LINCOLN, Neb. — The last time Sen. Ben Nelson ran for re-election, in 2006, Democrats held four of the six Senate seats representing the 650 miles of plains from Nebraska north to the Canadian border.
If the Nebraska senator's political fortunes don't change, soon there will be just one.
As Nelson quietly prepares for his 2012 re-election campaign, he is doing so in a region that is trending away from him. As recently as 2004, the Great Plains wasn't just a place where Democrats could win – it was a power center, led by then Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. Today, the region is tilting toward the GOP.
Republicans have taken control of two Senate seats and two House seats long held by Democrats and solidified statehouse majorities. Another seat is likely to be on the way in 2012, after North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad announced he wouldn't seek re-election earlier this year. That would leave just two Democrats in the Plains: South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson, who is up for re-election in 2014, and Nelson.
Polls have shown Nelson struggling. Some have had him down as many as 10 points to prospective opponents. Even his supporters say he's in a tough spot.
"He's got some very tough votes coming up, on some really tough issues," such as the upcoming votes on debt ceiling and the federal budget, said Mike Fahey, the former mayor of Omaha and a friend of Nelson's. "He will need to try and find a balance. I think 2012 will be a real test for him."
Although the election is more than a year away, Democrats are already concerned. The party holds control of the Senate by a precarious margin, 51 to 47, with two seats held by independents. The outcome of races like Nelson's could determine whether the party stays in power or loses control of Congress to the Republicans, who already dominate the House.
Three Republican candidates have announced plans to run against Nelson. Nelson raised more than $1 million in the first quarter of 2011 and has more than $2 million cash on hand, providing a strong financial base for defending his seat. He also plans to step up his home state political appearances.
Still, voters here wonder whether Nelson, once an overwhelmingly popular, two-term governor, can survive in a place where the population is becoming steadily more conservative and more Republican. Registered Democrats have dropped from 38 percent to 33 percent just since 2008. The Republicans hold a 48 percent share.
"They're going to shovel him out," said Leslie Alsop, an unemployed Lincoln resident who is not registered with either party and says he's not sure how he will vote.
State maintenance worker Larry Simonson, a Republican who has backed Nelson in the past, said the sentiment here seems to be against "the good old boys in Washington."
"I don't think people are really happy right now," he said.
More than in most places, voters in the Plains believe that government has grown too large and that Washington is out of touch -- a disdain that touches even home state officials whose records track with local conservative views.
Nelson's backers insist he's not part of the dying breed of Plains states centrist Democrats. They prefer to think of him as a solid Nebraskan who just happens to be a Democrat. They recount his re-election as governor with 75 percent of the vote and other impressive wins dating back 20 years. His voting record is conservative, and he often votes with Republicans.
Nelson has certainly proven his appeal in the past. He won statewide election four times – twice as governor and twice as senator. But he's come under more fire in the last two years than perhaps any other time in his public life. Much of that anger has been focused on his role in passage of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul law.
Republicans note that Nelson was instrumental in getting the legislation passed and provided the critical 60th vote needed for a filibuster-proof majority. They also accused him of attempting to extract a favor for his vote, the so-called Cornhusker Kickback. That proposal, which was removed, would have provided Nebraska with federal funding to expand Medicaid that other states did not receive.
The health care furor prompted Nelson to go up with radio ads defending himself more than three years before he was up for re-election.
Republicans clearly sense an opportunity. "Right now, it appears as though he's banking on the hope that time heals all wounds," said state GOP chairman Mark Fahleson. "Unfortunately, the wound of his Cornhusker Kickback is deep. It will not be forgotten."
And a pack of ambitious challengers is banking on that, including Attorney General Jon Bruning, State Treasurer Don Stenberg and investment adviser Pat Flynn. All three have highlighted their opposition to the health care law.
In addition to his vigorous fundraising, Nelson has a campaign manager, Paul Johnson, already on the job. Johnson, who ran Nelson's last re-election campaign, said the senator would step up his already regular travel to the state. Still, Johnson said there would probably be no formal announcement until next year. Nelson declined to talk to The Associated Press about his plans.
Supporters wonder whether Nelson's reputation as a fiscal conservative will save him in what is now solidly Republican territory. Over the last two election cycles, Democratic senators like North Dakota's Conrad and Byron Dorgan, who also had conservative records, retired rather than run again. Others, such as Reps. Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota, were defeated.
So far, Nelson has managed to keep the votes of some Republicans. John Emery, who calls himself "strong Republican," and a longtime supporter, said Nelson is "not a party guy, he's a senator. He's a Nebraskan first," Emery said. "That's the way he's always voted and the way he treats people."