For Bob Kerrey, the former governor of Nebraska running for his old Senate seat this fall, New York really is a hell of a town.
He's been getting hammered on the television airwaves for his ties to the Big Apple for over six months now by Republican Super PACs. They talk mostly about his moving there to become president of the New School in 2001, and how it means he's out of touch with regular Nebraskans.
"There's a tendency to talk about campaigns as if Citizens United never happened," he told Slate in an interview. "And it did happen. And that’s the dominant force in this campaign. There's no awareness of the term carpetbagger except it’s been blowing up on television."
The 2010 Supreme Court decision and subsequent lower court rulings unleashed unlimited money into politics, which means Kerrey is returning to a very different playing field. And these days, more than anything else, the former Navy SEAL, Vietnam Medal of Honor winner, and 1992 presidential candidate is frustrated that liberals are sitting out the Super PAC wars.
"Progressives don't understand power," he said. "They tend to talk more about 'How do we make life fair?' And as a consequence of being concerned about fairness, they’re not in this game. They haven't changed their behavior since Citizens United. On that playing field, they haven’t shown up -- they don’t think it's fair."
"They don’t understand power and the importance of what power does," he went on. "And Republicans do. They get it. They’ve been vigorous in trying to acquire it. It may be that progressives will wake up after this campaign, but there’s no evidence of it happening during this campaign, other than at the presidential level. [Las Vegas Casino magnate] Sheldon Adelson just made a ten million dollar commitment, ten million is more than has been tossed into the entire Majority PAC," the Democratic Super PAC that has made a pathetic attempt to compete with Karl Rove's American Crossroads group in Senate races.
Not that Kerrey is letting a little outside spending scare him.
"Life is hard. Campaigns are hard," he said. "There's a lot of excitement on the ground, and we’re gonna organize and run a good campaign. There’s a very good chance that we’ll win, in part because even people who disagree with me appreciate that I’m not ducking things like civil unions, gay marrriage, and abortion."
Kerrey is the only public official ever elected statewide in Nebraska to support abortion rights, and was one of just 14 senators to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. He backs marriage equality for same-sex couples, arguably putting him well outside the cultural mainstream in the Cornhusker state -- if also, as conservatives charge, right at home in New York.
But the same progressive streak that conservatives are sure will sink Kerrey -- the same New York ties they insist will be his downfall -- could also deliver him a major infusion of support from progressive donors as he tries to take down conservative state Senator Deb Fischer.
"He’s running against a Tea Party and Sarah Palin-backed unknown opponent who is anti-choice and who doesn’t even support civil unions," said Brian Ellner, Human Rights Campaign's senior strategist in the successful push for same sex marriage in New York last year. "If the choice community and LGBT community take notice, serious dollars should flow. I've already been contacted by a number of people who are interested in getting involved in the race. Once her reputation gets out there, you’ll see more groups and individuals weighing in."
Charles Myers, senior managing director of the investment bank Evercore Partners, has already hosted a meet-and-greet event for Kerrey at his New York home that doubled as a fundraiser, multiple sources confirmed. And while liberals are certain not to match the GOP Super PACs pummeling Kerrey, they could help make his ties to the Big City less of a lopsided negative.
"Bob’s always been an iconoclast," said Tad Devine, a Democratic consultant who worked closely with Kerrey on his presidential run and thinks the former governor's ties to New York will prove a wash in the end.
"He was away from the state when he was at war in Vietnam too," Devine said. "I think right now, where the country is today, 20 years later, it’s actually a much better and more hospitable environment for him politically than it was in 1992 when he was running for president. Because what everybody agrees right now: everybody is sick of the way the political system is functioning. If Kerrey can present himself as the completely anti establishment candidate," he could benefit.
While some liberals will surely scoff at the idea that Kerrey, a two-term senator who has already jumped to the forefront of the bipartisan Beltway frenzy to reform entitlement programs, represents an anti-establishment voice, many respect his willingness to take risky stands and let the chips fall where they may.
"He was elected to the U.S. Senate at a time when he opposed the constitutional amendment against flag burning," said Devine. He has also expressed support for marijuana decriminalization.
Kerrey says that as long as outside groups are slamming him on the air, he represents a threat to the GOP.
"The bad news that American Crossroads is on the air is good news," he said. "They think I’m dangerous."