As Senator Ben Nelson Retires, Democrats' Control of Congress Looks Dim

On Tuesday, Senator Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) announced he would not seek reelection in 2012. Although Senators Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) as well as the White House all wanted Nelson to stay onboard to maintain their chances of controlling the Senate, Nelson released his going-away video on YouTube and a press release on his website.

This means trouble for Senate Democrats who want to retain their majority. As other Democrats in the House have also announced their own retirement, it is unlikely that Democrats will take back control of Congress in 2012. Thus, the Senate is critical for President Barack Obama and the Democrats to keep their majority and hold back Republican legislation. With Nelson’s retirement, the chance of that happening significantly diminishes.

The 70-year-old former insurance industry executive won his Senate seat in 2000 and is currently the only Democrat among his state’s five-member delegation to Congress. Nelson, known for being a conservative Democrat, voted in favor of George W. Bush’s 2001 tax cuts as well as Obama’s unpopular $787 billion stimulus in 2009 and the Affordable Health Care for America Act in 2009.

Although the GOP expects to take Nelson’s seat in 2012, and that is likely to happen, Democrats see former Senator Bob Kerry as their best chance if he turns out to be their nominee. With the health care bill and unemployment on the minds of many Nebraskans, it is now the Republicans' race to lose.

In the 2012 election cycle, 23 Democratic-held Senate seats are up for grabs, while the GOP has 10 seats to defend. The Republican Party only needs four more seats to win the majority for themselves.

Although Democrats may very well win back Massachusetts from Republican Senator Scott Brown with the election of consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren, states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida will be competitive. It is anyone’s guess how Obama’s presence in those states will affect Senate races there.

Nelson is leaving the Senate, although recent poll data suggests he could win. According to Hickman Analytics, Nelson is currently more popular than likely GOP opponents. Nelson has a 54% approval rating while 40% disapprove of him. Nelson leads Nebraskan State Attorney General Jim Brunning by two points, Nebraskan State Treasurer Don Stenberg by six points, and Nebraskan State Senator Deb Fischer by 13 points.

Nelson did have a $3 million campaign fund to count on. Although, he may have seen the “Give Ben the Boot” television ad campaign by his opposition as a reason for worry. The ads only had a $600,000 fund but the anti-bribery message may resonate quite well with conservatives and moderates within the state.

Nelson retires amid record low congressional approval ratings and partisan gridlock prohibiting the passage of significant legislation. He leaves by saying on his website, “Public office is a place for public service, not personal profit. It is about promoting the common good, not the agenda of the radical right or the radical left. It is about fairness for all, not privileges for the few. And, it is about protecting the rights of individuals, even if it angers the majority. I hope and believe I have fulfilled these principles to the best of my ability.”

It is now time for the Nebraskan electorate to decide whether that last statement is true.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons