A friend from Nebraska recently wrote to me in response to my request that she explain Senator Ben Nelson, who has announced that he will be filibustering the climate bill:
Well, to begin with, let's just say that you're right - it is a mix - but the answer is much more complicated than that. This is definitely one of those situations where the details don't fall into a nice soundbite. But then, Rachel's always been good about digging into and trying to explain the details of something.
Where to start......
I don't know if you ever saw it, but during the health care debate, when all the progressive groups and blogs were all out there in full force, Nelson was getting hammered on a regular basis. Markos Moulitsas did a poll (yes, I know they now have Research 2000 problems) and while it showed that some Conservative Dems were not really matching the pulse of their states, Nebraska was different. More voters mirrored his conservative approach than didn't, and Kos even wrote that Nelson appeared to be an exception and was representing the views of the voters of his state. That's just an example for you.
Nelson has always been a more conservative Democrat. We have a history in this state of pretty independent thinking politicians. That is, at least the most liked, most respected ones have been. Nebraska is also the only state with "non-partisan" Unicameral, which encourages finding ways to force politiicans to be more independent in their thinking (but more and more, party politics are having an influence). Recent years have seen the same sorry trend as the nation where rubber stamp Republicans take over, but before them we had people like Jim J Exon, Bob Kerrey, and even Chuck Hagel. You can even go back to the days of William Jennings Bryan and George Norris. There are many more, but these are the names most recognized. They were representatives that didn't toe a party line on a regular basis. Yes, Hagel did side with his party most of the time, but you could always get a straight answer from him, and he'd boldly step up and vote against his party on things that were really important to him. Ben Nelson falls into the mold of the independent trend.
Nelson was actually a pastor in his early years. Not many people know that. He also worked in the insurance industry and has generally had a conservative approach to business issues all his life. But over time, he has become a savvy politician who does understand the diversity of Nebraska.
To understand Nelson, one has to understand Nebraska. During the health care debate, Nelson was in a position I personally don't envy. No matter what he did, he was going to get attacked in Nebraska and be criticized. It's ironic that at times one could read on Nebraska blogs the exact same criticizisms from some of the Nebraska liberals and progressives that were being made by the far right neo-cons in the state. If he supported the more liberal version of HCR, he'd get hit hard by the right. If he went too conservative, he'd get hit by the far left - with the help of a lot of outside progressive groups that a lot of native Nebraskans don't take kindly to. If he stuck to the center more, the right hated him for supported HCR, the left hated him for not giving enough to their side of the argument.
Nebraska voter registration hovers around 48% Republican, 34% Democrat, 18% Indy/Other. As you look at the map, the further left you move on the map, the further right the electorate moves. The 3rd District (in the top ten of most conservative districts in the country) gets high voter turnout fairly consistantly. Even the Democrats in the west tend to be more moderate to conservative than their counterparts in the big cities of Lincoln and Omaha. And Independents, which contain some left-leaning Greens, tend to lean more right than left. Most voters (the ones not as active or not at all active in party politics, but simply vote) you will find are part of the party of the parents before them. Many of the Democrats in the more rural areas are Dems because they or their parents before them became Dems in support of FDR and rural electification. Likewise, you get some Republicans who were more Eisenhower Republicans. A big chunk of the voters will vote for person first, party second, but both sides of the spectrum have those that will only vote party line.
Any politician who is going to suceed in this state as a Democrat has to gain the support of moderate Republicans. If they don't do that, they have no chance of winning. The 3rd District is even harder - there, the voter registration is around 58% Rep, 28% Dem, 14% Indy.
Nelson pays attention to politics in the state. He has a race coming up in 2012. His challenger IS going to be current Governor Dave Heineman. Even though Heiny is running for reelection now, he just lost his Dem Challenger and Dems have to post up a sacrificial lamb for the elections at the state convention in a couple weeks. Heineman was recently challenged by the press (a rarity in this state) to make a pledge to serve his full term his comment? "No comment". And he's going after Nelson and speaking more on national issues, so his 2012 run has begun. This gives you the groundwork for the "Cornhusker Kickback". Heineman made a valid arguement regarding the unfunded mandate on states. Nelson brought it up with Reid. Since they were at the point of passing the bill, they inserted an exemption with Nebraska, but Nelson and Reid did say it was a "placeholder", and something they would work to get for ALL states (which they did). Back here in Nebraska, there was a brief back and forth in the news between Heineman and Nelson. Republicans got the national media to go after Nelson and it backfired on him. If it had stuck to just local media, Nelson was winning the arguement (mainly the hypocrisy of Heineman) in the local news until that happened.
Like I said, the answer on Nelson requires a lot of initial groundwork. To understand Nelson, one has to know Nebraskans. Nelson is losing a lot of support from Democrats and progressive/liberals in the state, but they make up only a small percentage of the voters. What he's losing with them, there's a chance he's gaining more moderate Republican support.