Farewell, Ben Nelson

John Bresnehan scoops that Sen. Ben Nelson, the last Democrat in Nebraska who can easily win statewide elections, will retire next year. He has the grim horse race details: Nelson had $3 million in the bank, benefitted from $1 million in outside spending, was creeping back up into a decent poll position. But he’s out.

You can only impart so much from the experiences of one Democrat in a state Democrats never win. (Trivia answer: It was last carried in a presidential race by LBJ.) Nelson is/was a mostly reliable Democratic vote. He mostly got away with it, until the December 2009 vote on the Affordable Care Act. As Manu Raju reported at the time, Nelson returned him, poll numbers falling, totally unable to win back the middle. He and his wife went to a pizza parlor and were booed out the door. Some of the anger was related to the legislation itself. But the truly revealing thing about Nelson’s fall was that voters grew furious over a compromise he’d cut – more Medicare money for Nebraska in order to win his vote. He didn’t sweat the policy. He wanted to protect old people in his state, reappropriating the cash from the other 49.

In most understandings of politics, this should have worked. It completely backfired. Smart conservative/Tea Party brand-makers called Nelson’s deal the “cornhusker kickback” – a brilliant phrase, because “kickback” usually means cash that goes to one person. Here it was applied to a benefit for one state’s retirees. There was no honor, as they saw it, in voting for a bill because your state got more from it. This may turn out to have been a temporary, convenient political shift. But it was enough of a shift to trip up Ben Nelson.