Susan Walsh, File, Associated Press
OMAHA, Neb. — Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson survived nearly two decades representing heavily Republican Nebraska by carving a path down the political center. But faced with navigating that road in an increasingly polarizing climate, Nelson is stepping away — and swinging the door wide open for the GOP.
Nelson, the lone Democrat in Nebraska's five-member congressional delegation, announced Tuesday that he wouldn't seek a third term. He was facing a tough campaign against several Republicans who've spent the past several months attacking his support for President Barack Obama's health care overhaul and federal stimulus legislation.
"Who can blame him given the current political mood of the country?" said former state Democratic Party Chairman Steve Achelpohl.
Other Democrats lamented Nelson's decision to retire, fearing it sets up the GOP for an easy victory next year. Republicans need to net just four seats to reclaim control of the Senate, and Nebraska looks to be an easy pickup.
There are no Democrats in line to take Nelson's place in the increasingly conservative state. He joins several other Democrats to retire from the Senate, including Virginia's Jim Webb and North Dakota's Kent Conrad.
After months of speculation that he would leave office, the 70-year-old conservative Democrat told supporters in an emailed statement that he felt it was time he "step away from elective office, spend more time with my family, and look for new ways to serve our state and nation."
"Therefore, I am announcing today that I will not seek re-election," he said. "Simply put: It is time to move on."
The former two-term governor thrived in Nebraska politics partly because he was willing to support Republican ideas when he believed they were in the state's best interests, Achelpohl said.
"Nebraskans are generally independent thinkers, and he was certainly an independent thinker," Achelpohl said. "He just had his finger right on the pulse of the predominant political thinking right in our state and nationally."
Democrats banking on Nelson's ability to leverage those centrist stances and capture statewide races were left scrambling, and many state activists acknowledged being taken by surprise.
While some floated the names of state Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha and Nelson's former lieutenant governor, Kim Robak, as possible contenders, many said it was too early to know who might run. Messages seeking comment were left for Lathrop and Robak.
A dream candidate for Democrats: former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey. Traveling in India on Tuesday, Kerrey told The Washington Post, "Ben's retirement is a huge loss for Nebraska. I am very sad he's leaving. That is as far as I am going (right now)."
Democrats acknowledged the party will face a steep uphill fight to hold on to Nelson's seat, but pointed to a crowded GOP primary field with no obvious front-runner. The ticket includes Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, state Treasurer Don Stenberg, state Sen. Deb Fischer, and investment adviser Pat Flynn.
"This virtually guarantees a Republican victory in 2012," said University of Nebraska Lincoln political scientist Mike Wagner. "There's almost no scenario in which a Democrat can win — especially at this late stage."
National Republican party leaders also have encouraged Gov. Dave Heineman to join the race, but Heineman has said it would take a lot to persuade him.
The Senate's Democratic campaign chairman, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, said she expected that Republicans would "have their hands full with a very divisive primary in the state, which will provide an opportunity for Democrats to remain competitive."
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