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Kerrey's waffling has party on edge

The Nebraska Democrat's decision on a re-election bid is a key to his party's attempt to gain control of the Senate.

By MARY JACOBY

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 17, 2000


WASHINGTON -- Nebraska Democrat Bob Kerrey is the Hamlet of politics, with his penchant for public soul-searching over difficult decisions. Now once again, his private torment is center stage as Kerrey weighs whether to leave Congress -- and dash Democrats' hopes for winning control of the Senate.

The 56-year-old Democrat could announce as early as today whether he will run for re-election this fall or leave the Senate after 12 years, perhaps to become president of the New School University in New York.

In the Cornhusker State, Kerrey is venerated for his service in Vietnam, where he lost part of his right leg and earned a Medal of Honor. While he was governor in the 1980s, a romance with actor Debra Winger added glamor to his image.

An outspoken critic of budget excess in Washington, Kerrey is considered a shoo-in for a third term. But if he decides not to run, GOP-leaning Nebraska will almost certainly elect a Republican in his place.

If Kerrey does not run, "it makes it very, very difficult for us to win the Senate," said Jim Jordan, political director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "We'll have to catch some breaks."

While Republicans are holding onto the House of Representatives by their fingernails, the Senate had been considered safe in GOP hands.

But in recent months, poll numbers in individual races have indicated that Democrats are within reach of a Senate majority. The party lost control of both the House and the Senate in 1994's "Republican revolution."

In the House, Democrats have a strong chance of winning control this fall. Republicans govern that chamber with a slim five-vote majority.

The partisan balance in the Senate is more comfortable for Republicans, who have 55 members to the Democrats' 45.

To control the Senate, the Democrats need to add five or six seats: five if they also win the White House, because the vice president presides over the Senate and can vote to break ties, and six if they lose the presidency to the Republicans.

With only 14 Democrats running for re-election versus 19 Republican incumbents, the GOP starts the election season at a disadvantage.

Even worse for the GOP, Democrats are fielding strong candidates against weak Republican incumbents in Michigan, Delaware, Missouri and Minnesota. Republican incumbents in Washington state, Montana, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Rhode Island are also vulnerable. The only Democratic incumbent considered vulnerable is Virginia's Charles Robb.

Democrats, meanwhile, are believed to have the edge in two of four open-seat races in which the incumbent is retiring.

In Florida, popular state Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson is unopposed for the Democratic nomination to succeed departing Republican Connie Mack. The GOP, by contrast, has a potentially bloody primary battle on its hands between state Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher and Rep. Bill McCollum of Altamonte Springs.

Democrats are also favored to retain an open seat in New Jersey. And they can be expected to put up strong fights for seats being vacated by Democrats in Nevada and New York, where first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is gearing up to run against Republican New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

But when Democrats work out the numbers, they still find victory a tall order. They'd need to win three open seats and knock off five Republican incumbents, assuming the Virginia seat goes Republican.

"I think it's likely the Republicans will keep the majority, but they (races) could break in such a way that Democrats could tie in the Senate," said Andrew Woods, a Washington lawyer with long roots in Florida GOP politics and close ties to Mack.

For that reason, it's all the more frustrating for Democrats to watch Kerrey waffle over re-election. It wouldn't be the first time he was considered to hold the fate of the party in his hands.

Most famously, Kerrey in 1993 held out as the last undecided vote on the fledgling Clinton administration's make-or-break budget plan. The tax-raising package had barely passed the House and was tied in the Senate. It was considered the cornerstone of Clinton's plan to spur the economy by reducing the federal budget deficit and drive down interest rates.

Kerrey, who unsuccessfully challenged Clinton for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination, was now in a position to "cripple his presidency with a single vote," former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos recalled in his memoirs.

After two days of vacillating in the press, Kerrey finally and dramatically voted yes. His price was appointment as chairman of a new presidential commission on budget discipline.

Many Democrats consider Kerrey to be a grandstander who uses his indecision on key issues to grab the spotlight. Congressional analyst Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute disagrees.

"I do not think that Bob Kerrey consciously puts himself out into the spotlight so he gets more attention. What I do think happens is that he more than others sees nuances, shades of gray," Ornstein said. "He doesn't just seize a decision and go forward with it. He also very much has this inclination to muse publicly and very openly with his friends and others."

Although Kerrey has acknowledged he is considering dropping his re-election plans, a spokeswoman for the senator said his hand was forced when reporters caught wind of his discussions with the New School University.

Democrats, meantime, are holding their breath over his re-election decision. "If you do the math, you'll see we really need his seat," the party's Jordan said.

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