03/28/2008 02:45 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

In Nebraska, A Republican Is Pulled Into Dem Primary

The battle over which Democratic candidate is best served to run for Chuck Hagel's soon-to-be vacant Nebraska Senate seat remains unresolved and is threatening to cause a major rift within the party.

Over the past few weeks, the stage has been set for Nebraska businessman Anthony Raimondo to throw his name into the Democratic primary against Scott Kleeb, who launched a well-received but unsuccessful congressional bid in 2006. The winner will likely take on former Nebraska governor and Bush agriculture secretary, Mike Johanns.

The problem, however, is that up until a few months ago Raimondo was running for the Senate as a Republican. And three years before that he was the object of national Democratic ire, after his nomination to become President Bush's "manufacturing czar" was derailed amidst revelations that his company, Behlen Manufacturing, had outsourced American jobs and busted unions.

Making matters even more contentious, the man pushing Raimondo's candidacy is, according to several sources, Sen. Ben Nelson, D-NE, whose centrist stance on a number of key issues makes him a controversial figure within Democratic circles.

"Raimondo's name is being thrown around and it's something coming from Sen. Nelson's office," a Democratic official told the Huffington Post. Added another Nebraska insider, "He is very close to Nelson, they are best buds, but no one knows if he is a Republican or a Democrat."

Indeed, Nelson and Raimondo have a long and politically symbiotic relationship. Behlen Manufacturing has donated thousands to the Senator's political action committee and offered up its corporate jet on his behalf. And prior to joining the Senate, Nelson earned more than $59,000 in director's fees from the steel building company.

"Senator Nelson believes that voters in Nebraska deserve to have a choice and he is working with Democrats in Nebraska and Washington both to get a candidate that is most capable of running a competitive race," David DiMartino, the Senator's communications director, told the Huffington Post. "Nelson has had conversations with several potential candidates."

The potential of a Raimondo candidacy underscores some of the stark questions facing midwestern Democrats in 2008. Can a candidate like Kleeb, with limited name-recognition, win in a traditional red state by pushing relatively progressive social policies? Or is it better to field a well-funded candidate who could take the seat at the cost of possibly abandoning Democratic principles?

So far, the Nebraska Democrats and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee are keeping their powder dry, choosing to not comment on the race except to reassert the party's inclusiveness.

"We have a tradition of being a big tent party," Eric Fought, communications director for the Nebraska Democratic Party, told the Huffington Post. "There are some folks who have switched parties over the years. [Former Sen.] Bob Kerrey has switched. And Ed Zorinsky who was an Omaha mayor who became a Senator switched as well."

The state's progressive communities view the possibility of a Raimondo candidacy quite differently.

"[It] would be a disaster for Nebraska Democrats on every conceivable front, reducing us to a laughing-stock while depriving our state of the true dialogue it deserves," wrote Ryan Anderson of the New Nebraska Network. "What happens to our party when we start selling nominations to the highest bidder?"

Even with the Democratic resurgence in the 2006 elections, Nebraska politics remained decidedly Republican. In the 2004 presidential race, George Bush thrashed Sen. John Kerry in Nebraska taking more than 65 percent of the state's votes. In a recent survey Johanns nearly matched that margin of victory in a theoretical match-up with Kleeb, taking 59 percent of the vote (though 13 percent remained undecided).

The initial hope among state Democrats was for former Sen. Bob Kerrey -- who now heads the New School in New York -- to throw his hat into the ring to be Hagel's replacement. But Kerrey didn't take the bait. And, according to some who study the state's political scene, his absence has left a gaping void the Democratic Party simply cannot fill.

"The Democrats are in trouble," Professor John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska, told the Huffington Post. "I don't think it matters a whole lot who they nominate. I think Raimondo will lose and Kleeb will lose. Whether it's better to lose with one of your own or someone not exactly that, I don't know."