David Frum

10.03.12

Why Isn't Bob Kerrey Winning?

The Hill laments former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey's struggles in this year's Senate race.

Kerrey, who last held elected office in 2001, always faced an uphill battle to hold onto retiring Sen. Ben Nelson’s (D-Neb.) seat in the heavily Republican state. And while other Democrats in tough Senate races have had things break their way, a few events hurt his chances.

The biggest blow was Fischer’s surprising win over two much better-known and better-funded Republican primary opponents. Democrats were confident they had strong opposition research against both of her primary foes that could greatly damage their chances, but had very little to attack her on.

“The main complaint about Fischer is she doesn’t have much of a record out there,” one Washington-based Democratic strategist following the race told The Hill. “We certainly didn’t have as many opportunities to go after her as the others.”

But Kerrey didn’t do himself any favors with his campaign launch, at first denying reports that he was running before changing his mind and deciding to get in the race. He also was slow to respond to Republican attacks painting him as a carpet-bagger because he’d lived for the last decade in New York City. His wife, a former “Saturday Night Live” writer, also didn’t help him with a piece in Vogue magazine admitting she didn’t want him to run and poking fun at Nebraska and its people.

This is rich. Let's put to a quick rest the idea that Sen. Kerrey is losing because he spent time in New York and has a wife who isn't a Cornhusker.

Unless Kerrey had put out a credible ad saying: "My opponent secretly hates the Nebraska football team," this race was over the day Sen. Ben Nelson voted for Obamacare. Nebraska is a deeply conservative state, and in light of widening polarization in Congress, Nelson's survival would have been tenuous even without Obamacare. His involvement in the ill-fated "Cornhusker Kickback" remains politically poisonous back home, and that won't be changing soon.

Bob Kerrey won't win this race, but it's not for likeability, carpetbagging, or whatever excuse his campaign and the DNC will offer on November 6. Ben Nelson, a conservative Democrat, won his second term in 2006, a landslide year for Democrats nationwide. This year, he wisely chose not to run. His internal polling surely told him running again would end in embarrassing defeat.

Why would we expect his replacement to do any better?

Let this be a lesson for Republicans. When you nominate a candidate who abstains from crazy views (see: Todd Akin), lacks personal baggage, and cares about making government work, races that should be winnable stay winnable. Fischer's nomination was indeed a surprise, but as I argued back in May, it was a fairly logical choice for Republicans looking to win in November.