John Avlon Independent Nation

10.29.12

Bob Kerrey Closes In On Reclaiming His Nebraska Senate Seat

Kerrey’s campaign should matter to all Americans concerned with bridging the partisan divide, writes John Avlon.

Bob Kerrey’s campaign to retake his Senate seat is surging in the final days of the campaign—bringing him to within two points of his Tea Party competitor, thanks to increased support from independent voters.

The former Medal of Honor winner, governor, senator, presidential candidate and college president is probably one of the most qualified men to ever run for the U.S. Senate. Kerrey is widely respected in Washington for his principled independence, and ability to create bipartisan coalitions to solve a wide range of problems—which is one reason he’s been guaranteed a senior position if he returns to the Senate.

His opponent, Deb Fischer, on the other hand, is an obscure, socially conservative state senator who defeated a respected state attorney general in a Jim DeMint-backed Tea Party challenge. Fischer’s policy focus is primarily centered on climate-change denial and a belief in banning abortions even in cases of rape and incest—making her an instant ally of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock. But those same beliefs ensure that she would be a perennial senate backbencher in a state accustomed to influence in Washington.

Fischer has been endorsed by Sarah Palin and received big dollar donations from the Koch brothers and Joe Rickets.

Kerrey has been endorsed by Warren Buffett, Joe Lieberman, and Steve Martin (in what even The Daily Caller called “possibly the greatest ad of the election cycle.”

Kerrey’s campaign challenge—polls showed him down by double-digits for much of the race—stems from the fact that he led the liberal New School in New York City for the past decade—and was effective enough that some Democrats urged him to run for mayor against Mike Bloomberg, but Kerrey declined and instead chose to answer calls to return to his home state for public service.  The carpet-bagger claim has been hurled against him, but even Republican Chuck Hagel, Kerrey’s one-time colleague in the Senate, dismissed that, saying: “It’s a joke to say he’s not a real Nebraskan and he’s a carpetbagger. Come on. This is a guy who is Nebraska through and through.”

Kerrey’s campaign has been aimed at strengthening the center in American politics. His campaign stump speech addresses the subject directly. “Somebody has to go back there and change Congress. Somebody has to stand the middle ground,” Kerrey says. “We’re going to have to change. And I want to be the person that makes that change happen.”

A primary goal is forging a bipartisan deal to reduce the long-term deficit and debt.  Maybe that’s why he now leads with independent voters by an astounding 24-point margin.

A Kerrey endorsement by the Nebraska Farmers Union this weekend echoed many of these themes, saying: “Bob Kerrey has the ability to navigate the increasingly partisan and dysfunctional political landscape in Congress…Bob Kerrey was a fiscal conservative as a Governor and as a Senator. He made the tough decisions to balance the budget while also having a strategic eye on the future…Bob Kerrey did not sign Grover Norquist’s tax pledge.  Deb Fischer did.  The Club for Growth is targeting all farm and renewable energy programs for elimination.  That is not in Nebraska’s interests.  Deb Fischer made a terrible mistake by trading her own independence and judgment for that of Club for Growth extremists.”

“Nebraskans are independent and cross party lines despite the deep red our state is often portrayed as," says Jane Fleming Kleeb of Bold Nebraska. “You can look to the opposition to the Transcanada Keystone pipeline or allocating an electoral vote to Obama last time or the fact that we passed a state-based version of the Dream Act.”

“Somebody has to go back there and change Congress. Somebody has to stand the middle ground.”

Moreover, says Kleeb, “Kerrey has out worked Fischer, hands down. We have seen Bob in my small town of Hastings over five times in the last few months. That ground game and personal contact with voters is clearly paying off. Fischer on the other hand went to the customary parades and then a bunch of GOP office openings. She has not hit the pavement like Kerrey.”

Kleeb ends on an intriguing note considering the independent-minded centrism of Nebraska voters. “In this last week, it will be interesting to see if her stance on making abortion illegal in cases of rape and incest comes to the forefront. While our state is largely pro-life, there are a lot of moms who cannot fathom if they or their daughter got raped not having the choice for a safe and legal abortion.” As George Will once said, “the four most important words in politics are ‘up to a point.’”

Kerrey has closed a double-digit deficit with Fischer in the past weeks, buoyed by strong debate performances that highlight his bipartisan vision and policy depth.

In a field filled with phonies, Bob Kerrey has always been the real deal.  And the day the Omaha World-Herald endorsed Mitt Romney over President Obama, their front-page headline summed up the promise of Bob Kerrey’s campaign for Nebraska and the nation: “Kerrey Seeks to Bridge Partisan Divide.”

That’s why Kerrey’s surge in the polls matters and why his success in this campaign should matter to you no matter what state you live in.  We need Bob Kerrey back in the Senate, no matter who is elected our next president.