OMAHA, Neb. — Former Sen. Bob Kerrey said Tuesday he will not run for the Nebraska Senate seat he gave up more than a decade ago, shutting down hopes for a bid both parties called Democrats' best chance to hold the seat but that Kerrey himself described as a longshot.
The 1992 presidential candidate and former Nebraska governor had considered seeking the Democratic nomination to succeed Sen. Ben Nelson, who replaced Kerrey in the Senate in 2001. Nelson's decision not to run for a third term this year came as a boon to Republicans, who must net four seats to retake the Senate and have made capturing the lone remaining Democratic seat in Nebraska's congressional delegation a priority.
"I have given the decision of becoming a candidate for the U.S. Senate very serious thought and prayer," Kerrey said in an email. "For many reasons I nearly said yes. In the end I choose to remain a private citizen. To those who urged me to do so, I am sorry, very sorry to have disappointed you. I hope you understand that I have chosen what I believe is best for my family and me."
Kerrey, who moved to New York City after giving up his seat, spent nearly a week in Nebraska this month to implore friends and family for advice about whether to run in a state that has drifted ideologically away from him since he left.
Of course, Kerrey has a history of mulling campaigns he never enters. He did so in 2000, when he considered another run for president, as well as in 2005, when he toyed with running for New York City mayor. His last came in 2008, when he again stepped away from a run for Nebraska's last open U.S. Senate seat, now held by Republican Mike Johanns.
Republicans this time around would have been sure to hammer on Kerrey's decision to leave the Senate and become president of the New School, a self-described progressive university in Greenwich Village. Kerrey did stay involved with government, working as a member of the 9/11 Commission, but the GOP would have highlighted his time away from increasingly conservative Nebraska.
"I would say if you bet . . . you'd have to bet against me," Kerrey said of his chances of winning during an interview with The Associated Press last month. "I've been away 11 years. I'm a Democrat. Obama's going to top the ticket, and he's probably going to be unpopular. So I'd say the odds are probably not good."
But even Republicans acknowledged Kerrey would have brought credibility and a formidable presence to the race. Nebraska's airwaves already had been peppered with political ads by conservative groups portraying Kerrey as "an East Coast liberal" who supports universal health care and taxpayer-funded abortion.
"Nebraskans will quickly learn that Mr. Kerrey is actually far more liberal than Ben Nelson," the National Republican Senatorial Committee said in a recent release.
Kerrey had brushed aside the ads, noting he was "attacked virtually every day for being a right-winger (who) supported George Bush's war in Iraq" during his time at The New School.
Kerrey's decision not to run is the second time in recent history Nebraska Democrats are left scrambling to fill a void at the top of a state ballot. In July 2010, state Democrats nominated Scottsbluff lawyer Mike Meister for governor from the floor of the state party convention to replace their first pick, Omaha investment banker Mark Lakers, who dropped out of the race amid questions about his campaign finance reports.
That gave Meister only three months to mount a gubernatorial challenge against now-Gov. Dave Heineman, who won by a 3-to-1 margin.
The GOP ticket for this year's Senate race already is crowded. It includes Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, state Treasurer Don Stenberg, state Sen. Deb Fischer, and investment adviser Pat Flynn. But party insiders have said Heineman was under pressure to run from high-level Republicans who feared Kerrey would run and win.
Heineman had been widely expected to seek the seat this year, but instead announced two days after his re-election as governor in 2010 that he wouldn't run. He has stood by that decision since.
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