So what effect, if any, does Sen. Ben Nelson’s (D-NE) retirement, and the opening up of his seat in this Republican-heavy state, have on the overall battle for Senate control in 2012?
This is not a cut-and-dried case of an incumbent’s retirement tipping his seat into the balance for their party — because Nelson’s seat was already in the balance. Recent polls had shown a tight race for Nelson, and it was already clear that if he had run, it would be a close, highly contested race.
TPM asked Professor Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia, about what effect Nelson’s announcement might have on the overall Senate picture. “Nelson’s retirement makes a GOP takeover a little more likely. Why just ‘little more’? Because I think Nelson was likely to lose if he ran again,” Sabato wrote in an e-mail.
“And I’ll revise my rankings if Bob Kerrey surprises and runs. Somehow I doubt he does, and he’s been away from Nebraska a long time. The GOP nominee for president is still likely to get 60%+ in Nebraska, and in this polarized era, split-tickets are tougher to engineer.”
Sabato also added: “The underlying and near-absolute requirement for D retention of the Senate is that Obama recovers and wins fairly handily. Even that doesn’t help in ND, NE, MT, and MO, where Obama will do poorly. Polarization means more straight-ticket voting. Of course, that is bound to help Warren and Berkeley in MA and NV.”
Soon after the news of Nelson’s retirement first hit, NRSC communications director Brian Walsh was out with a statement to reporters:
“It speaks volumes that even after national Democrats poured roughly $1.5 million dollars into Nebraska in the off-year, at the expense of other vulnerable seats in Montana, Missouri and elsewhere, Senator Nelson recognized that his support for President Obama’s reckless tax-and-spend agenda left him in a grave political situation.
“It’s a credit to Ben Nelson for him to acknowledge that reality but it has to trouble Democrat party strategists to recognize that every other Senate Democrat facing re-election has voted for that same liberal agenda as well.
“This retirement deals a real blow to the Democrats’ hopes of holding the majority and it’s an even deeper blow to their hopes of holding the Nebraska Senate seat.”
Meanwhile, a Democratic source speaking to TPM sought to downplay the effect of Nelson’s decision.
“We recognize that Nebraska, regardless of whether or not he was going to run for re-election, was going to be on one of the toughest seats we had to defend,” the source said. “Overall, when you look at the Senate map and the landscape this year, I’m still confident we’re gonna hold a majority.”
“I think that we’re still very bullish about our prospects of holding the majority. We recognized from the start that we had a challenging map in some ways. But we’ve recruited good candidates, our candidates have out-raised their opponents, and our incumbents are running aggressive campaigns. All of those factors combined, we’re very confident about where we are right now.”