Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska will announce today that he is retiring after two terms, a serious blow to Democratic efforts to hold onto their majority in the chamber next November.
Nelson is scheduled to hold a press conference back home in Nebraska as early as today to make his decision official, said several Democratic insiders close to the leadership.
Nelson was facing an exceptionally tough re-election campaign, thanks to Nebraska's red hue and his own poor ratings in the polls. The DSCC had already spent a lot of money (funneled through the Nebraska Democratic Party) on positive ads on Nelson's behalf, but conservative groups, led by Karl Rove's Crossroads, had done the same (on attack ads, of course). The Republican field, though, has proven surprisingly weak so far—so much so that GOP Gov. Dave Heineman recently started suggesting he might run. But the Democratic bench is thin as can be, so Nelson's departure makes this seem like close to an automatic pickup for Republicans.
Ordinarily, that would seem like a very tough break for Team Blue. Even though Nelson is no one's favorite Democrat, our hold on the Senate is very narrow, and every seat counts. An alternate view, though, suggests there's a silver lining to this: If you believe that Nelson really had no hope of winning another term, then a ton of resources would have been wasted on a futile attempt to save him. Now, though, if Democrats are forced to write this seat off, they won't have to throw good money after bad, according to this take. That means more money will be available to defend vulnerable Democrats who do have a chance of surviving next year—and to support candidates like Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and Shelley Berkley in Nevada who have legitimate pick-up opportunities.
I'm inclined to agree with this assessment. Triage can be a painful business, but it's often necessary. So Ben Nelson may have just done us a big favor by cutting himself off.
10:43 AM PT: Of course, if Democrats do give up on this seat, Republicans will be able to divert their resources elsewhere as well, so it cuts both ways. Still, when you're mostly on defense (as Democrats are nationally), a smaller rather than a larger playing field is usually preferable.