Of all of the incumbent Democratic senators seeking reelection in 2012, perhaps none is more endangered than Ben Nelson of Nebraska, now known for the infamous “Cornhusker Kickback,” a special deal for his state that was submitted during the health-care debate and ultimately withdrawn. Under the proposal, the federal government would cover the cost of Nebraska’s Medicare recipients indefinitely.
Last week, Nebraska state attorney general Jon Bruning, an announced challenger to Nelson, debuted a new web ad, “Even This Guy!” which pokes fun at Nelson by suggesting that even the state’s most gullible man could see the “Kickback” was a bad idea. Nelson adviser Justin Hart said segments of the web ad could be used in a 30-second version for television.
NRO’s Jim Geraghty had a chance to talk to Bruning about the ad and his bid against Nelson on Wednesday.
JON BRUNING: This ad highlights what we expect to be the preeminent issue of the race, and that’s Senator Nelson’s support for more big government. Obamacare has come to stand for the unwarranted expansion of government during the Obama administration. We’ve had a 25 percent growth in government since President Obama was sworn in, so they can’t blame that on the Bush administration. A huge part of that, of course, is the spending that’s associated with Obamacare, and we haven’t even seen all of that yet. This is a critical distinction between us: Senator Nelson voted for Obamacare; I would have voted against it. He continues to support it; I am leading the lawsuit against it.
I think we have come to a critical juncture in this country where we have to get the budget under control. We have to get the debt under control, we have to curtail our spending and our regulatory overreach. The federal government, especially under the Obama administration, just reaches further and further. This ad is designed to highlight that particular difference between Senator Nelson’s approach to governing and mine.
NRO: You see a lot of Democrats in Midwestern and Mountain states go heavily Republican at the presidential level, and they generally emphasize that they’re nothing like Nancy Pelosi and that they’re so moderate. Nelson is one of those guys who appears to have cultivated that image. How do you refute the notion that he’s different from the other liberal Democrats in Washington? Will you be able to get traction with that argument on a range of issues, or will it focus primarily on Obamacare?
BRUNING: We certainly need to pull back the curtain, because Senator Nelson has cultivated an image as a moderate in the Senate, and the reality is very different. He’s not moderate, he’s very liberal. His voting record reflects bigger government and more spending and a direction that Nebraskans are not interested in.
Nebraskans are very conservative. We have among the lowest unemployment rates in the country. We have a budget deficit that we’re going to handle without raising taxes. That’s kind of the Nebraska way — there’s just an abundance of common sense here. Senator Nelson somehow has been able to pull the wool over Nebraskans’ eyes and tried to appear as if he’s more conservative than he is.
I think Obamacare is the first time Nebraskans have really had their eyes opened to what his vision for America really is, and that’s nanny government solving everyone’s problems. Nebraskans don’t look at it that way. They believe in personal responsibility, and I ultimately think that this election is going to be about that choice, between those who believe in government solving everyone’s problems, like Senator Nelson, and those who believe in personal responsibility and free markets, like me.
NRO: Are there any state-level or local issues overlooked by those of us in Washington that might prove decisive?
BRUNING: From a spending standpoint, ultimately this is going to focus on Senator Nelson’s votes in Washington. He voted for more regulation for the banking industry. He voted for more regulation for the health-care industry, and ultimately Obamacare will result in a government takeover of health care if it’s allowed to stand. He has voted for continued growth in government time and time again. We’re going to make sure Nebraskans are focused on what he has done.
As far as programs here at the state level, I’m proud of the things we’ve been able to do in our smaller laboratory of democracy. Our consumer [protection] operation here, for example, is very nimble. It’s three times as effective as it was when I took over in 2003: We recover more than a million dollars for Nebraskans every year, and we do that with no extra spending; we use student interns from the University of Nebraska who are here on a volunteer basis and who get college credit. I think it’s the way government should work. Of course, the reaction at the federal level to the consumer scams that go on was to create a Consumer Protection Agency with 1,000 new employees and millions and millions of dollars of spending. In Nebraska, our reaction was to use unpaid interns and solve the problem ourselves without spending more money. I think there are contrasts we can certainly make between what I have done as attorney general and what he’s done in his time in the Senate.
NRO: State treasurer Don Stenberg, who has been mentioned as a possible Senate candidate, is expected to make his official announcement soon. Recognizing that you may not want to get too negative too early, what sets you apart or what makes you unique as a challenger to Nelson?
BRUNING: Don’s a fine person, but Don has run for this three times and been unsuccessful each time. In fact, in 2000, he was the nominee against Ben Nelson in a reasonably good year for Republicans. This is a very red state, and George W. Bush carried Nebraska handily in 2000. And Don Stenberg wasn’t able to win.
I think Nebraskans are generally of the belief that it is time to take a different path to beating Senator Nelson, and I don’t think Don Stenberg is going to be that choice.
The polling we’ve seen showed me ahead, 47 percent to 19 percent. Our internal polling has seen at least that much. I think Nebraskans are ready for someone who has a different type of energy and who can pursue this race in a different fashion.
NRO: Perhaps typical for Politico, they’ve posted excerpts of writings from your law school days, close to 20 years ago, and declared that in law school you were a liberal. I can see somebody trying to make an issue of this, so what’s your response when someone says, “Hey, look at what he wrote in law school”?
BRUNING: Nebraskans know me as a conservative officeholder. I was in the legislature for six years. I’ve been attorney general for now more than eight years. I was first elected in 1996. I have a long history as a conservative. Nebraskans understand that. This race is going to be about Sen. Ben Nelson and his big-government, big-spending, national-debt-creating plan for America. I’m very comfortable with my record as a conservative over the past 15-plus years, having been endorsed by the NRA, Nebraska Right to Life, the state Chamber of Commerce, and taxpayer groups across the state. What I think Nebraskans want to talk about is whether Senator Nelson should be rehired for another term.
NRO: Your career spans almost two decades, so you have a lot of moments to choose from, but was there a key event in your transition from a liberal to a conservative?
BRUNING: They were the same ones that are common to a lot of young people. You begin to pay your first taxes and you wonder who FICA is and why he’s taking such a big chunk out of your paycheck. You fall in love and get married. All of those things happened for me about the same time. And when you start to think about the future of your family and wonder where your tax dollars are going and how they’re being spent, that can make a conservative out of you pretty quickly.
I always hearken back to the old Churchill quote, “If you’re not a liberal at 20, you have no heart; if you’re not a conservative at 40, you have no brain.” I think that applies to a lot of us. There are certainly a number people who are fortunate enough to have their parents help pay for college, and they don’t think too much about where the money comes from and where it goes. I was one of those young people. Once my parents kicked me from the nest . . . a little personal responsibility will cause you to look at things in a different light very quickly.
NRO: Last cycle, there were several incumbent Senate Democrats who looked really vulnerable, not just in the early polling but almost throughout the cycle, and they ended up surviving and in fact winning pretty handily. I’m thinking of Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer in particular. Right now, it looks like Nelson is polling badly, but are there lessons to be learned from last cycle? Is it possible Nelson is less vulnerable than he looks?
BRUNING: Incumbents are never to be taken lightly, and I will not take Senator Nelson lightly. But I would tell you that the demographics in Nevada and California are very different than they are here. Of the 33 Senate seats up for election in 2012, 23 are held by Democrats and ten by Republicans. Of the 23 Democrats, Ben Nelson is the one whose state had the lowest percentage vote for President Obama in the 2008 presidential election. So the demographics here are tough for Senator Nelson, tougher than for any of his colleagues.
Second, the Cornhusker Kickback has created an image for him that I don’t think he can shake. His unfavorables are over 50, his reelect score is far less than 50. Senator Nelson is very much a known quantity in this state, and Nebraskans have had enough of him. They’re tired of his duplicitous words and actions. The health-care vote was kind of the last straw.
Harry Reid did not have one seminal vote. They always knew Harry Reid was a liberal; he was the majority leader in the Senate. Nevadans weren’t surprised by what Sharron Angle said about him. Nebraskans now have been surprised by Senator Nelson’s vote, and I don’t think they’re going to forgive him for it.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.