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Vanishing species

Politics | Judicial dealmaker and Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson may be one of the last safe red-state Democrats

Issue: "MS-13: Criminals next door," June 18, 2005

Suddenly, everyone seems to be taking notice of Nebraska's Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson. The low-key senator who tries to navigate a tightrope between conservative Nebraska and his party's liberal leadership evokes provocative comments: "You're like Zell Miller without the crack," Daily Show host Jon Stewart told him during a visit.

The far left condemns him, especially after Mr. Nelson helped forge a compromise deal preserving the filibuster while allowing confirmation for some Bush judicial nominees. As a result of the deal, Texas Supreme Court Judge Priscilla Owen won confirmation to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals last month. California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown broke through the Democratic filibuster on June 7. And if deal-making Democrats hold up their end of the bargain, former Alabama attorney general William Pryor will come next.

"Is Ben Nelson completly [sic] insane?" bemoaned Gary Boatwright, a liberal blogger writing for MyDD.com. "[He] is preparing to betray the Democratic Party."

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More than a year away from a crucial 2006 reelection bid, Mr. Nelson finds himself with a bulging war chest and a record that is convincing voters that he's not part of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Best of all for Mr. Nelson: The Republicans can't seem to find an opponent who hasn't already lost to him. So-called moderates may have pulled off the unlikely: a safe Democrat in a red state.

Republicans won't give up easily. Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), chairwoman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, calls Mr. Nelson's seat "vulnerable" and says the party considers winning it "very important."

Republicans have succeeded in flipping Democratic Senate seats in red states like Nebraska. In 2004, Republicans showed laser focus attacking Democrats from states sympathetic to President Bush. Republicans won open-seat races in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina, and even defeated long-time South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle. Mr. Nelson is Nebraska's only Democrat in the national delegation.

Not that you would know that if you listened to him. Mr. Nelson rarely mentions his party. And he's even found an unlikely ally. Back in February, President George W. Bush asked Mr. Nelson to take a limo ride with him while visiting Nebraska. Later, the president praised the Nebraska Democrat, calling him "a man with whom I can work."

Nebraska political experts think Mr. Bush may have provided Mr. Nelson with his first commercial for the 2006 season. "He's got to be thanking his lucky stars things turned out this way," University of Nebraska political scientist John Comer said. "There's a strong personality element to his candidacy. He's nurtured the notion that he's an independent thinker and his actions in Congress back that up."

Mr. Bush may have gone even further toward helping the Democrat by nominating Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns, a Republican, to become the nation's Secretary of Agriculture last year. Many considered Mr. Johanns to be a prime contender to challenge Mr. Nelson.

The shift caused by Mr. Johanns' nomination left a thin roster of opponents for Mr. Nelson, with former state attorney general Don Stenberg topping the list even though he lost to Mr. Nelson in 2000.

"This looks like a replay of 2000," Mr. Comer said. "One might think [Mr. Stenberg] would have tried to draw more from the center without alienating his base. Nelson can move to the right also, leaving the center and the left with little option."

And with Mr. Nelson's recent maneuvers (with an assist from the president), Nebraskans may buy it.

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