Bad News for Ben Nelson?

The Cornhusker Kickback still grates on Nebraskans

A few days ago, I found myself a visitor in Lincoln, Nebraska, a city where I cut my teeth as a reporter. So with a bit of time on my hands, I decided to do some reporting there again, this time to see if the now-infamous Cornhusker Kickback was still on residents’ minds, and to get a read on Sen. Ben Nelson’s political future. I headed in the direction of Lincoln’s historic district, where the old Burlington railroad station has morphed into a banquet hall, and hipsters and seniors drink mochas in buildings that once housed saddlery shops. Plenty of people wanted to chat.

The Cornhusker Kickback still grates on Nebraskans. A refresher here: To secure Nelson’s crucial sixtieth vote to pass the health reform bill before Christmas, Senate majority leader Harry Reid bestowed a $100 million gift on Nebraskans and their Democratic senator, which would have helped the state cover its share of Medicaid costs for low-income Nebraskans.

No doubt that money would have helped the state treasury, but Nebraskans, despite their reputation for fiscal conservatism, would have none of it. The deal offended the sensibilities of the state’s residents, who apparently don’t care much for hand shakes in back rooms. The kickback made the state, which has one of the lowest mortgage default rates and where people still pay cash, look bad. Nelson has taken the heat ever since. Although Congress struck the provision from the final legislation, people were pessimistic about Nelson’s future.

“I see it as detrimental in getting him reelected,” Ed, a driver for UPS told me. “He singled out Nebraska and made people wonder what was going on under the table.” Thirty-one-year old Jeff Melichar, who was working at his family’s Phillips 66 station on P Street, put it this way: “We even had the governor of California knocking us.” Melichar, a Democrat, voted for Nelson, but he added: “This is not going to go away. Any Republican could stand on the corner and point Cornhusker Kickback and make him sound as shady as possible, and that’s it. I wish it wasn’t the case, but he damaged himself. The fact he voted ‘yes’ on the bill ended his political career in Nebraska.”

The health reform bill was not popular with people I talked to, whether they were young, old, or in-between. Nelson’s vote was “an absolute betrayal,” said seventy-two-year-old architect Robert Hanna. “He said he wouldn’t sign a bill that would increase the deficit and include illegal aliens which the bill does. Because of his action, I won’t vote for a Democrat ever again, under any circumstances.”

Hanna, a self-described independent, was so angry he couldn’t stop talking. “It’s not morally conscionable to increase the deficit and give assistance to illegal immigrants,” he said. When I told him the bill would not provide subsides for those folks, he had an answer: “They are going to try to make all those illegals now legal so they would be covered.” Hanna emphasized that the general population of the state is opposed to health reform. As for the Cornhusker Kickback—“that kickback hurt the image of Nebraska. I hear it referred to on almost any radio program.”

Jon, who wouldn’t give his last name, was cleaning the glass doors at Old Chicago, a beer and pizza joint. Although Jon, who is twenty-one, couldn’t vote the last time Ben Nelson ran for Senate, he said he would not vote for him if he ran in 2012. “I didn’t want him to vote for the health care package. I heard about Congressmen ignoring people in their districts,” he said. Why did he oppose the health bill? “Taxes might go up, and President Obama wanted to ram it through.”

Cindy, age fifty, was getting out of her vehicle when I stopped by. She, too, was eager to chat, and didn’t like the legislation one bit. Why, I asked? “It doesn’t fix the problem and will end up costing people more money. How can they pass something nobody read and is based on Massachusetts,” she wondered. “I know it’s a fairly hot topic in Massachusetts, and it is not particularly well liked up there.” I pressed her on what would fix the problem. “Tort reform,” she replied. “I don’t think you are going to fix it until you do that. Small towns can’t get doctors. In rural Nebraska there’s a doctor shortage. They can’t afford malpractice insurance.”

The Cornhusker Kickback didn’t trouble her much, and she thought that the media attack on it had spun out of control, but she is not sure if she will vote for Nelson. There are a lot of other issues that are more important, she explained, like gun control and agriculture. “He’s the most Republican Democrat we’ve had.” Cindy had a lot to say about politics and the Tea Parties. “They are fun,” she said. “Tea parties are trying to bring political parties back to the people. The Republicans left the people with Reagan, and the Democrats left the people with Truman.”

She wanted to know if I would be in town for the Tea Party rally held Tuesday. No, I said, but I would read about it in the paper. The Lincoln Journal Star did report on the event, where more than 1500 gathered along with the state’s Republican governor, Dave Heineman. The crowd cheered and waved flags and lined up to sign a letter to Nelson urging him to “find another state to call home.” The letter said the senator had “dishonored our trust” by voting for the health bill and negotiating the Cornhusker Kickback.

It so happened that when I was doing my random man-on-the-street chats, I sat down to talk to a man who quickly told me he had been Nelson’s state director during his first term. W. Don Nelson (no relation to the senator) is pretty savvy about Nebraska politics. “People are not remembering history,” he told me. “Ben is doing what he was elected to do—protect the state against unfunded mandates. That’s one of the things he decried when he was governor.” One could argue, I guess, that Medicaid is sort of an unfunded mandate because the states must pay their share of the cost.

Nelson speculated about whether his former boss would even run again. He said it was a close call in 2006 when the senator was deciding to run, and he thought it might be the same in 2012. “I think it’s totally unpredictable,” he said.

The day I was in Lincoln interviewing people, Suzy Khimm over at Mother Jones added to the speculation. She reported that the senator had confirmed to Mother Jones that he had received threats of violence. “We have experienced it. I don’t talk about it,” Nelson told the magazine. No one I talked to brought up the slightest hint of violence. But the senator’s constituents are not happy, making Nebraska a key state in assessing the political fall-out from health reform. Will Ben Nelson be one of the early casualties?

Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.