When Bob Kerrey finished his second term in the U.S. Senate as a Democrat from Nebraska, the federal budget was running at a surplus for a fourth straight year, Barack Obama was an Illinois state senator, and Facebook and Twitter had not yet entered the American lexicon.
That was 2001 — and what a difference 11 years can make. Today, as Kerrey attempts to make the comeback of his political career, he faces a new reality: social media has become an integral part of any campaign, politicians must contend with a 24-hour news cycle, and, above all, the landscape in Nebraska has shifted, transforming into a state where the governor, the junior senator, and 48 percent of voters are now Republicans.
Yet the 68-year-old, who served as president of The New School from 2001 to 2011, is now determined to return to Washington despite poor polling numbers and doubts that he can beat a Republican opponent. It’s his first political campaign since 1994, and one that many see as a quixotic and impractical quest. Still, with 23 of the Senate’s 53 Democrats up for re-election, the national party considers Kerrey as its old reliable — a witty and experienced liberal who can recapture his seat in Nebraska.
“There is a serious lack in independent leadership in Washington right now,” Kerrey told the Free Press. “I have the record, the stories, and the wonderful relationships I’ve built there over the years to back me up.”
The former Navy SEAL and Vietnam veteran, once known for his very public dalliance with actress Debra Winger, served one term as the state’s governor before his two terms as a U.S. senator. Even as late as 2000, he ranked among the party’s favored candidates for the White House.
On February 29, after repeatedly saying that he was not interested in the position, Kerrey announced that he would run for the Nebraska senate seat to be vacated by Senator Ben Nelson. Nelson, a two-term Democrat, announced his retirement on December 27, 2011.
The Kerrey campaign faces challenges on all fronts. His polling numbers are especially low — on March 27, Public Policy Polling published a survey that had Kerrey trailing his three potential general election opponents. Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, considered the Republican primary frontrunner, led Kerrey by roughly 17 percentage points, while state treasurer Don Stenberg and state senator Deb Fischer led Kerrey by about 14 and 10 points, respectively.
“Kerrey has a very slim chance to win,” said Michael Wagner, assistant professor of political science at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in an interview with the Free Press. “If they ran the race 10 times, he might win once.”
The campaign also lacks a permanent headquarters. A volunteer at the Nebraskans for Kerrey office in Omaha explained that the current office is only temporary. The campaign intends to find a physical office location and hire more than its current handful of staffers, although neither has been done as of yet. Campaign officials have cited a struggle to find footing after an abrupt entrance into the race, and Kerrey backers concede that gaining a prominent presence on the social media horizon will also not be easy.
“Sites like Twitter and Facebook weren’t around in my previous runs,” Kerrey said. “But adapting to change has always been a part of my campaign strategy. Up until the final moments of November 6, my team and I will make the most modernized effort possible.”
Although Kerrey has almost 1,200 Twitter followers and has received over 1,200 “likes” on Facebook, he continues to trail behind two of his Republican opponents. As of March 23, Bruning leads Kerrey with roughly 1,800 Twitter followers and 23,000 Facebook endorsements, while Stenberg has approximately 1,600 Twitter followers and 2,300 “likes.” Fischer is the only major Nebraska senate hopeful with less Twitter and Facebook presence than Kerrey.
Before announcing his withdrawal, Nelson, who had also previously served as the state’s governor from 1991 to 1999, was widely considered one of the Senate’s least likely Democratic incumbents to win re-election. For Senate Democrats, Kerrey is the party’s best chance of retaining ground in the Cornhusker State. He began a $104,000 advertising campaign in mid-March, telling Nebraskans that “America needs to step up its game” and “It’s good to be back.”
“Bob has always been a leader in this state,” said Nebraska Democratic Party spokesman Chris Triebsch. “Now that the situation is right, people are happy to see him back on the ballot.”
Since accepting The New School position in 2001, Kerrey has lived in New York with his wife, former “Saturday Night Live” writer Sarah Paley, and their 11-year-old son Henry. He also briefly flirted with a 2005 New York City mayoral run, telling friends and colleagues, “This is now my city.”
Nebraska Republicans insist that his time on the East Coast has turned him into a carpetbagger who is insensitive to state-based issues and job opportunities.
“New York already has two liberal U.S. Senators,” said Stenberg. “Bob Kerrey would be their third.”
In 2010, the Motion Picture Association of America offered Kerrey the role of chief executive officer. But when the association board and the former senator could not establish a mutual agreement, both parties split ways, and former Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd accepted the position later that year.
“The man’s ego is bigger than the entire state of Nebraska,” said Mark Fahleson, chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party. “Voters are just tired of him. When you’ve been away from Nebraska this long, it is very easy to lose track of how voters here feel.”
Even while at The New School, Kerrey remained involved in national politics. He served as a member on the 9/11 Commission and is currently a co-chairman of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan effort against national deficit spending. He has also donated over $50,000 to Democratic campaigns nationwide, including those for Hillary Clinton, Al Franken and Barack Obama. He has also served as an advocate for greenhouse gas cap-and-trade and single-payer government health care.
But some progressives argue that there is little room for moderates like Kerrey in Washington. During his time in the Senate, he supported NAFTA and partial deregulation on Wall Street. And in a September 2002 *Wall Street Journal* editorial, Kerrey wrote that a military-led invasion of Iraq and an overhaul of Saddam Hussein’s government “is the only way we can safely reduce our military commitment to the region.”
“Since leaving Nebraska, he has supported cutting Social Security benefits, raising the retirement age, and lowering corporate tax rates,” said Progressive Change Campaign Committee co-founder Adam Green. “Kerrey will clearly not be a priority for those looking to support populist candidates in 2012.”
Amy Brown, senior vice president at Internet marketing firm Harris Media, believes that Kerrey can still build up his base through social media campaigning.
“To today’s voters, a response on Twitter is like a handshake or an autograph,” Brown, who also advised Florida Governor Rick Scott’s 2010 campaign, told the Free Press. “If today’s politicians overlook social media engagement channels, from Twitter town halls to Google Plus hangouts, they risk not mixing well at the polls.”
Kerrey has once again appointed longtime campaign advisor Harrison Hickman to assist with his campaign. Hickman previously consulted Kerrey during his campaigns for governor in 1982, for president in 1992, and for senator in 1988 and 1994.
“People often get in trouble when they start late campaigns, but focusing on a mission has never been a problem for Bob,” Hickman said. “In this age where names are everything, he has real stories and results in the state that speak to voters.”
The fact that Kerrey arrived back in Nebraska amid a press scandal has not helped, however. His opponents have claimed an alleged zoning violation at the Omaha residence of real estate developer Jay Noddle, a Kerrey friend and political supporter. Although Kerrey had registered a guesthouse on Noddle’s property as his official Nebraska residence, the property, according to political blog LeavenworthSt.com, is zoned “R-1,” for a residential, one-family occupant.
But Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale has since declared that Kerrey’s residency, and his candidacy as a whole, is legitimate.
“Republican leaders have unfortunately, but predictably, opted to take another senseless step to undermine the fair election process,” said Kerrey campaign manager Paul Johnson in a statement. “It is an attempt to win by robbery what they would otherwise lose in an election. In the end, they will fail.”
Kerrey now approaches the Democratic primary unopposed. Party sources tell the Free Press that, heading into November’s general election, over $50 million will be spent on the Nebraska senate campaign. If these estimates prove true, it could become one of the most heavily funded campaigns in U.S. Senate history.
“I have a lot of great friends in Washington,” Kerrey said. “Not to say I don’t think I am currently the underdog in this race; right now, I am. But I know there is plenty of time ahead.”
Reporting by Henry Miller and Nick Gardner