash with members of his party, including President Clinton, who he ran against for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination and clashed with over the budget and other matters.

More recently, he has criticized Democrats for their haste to back out of the war in Iraq. Kerrey said he supported President Bush in attacking Iraq but has called the management of the postwar effort an "abomination."

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