OMAHA, Neb. — Former Sen. Bob Kerrey on Tuesday rejected a comeback run for Senate, dashing Democrats' hopes of holding a coveted Nebraska seat and leaving the party to scramble for a race all but guaranteed to go Republicans' way.
Many saw Kerrey, a 1992 presidential candidate and former governor, as Nebraska Democrats' only chance to avoid delivering Republicans one of four seats they must net in November to take control of the Senate.
Kerrey kept Democrats on hold for more than a month while contemplating whether to seek the seat being vacated at the end of the year by Ben Nelson, the lone remaining Democrat in the state congressional delegation.
"I have given the decision of becoming a candidate for the U.S. Senate very serious thought and prayer," Kerrey said in an email announcing his decision. "To those who urged me to do so, I am sorry, very sorry to have disappointed you. I hope you understand that I have chosen what I believe is best for my family and me."
He also said he was "very sorry to have disappointed" those who urged him to run, but later rejected the assertion that his decision essentially ceded the seat to the GOP in the increasingly conservative state.
"Do the odds favor whoever wins the Republican primary winning the general election? The answer is yes. The numbers show that. Does that mean that absolutely that they're going to win? No," Kerry said in a telephone interview from his office in New York City.
Democratic strategist Doug Schoen, who worked for President Bill Clinton, flatly disagreed.
"I think the seat is lost," he said.
That Democrats' best hope was Kerrey, who left the Senate and the state more than a decade ago, reflects the lack of depth on the state's Democratic bench. The party now must find someone to run as little more than a placeholder at the top of the ticket. And the filing deadline for anyone already holding an elected office is next Wednesday.
"There are a lot of things we will be looking at in a very compressed period of time," said Democratic Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, who has expressed interest in the seat. "I think there are always challenges, even when you have two years to run for office."
Democrats already have lost one touted prospect in Kim Robak, who served as lieutenant governor under Nelson in the 1990s. Robak, now a lawyer and lobbyist in Lincoln, said she doesn't feel she would have enough time to raise the money for an effective campaign.
"There is the potential for somebody who wants to spend the time and energy – who is able to spend the time and energy," Robak said.
University of Nebraska Regent Chuck Hassebrook also said he is interested in running. Three others have filed for the Democratic primary, but none have held public office and only one has reported having any money on hand for a campaign.
Conservative groups already had been running anti-Kerrey ads in anticipation of a run, but Republicans now will be able to focus on a slew of other states – including Missouri, Wisconsin, Ohio and Virginia – where they believe they have a good shot at turning Democratically held seats.
"Kerrey's decision to stay in New York is a blow to the Democrats' hopes of holding their Senate majority and reiterates why we believe Nebraskans will elect a fiscally-responsible, conservative Republican senator next fall," the National Republican Senatorial Committee said in a statement.
The GOP's Senate primary ticket in Nebraska already is crowded. It includes state Attorney General Jon Bruning, state Treasurer Don Stenberg, state Sen. Deb Fischer, and investment adviser Pat Flynn. A fifth candidate, Steven Zimmerman, has filed for candidacy, but has raised no money since joining the race last year.
But Matt Canter, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the party is not giving up on the state and implied the crowded GOP ticket could work to Democrats' advantage.
"As we have seen in the last several weeks, Republicans are at each other's throats in Nebraska," he said.
Associated Press writer Grant Schulte in Lincoln contributed to this report.