If one Senator could qualify as a poster boy for the 2012 Democratic efforts to hold the Senate, it would be Ben Nelson of Nebraska. A one-time governor of the state, Nelson won two terms in office following the retirement of Bob Kerrey by appealing to the populist and socially conservative natures of the voters, which usually goes deep red in presidential elections. His seat seemed secure until Barack Obama and Harry Reid insisted on pushing ObamaCare through Congress, coming under considerable pressure to balk at the lack of the Stupak amendment that would have added into law a ban on federal funding for abortions or abortion coverage. Instead of sticking to his principles, Nelson cut the infamous Cornhusker Kickback deal that gave the state extra federal funding for its Medicaid expansion.
Did Nebraskans appreciate the deal? Not according to the latest numbers from Public Policy Polling, a firm that tends to lean a little towards Democrats:
Every poll released so far on the 2012 Nebraska Senate race has shown Ben Nelson in deep trouble and our numbers are no exception. Nelson trails Attorney General Jon Bruning 50-39 in a hypothetical contest and Treasurer Don Stenberg by a 45-41 margin.
It’s not hard to peg the reason for Nelson’s precarious situation: you need to have a lot of appeal to Republicans if you’re going to win as a Democrat in Nebraska, and while Nelson had that in the past he doesn’t seem to anymore. The 2006 exit poll showed him winning a pretty remarkable 42% of the GOP vote. Now his approval rating with Republicans is down at 26%, and he gets just 17% of their votes against Bruning and 16% against Stenberg. Nelson actually has a 9 point advantage with independents over Bruning and a 17 point one over Stenberg but that’s not enough given his lack of crossover support in the heavily GOP leaning state.
Nebraska didn’t have a statewide election exit poll in 2010, so we’ll have to compare the sample to 2008, a big year for Democrats. In that election, the D/R/I split was 29/48/22; PPP’s sample splits 34/52/14, which may understate independents and oversample both parties just a bit. Given the results of the 2010 election, it may oversample Democrats by more than the MOE in a realistic voter model for next year’s election.
The bad news for Democrats doesn’t just come in the head-to-head comparisons. Nelson’s overall approval rating is an abysmal 39/50, while his Republican colleague Mike Johanns gets a 59/28. Regardless of the competition, Nelson doesn’t get above 42% in any matchup; the only reason he leads two candidates is because they’re relative unknowns. For a two-term incumbent and former governor who has been on the statewide stage for more than twenty years, these numbers are almost certain indications of electoral doom.
Democrats may want to start looking for a replacement candidate. If Nelson can’t fix his brand in the next few months, the DSCC should write off Nebraska as a hopeless loss. With ObamaCare heading back to the Senate for a repeal vote, Nelson may have the only chance he’ll get for a measure of redemption — and even that measure would depend on the bill’s passage and Obama’s signature to wipe out the stain of the Cornhusker Kickback and Nelson’s moral surrender.