Democrats on Tuesday lamented Sen. Ben Nelson's decision to retire rather than seek a third term in Nebraska, fearing the move sets up Republicans for an easy and crucial victory in their effort to reclaim control of the Senate next year.
Nelson, the lone Democrat in Nebraska's five-member congressional delegation, faced a tough re-election campaign against a large group of Republican challengers who have spent the past several months attacking his support for President Obama's health care overhaul and federal stimulus legislation.
Republicans need to win four more seats to take back the Senate in 2012, and Nebraska looks to be an easy pickup, with no Democrats in line to take Nelson's place in the increasingly conservative state. He joins several other Democrats to retire from the Senate, including Virginia's Jim Webb and North Dakota's Kent Conrad.
After months of speculation that he would leave office, the 70-year-old conservative Democrat told supporters in an emailed statement he felt it was time he "step away from elective office, spend more time with my family, and look for new ways to serve our state and nation."
Democrats banking on Nelson's ability to leverage his centrist stances and capture statewide races were left scrambling; many state activists acknowledged being taken by surprise.
While some floated the names of State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha and Nelson's former lieutenant governor, Kim Robak, as possible contenders, many said it was too early to know who might run.
"This virtually guarantees a Republican victory in 2012," said University of Nebraska Lincoln political scientist Mike Wagner. "There's almost no scenario in which a Democrat can win -- especially at this late stage."
A dream candidate for Democrats would be former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey. Traveling in India on Tuesday, Kerrey told the Washington Post, "Ben's retirement is a huge loss for Nebraska. I am very sad he's leaving. That is as far as I am going [right now]."
Democrats acknowledged the party will face a steep uphill battle to hold on to Nelson's seat but pointed to a crowded GOP primary field with no obvious front-runner.
The Senate's Democratic campaign chairman, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, said she expected that Republicans would "have their hands full with a very divisive primary in the state, which will provide an opportunity for Democrats to remain competitive."