For the latest proof of the importance of money in politics, look no further than the Wednesday decision by Bob Kerrey to make a comeback bid for his old Senate seat and the excitement it is generating.
Never mind that Nebraska’s one-time Democratic governor and senator has spent the last decade living in New York City’s legendarily hip Greenwich Village. Never mind that he had to use his sister’s address to register to vote in the state where he was born. Never mind that he hasn’t been on a ballot since 1994 and will have to reintroduce himself to a new generation of Nebraskans.
He should have plenty of dough to help him do so. The one constant throughout the brainy, mercurial Kerrey’s career has been his track record as a money magnet.
Sunlight’s Influence Explorer shows that Kerrey raised nearly $10 million during the 12 years he was in the Senate. That’s on top of the $681,000 that records on file with Nebraska’s Accountability and Disclosure office show he raised for his first race, a successful 1982 campaign for governor. As chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee from 1995-96, Kerrey helped rake in another $33 million for his party.
Nor did his fundraising prowess end with his political career: The New School of Social Research, which Kerrey headed from 2001 until last year, credits him with raising more than $110 million to spark a major expansion of the Manhattan-based university. Benefactors included such bold-faced names as fashion designers Donna Karan and Diane von Furstenburg and media mogul Barry Diller. Influence Explorer also shows the New School’s sophistication in the ways of Washington: The university has spent nearly $4 million lobbying, and has been rewarded with some $22 million in federal grants and contracts.
Like former Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and current Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., before him, Kerrey is demonstrating the power of a proven fundraiser to displace the ambitions of lesser-known locals.
“I gave up my seat on the University of Nebraska Board of Regents based on his word,” Chuck Hasselbrook, a Democrat who says he entered the Senate race only after Kerrey assured him he wouldn’t, told the Christian Science Monitor.
The Nebraska race is likely to be hard-fought and expensive, and it could be key to determining whether Democrats manage to maintain control of the Senate, where they now hold a 53-47 vote edge (a margin that includes two independents, Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman, and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, who caucus with the Democrats). It’s not unheard-of in such circumstances for parties to turn to a familiar face with a proven track record of bringing in the bucks. In 2000, when Democratic leaders worried that then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani would enter the race for the seat of retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N,Y., Rep. Nita Lowey, a veteran Democrat from the New York City suburbs, had to give up her hopes of moving to the other side of the Capitol in favor of Clinton. The then-first lady ran her campaign for New York’s Senate seat from the White House. And in 2010, when the retirement of Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., opened up an opportunity for Republicans, party leaders recruited Coats, who served in the Senate during the 1990s, over a former GOP congressman and state senator who also wanted the nomination.
Kerrey, 68, is a former Navy Seal who walks — and sometimes jogs — on a prosthesis, the result of losing part of his right leg to a grenade attack in Vietnam. His his war record came under a cloud, however, in 2001 when he acknowledged participating in an attack where Vietnamese civilians, many of them women and children, were killed. First elected to the Senate in 1988, Kerrey four years later launched a campaign for president. He lost the Democratic nomination to Bill Clinton in a campaign not marked by good feelings. Kerrey famously called the future president “an unusually good liar.” Back in the Senate, where he won a second term in 1994, he was an early advocate for health care reform and Social Security reform. In 2000, he abruptly announced that he would not seek a third term and moved to New York to head the New School. In 2005, he briefly considered challenging Michael Bloomberg for New York City mayor.
The 2006 race for the seat that Kerrey is now seeking cost $20 million — a figure driven up by the personal funds poured into the race by millionaire Republican candidate Pete Ricketts. Democratic incumbent Ben Nelson won, despite being outspent nearly two-to-one — a sign that while money talks, it can only walk you so far.
(Keenan Steiner contributed reporting for this post)