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Without Ben Nelson, can Democrats keep control of Senate in 2012?

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Often the lone Democrat voting with Republicans, Nelson broke party ranks to vote to extend the Bush-era tax cuts and to oppose legislation that gave some children of illegal immigrants a path to US citizenship. He joined with the so-called gang of 14 to work out a compromise over stalled judicial nominations, averting what was known at the time as the “nuclear option” to ban filibusters on judges. He’s also the lone Democrat in Nebraska’s congressional delegation.

Without Nelson’s support, Democrats could not have passed Mr. Obama’s health-care reform in 2010 – one of the president's campaign pledges. Nelson in the end gave Democrats the 60th vote they needed to block a GOP filibuster.

But that vote came at a cost. Senate majority leader Harry Reid kept the Senate in session for 25 days running, in a bid to overcome GOP stalling tactics. Senator Reid made many promises to wavering Democrats to bring them along, and he offered Nelson's home state special treatment to help pay for expanding Medicare coverage – a feature that came to be known as the “Cornhusker kickback.”  

Under fierce criticism, Nelson often explained that he had not requested special treatment. At Nelson’s urging, the provision was dropped from the final version of the bill. But the criticism stuck and stung.

Nelson is still popular in Nebraska, where previously he had been a two-term governor. But he faced a tough reelection bid from a crowded Republican field that includes state Attorney General Jon Bruning, state Treasurer Don Stenberg, and state Sen. Deb Fischer. Former US Sen. Bob Kerrey (D), who recently stepped down as president of the New School in New York, is a prospect to run in Nelson's stead, but Mr. Kerrey has yet to express interest in the job. Most recently, Kerrey was in the running to head the Motion Picture Association of America.

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