WASHINGTON – Democrats eyeing a potential gain of a U.S. Senate seat in the 2008 election are hoping Bob Kerrey won't abandon a potential run after being linked to convicted thief and Democratic fundraiser Norman Hsu.
According to press reports last week, the former and possible future Nebraska senator several years ago recruited Hsu — now in prison on fraud charges and being investigated for federal election law violations — to serve on the board of The New School university in New York, of which Kerrey is president. He also accepted donations from Hsu intended for a school scholarship.
The Kerrey camp has been promising for weeks that an announcement is forthcoming about Kerrey's intention to return to Washington politics via the seat being vacated by retiring Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel.
But the connection to Hsu could complicate matters for Kerrey, a former Nebraska governor who remains popular in his home state despite not having lived there since retiring. The possibility of Kerrey being on one side of a contest that would likely pit him against Mike Johanns, also a popular former governor of Nebraska, has set up one of the most anticipated races of next year.
Johanns, 57, resigned as agriculture secretary in September and is likely to announce his entry into the Senate race. He would certainly benefit from not having to face a top-tier opponent like Kerrey, who also served as a Sept. 11 commissioner.
Connections to Hsu already have forced some Democratic candidates to return money donated by the phony apparel executive, who had been evading sentencing on a grand theft plea since 1991 until his arrest last month. Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton has returned the largest bulk of Hsu-related cash — $850,000 — while the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was forced to give back $43,700 in donations directly from Hsu.
Sources close to Kerrey say he is now calling supporters and informing them that a decision will be made by this week. If he backs off, the Hsu matter will have leveled its first casualty and Democrats may be forced to cede a seat that Republicans badly need in 2008.
If Kerrey does run, it makes the contest with Johanns that much more watchable. Kerrey, whose last term in the Senate from 1988 to 2000 briefly overlapped with Hagel's, remains a popular figure among Nebraskans in a state that values independence and strong character as much, if not more, than party loyalty.
"He's certainly still a rock star for a lot of Democrats," said Robynn Tysver, a writer for the Omaha World-Herald covering the Senate race.
"Republicans have our work cut out for us in order to hold that seat," David Kramer, a former GOP chairman, admitted before Kerrey's latest news-making turn. "(Kerrey) will be a formidable opponent for any Republican candidate."
If Kerrey were to join incumbent Ben Nelson in the U.S. Senate, it would be mean two Democrats would be representing the predominantly Republican state for the first time since 1996. According to Kramer, the state has at least 202,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats.
"The idea of two Democrats representing Nebraska is like the iridescent dream of [Democratic National Committee Chairman] Howard Dean," said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University and former senior advisor to Hagel.
"Certainly of all possible Democrats, Kerrey has the best shot," he added.
Kerrey, 64, has been the president of The New School since 2001. He also served as a vocal member of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, less formally known as the 9/11 commission, which concluded with a final report in 2004.
Kerrey served as governor of Nebraska from 1982 to 1986 and then went on to the U.S. Senate, where he became the fifth Congressional Medal of Honor winner to serve in the institution. A Vietnam combat veteran and Navy SEAL who also won the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, Kerrey lost his right leg below the knee when hit by an exploding grenade.
Kerrey was a Republican who became a Democrat before running for governor. He is known as a moderate senator with an independent streak whose voting record leaned more left than right. But he also bucked the Clinton administration while in office, advocating the cutting of entitlements and reforming the Internal Revenue Service.
Kerrey aborted a presidential run in 1991, and retired from the Senate after a second term in 2000. He was hired to lead The New School and was asked to replace former Democratic Sen. Max Cleland just before the first hearings of the 9/11 commission. He and fellow Democrat Richard Ben-Veniste quickly emerged as tough inquisitors and skeptics of the Bush administration's counter-terror efforts prior to the 2001 attack.
He has not aligned himself with antiwar critics, however. He took a lot of heat from students and faculty at The New School for not denouncing the Iraq invasion in 2003 and unlike other Democrats, will not advocate for a timetable for withdrawal.
He has criticized the Bush administration for being too unilateral, for not better equipping the troops, for post-invasion missteps and for not bringing more attention to veterans' needs at home. However, Kerrey still believes the invasion was justified and wrote in a May op-ed in The Wall Street Journal that "a unilateral withdrawal from Iraq would hand Usama bin Laden a substantial psychological victory."
The war is an issue that will be driving Nebraska voters to the ballot box in 2008, according to analysts and at least one recent poll conducted for Republican state attorney Jon Bruning, who also is mounting a campaign for the Senate nomination. Bruning threw his hat into the ring before Hagel announced his retirement, expressing frustration with the senator's well-publicized break from President Bush on the war and other foreign policy issues.
The poll, conducted Sept. 10-12 by Dresner-Wickers and Associates, found that out of 400 registered Republicans statewide, 22 percent said the war in Iraq is the single most important problem facing the United States today, followed by immigration at 15 percent and terrorism at 12 percent.
Slightly more than half of those surveyed — 52 percent — held a favorable view of Bush, while 22 percent had an unfavorable view. Forty-four percent considered themselves "conservative," while 24 percent identified with "very conservative" and 25 percent preferred the "moderate" label.
Observers say it is not easy to pin down Nebraskan voters, particularly on party or ideological labels.
"I think Nebraskans pride themselves on being independent as much as they are conservative," said Charlyne Berens, University of Nebraska journalism professor and author of "Chuck Hagel: Moving Forward."
Republicans in the state are banking that Nebraska overall remains a conservative state and already are reminding voters that Kerrey may sound like a moderate but has a more liberal voting record than he appears.
"We realized that a lot of Nebraskans might not remember who Bob Kerrey is — after all, he's been living in New York City for seven years and even considered running for mayor of NYC at one time," declared a message by the state GOP on its Web site. "We think Nebraskans will soon remember why Bob Kerrey has an 8 percent rating from the American Conservative Union (That's lower than Hillary Clinton who has a 9 percent rating!)"
The message then points to Kerrey's Senate votes on immigration, abortion and gay marriage as proof of his liberal tendencies.
Some say this might have some impact, considering that voters are still largely supportive of Bush and are solidly Republican. "The state has certainly gotten redder since [Kerrey] was on the ballot," said Tysver.
But Kramer said Kerrey's likeability factor neutralizes much of his lack of conservative credentials with voters, who gravitate toward politicians who have the "ability to walk into a room — whether it is a bar or coffee shop, or a VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) hall — and have folks believe they can come up to you, put their arm around you, it's very important."
Apparently Hagel has that, Kerrey has that and Johanns has that too.
"If [Kerrey] ends up in a race where he is against someone who is as likable as he is, that takes it off the table, and that makes the race, in my mind, more about substance, more about issues," said Kramer. "I think Mike Johanns is the best Republican to run against Kerrey."
Johanns would join Bruning, who trailed Johanns 39 percent to 30 percent in his own poll, though the campaign said the former governor's lead was much slimmer than they had anticipated. Also running in the Republican primary is investment adviser Pat Flynn.
Republicans certainly will push the fact that Kerrey would no doubt be raising a lot of money from outside the Nebraska, and that he had been living on the East Coast for the last several years. Whether it will be a problem for Kerrey remains a question. "How much money you raise out of state becomes a surrogate for how much you are committed to the state," said Baker. "That is something he is going to have to answer for."