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Earl Benjamin "Ben" Nelson (born May 17, 1941) is the Senior U.S. Senator from Nebraskamarker, where he was born and has lived for most of his life. Nelson is a Methodist. A Democrat, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000, and is now one of the leading conservative Democrats in the Senate. An April 2006 poll by Survey USA found him to be the Senator with the highest popularity rating, 73%, among his own constituents. In its most recent poll, his approval rating was 68%.

Early life and family

Nelson was born in McCook, a rural southwestern town in Nebraska to Birdella Ruby Henderson and Benjamin Earl Nelson. He earned a B.A. in 1963, a M.A. in 1965, a J.D. in 1970 from the University of Nebraska-Lincolnmarker.

Early Career

Nelson made his name and money in the insurance industry. After graduating from law school, Nelson landed a job as assistant general counsel for Central National Insurance Group of Omaha. In 1975, he became state insurance director before going back to work for Central National Insurance as an executive vice president and eventually president. He won his first elected office in 1990 when he became governor of Nebraska.

Political career


Nelson was elected governor in the state's fourth-closest gubernatorial race in history (he won the closely contested Democratic nomination by only 2 votes) in 1990. He was easily re-elected in 1994 with 74% of the vote – the largest margin of victory for a governor in half a century. During his first race for governor, Nelson ran against incumbent Kay A. Orr, the first Republican woman to serve as Governor in United States history.

In 1991, Nelson's plan as Governor was to bridge the gaps between rural and urban areas – a "One Nebraska" – and create a "more efficient and effective state government." He did this by focusing on the assets and values of the state. In 1997, Nebraska produced 300 million gallons of ethanol, more than triple the 1990 production.

During his tenure, Nelson cut spending from the previous administration by 64% while it was scheduled to rise by 13%. He introduced legislation to cut crime through the Safe Streets Act and Juvenile Crime Bill, advocated for low-income families through the Kids Connection health care system, and enacted welfare reforms that helped welfare recipients get the support needed to return to work. He also cut taxes for over 400,000 middle income families in Nebraska.

As governor, Nelson took frequent conservative stances on issues in right-leaning Nebraska. He was the first governor in 35 years to execute someone. He pushed welfare reform before it was done at a national level. And he opposed President Bill Clinton's efforts on health care reform.

During the 1990 campaign, Nelson attacked Orr's support for a proposed low-level nuclear waste dump in the state. During his tenure, the Nebraska State Department of Environmental Quality denied the dump's application for an operating license, prompting a law-suit that Nebraska settled for $145 million.

While in office, Nelson oversaw the only three executions in the state of Nebraska since the lifting of the moratorium in 1973. Nebraska's Governor has no exclusive power to commute the death sentence and just sits on the Board of Clemency.

Nelson ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1996 when fellow Democrat Jim Exon retired. He was soundly defeated by Republican businessman and Vietnam veteran Chuck Hagel in one of the noteworthy political upsets of 1996. Nelson left the governor's office in January 1999 after two terms (he was ineligible to run again because of term limits). He was succeeded by Republican Mike Johanns. In 2009, Johanns joined Nelson in the Senate. When he left office, the state had a General Fund surplus balance of almost $300 million and a rainy day fund of $145 million. Nelson cut the sales tax and income tax and cut $157 million in spending. He also was able to pass eight balanced budgets without resorting to special sessions .

Election to the Senate

Nelson was again nominated by the Democrats for the Senate in the 2000 election after his fellow Democrat, incumbent Bob Kerrey, announced his retirement. His opponent was Attorney General Don Stenberg. Nelson won that election with 50.99% of the vote after a campaign in which he spent 50% more ($1,004,985) than his opponent. Despite initially pledging to work together, Nelson and Hagel had a somewhat frosty relationship.

In November 2004, it was widely rumored that President George W. Bush would choose Nelson as his agriculture secretary in the cabinet. In the end, the position went to Nelson's gubernatorial successor, Mike Johanns.

Committee assignments

Political positions and votes


Nelson is one of four self-described pro-life Democrats in the Senate. Nelson is a member of the Democrats for Life of America, a national organization for pro-life members of the Democratic party that advocates a 95% reduction in the number of abortions performed over the next 10 years. In the 2006 election, Nelson was endorsed by Nebraska Right to Life and Nebraskans United for Life the two largest pro-life organizations in the state. Nelson was strongly supportive of the Stupak-Pitts Amendment, which places limits on taxpayer-funded abortions in the context of the November 2009 Affordable Health Care for America Act.

Cooperation with Republicans

Nelson was the lead Democratic Senator among 14 Senators who, on May 23, 2005, forged a compromise on the Democrats' use of the judicial filibuster, thus blocking the Republican leadership's attempt to implement the so-called "nuclear option". Under the agreement among the 14 Senators, Democrats would retain the power to filibuster one of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees only in an "extraordinary circumstance", and the three most conservative Bush appellate court nominees (Janice Rogers Brown, Priscilla Owen and William Pryor) would receive a vote by the full Senate. Subsequently, he was the only Democrat to vote in favor of Brown; he was later the first Democratic senator to support Samuel Alito's confirmation to the Supreme Court of the United Statesmarker. Nelson also voted twice, with three other Democrats, to end Senate debate over Bush's United Nations Ambassador nominee John Bolton.

In an op-ed column, Nelson wrote: "The president's nominees, especially to the Supreme Court, deserve an up-or-down vote, even if the nominee isn't popular with the special-interest groups in Washingtonmarker."

Former President Bush nicknamed Nelson "The Benator." Originally, Bush nicknamed him "Nellie," but Nelson jokingly complained that he would prefer a "tougher" nickname.


On March 15, 2007, Nelson was one of two Democratic Senators to vote against invoking cloture on a resolution aimed at withdrawing most American combat troops from Iraq in 2008. The vote, requiring 60 votes to pass, was 50 to 48 against.

As a result of traveling to Iraq four times, the latest being in September, 2007, Senator Nelson took the position that a transition of the mission was necessary in Iraq as opposed to a full withdrawal of troops. His view was supported by the Jones Commission on September 6, 2007 when General James Jones presented a report to Congress claiming that, "The circumstances of the moment may continue to present the opportunity for considering a shift in the disposition and employment of our forces... such a strategy would include placing increasing responsibilities for the internal security of the nation on the ISF, especially in urban areas. Coalition forces could be re-tasked to better ensure the territorial defense of the state by increasingly concentrating on the eastern and western borders and the active defense of the critical infrastructures essential to Iraq." The premise that stability in Iraq would only be achieved through political reconciliation, long a view of Senator Nelson acted on through legislation, was also recommended by General Jones, reporting, "The future of Iraq ... hinges on the ability of the Iraqi people and the government to begin the process of achieving national reconciliation and to ending sectarian violence."

In the spring of 2007, Senators Ben Nelson, Susan Collins of Maine, and John Warner of Virginia authored a list of measures, or "benchmarks", that were included in the Iraq Supplemental bill. These benchmarks allowed for progress to be measured in certain areas such as recognition of minority groups, strengthening of internal security forces, and equal distribution of oil revenue. The President and General Petraeus were then required to report on the advancement of these "benchmarks".

Senator Nelson and Republican Senator Collins also introduced legislation on July 11, 2007 that would transition U.S. troops out of Baghdad. The legislation called for turning over internal security efforts to Iraqi forces after which time the U.S. military would secure the borders, protect the infrastructure, and continue to search for al-Qaeda forces.


Nelson played a vital role in passing the 2001 tax cut. In 2001, Nelson was one of a handful of centrist senators that helped craft the proposal to cut taxes by $1.3 trillion that was ultimately signed into law. In addition to passing the third-largest tax cut in American history, the compromise that Nelson supported freed up more funds for special education, agriculture, and defense spending. Provisions of the tax cut included immediate tax relief, accelerated tax relief for middle-income workers and a repeal of the estate tax. He was also the deciding vote for passage of the 2003 tax cut which accelerated many of the provisions in the 2001 tax cut in addition to benefits for small businesses. As part of this tax package, Nelson teamed up with Senator Susan Collins to include fiscal relief for states suffering from the downturn in the economy. The final package included $20 billion to ensure that low-income families, children, seniors, and persons with disabilities were able to get the health and social services they needed from the state.

The conservative Americans for Tax Reform organization stated, in October 2009, that Nelson is the only Democrat Senator to have signed their Taxpayer Protection Pledge, and launched an advocacy campaign to urge him to oppose the current health care reform proposals in Congress, which they assert contain "billions of dollars in income tax hikes."


In July 2007, fellow Senator Tom Coburn criticized pork barrel spending Nelson had inserted into the 2007 defense spending bill. Coburn alleged that the earmarks would benefit Nelson's son Patrick's employer with millions in federal dollars and that the situation violated terms of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, which was passed by the Senate but has not yet been voted on in the House. Nelson's spokesperson said the Senator did nothing wrong and was only acting under "an abundance of caution" when he withdrew the amendment after the new Senate Ethics Rules were passed. Some government watchdogs, including Public Citizen, commented that the earmark probably didn't violate ethics rules. Additionally, Coburn's motives were called into question by more than one publication, as his earmark blasts fell silent about his own state delegation's earmark requests.

Federal Reserve Sunshine Act of 2009

Federal Reserve Sunshine Act of 2009 is primarily a bill to reform the manner in which the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System is audited by the Comptroller General of the United States and the manner in which such audits are reported.

On July 7, 2009 Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska raised a "point of order" to prevent a vote, claiming that the amendment violated Senate Rule 16 by "legislating" on an appropriations bill. The amendment was effectively removed from the bill although the Senate president agreed that many other GAO audits in the bill also violated Rule 16.

Other votes

Nelson's votes in the Senate have often placed him at odds with the leadership of his party. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevadamarker) has said that Nelson is probably the most conservative Democrat in the Senate. This perception is supported by a National Journal congressional vote rating from 2006, which placed Nelson to the right of five Senate Republicans (Gordon Smith, Olympia Snowe, Arlen Specter, Susan Collins, and Lincoln Chafee). Mary Landrieu was the only other Democrat to place to the right of any Republicans (she placed to the right of Chafee). [44897] A similar 2007 National Journal congressional vote rating went evenfurther, placing him to the right of eight Senate Republicans (theabove five as well as Richard Lugar, Norm Coleman, and Mike DeWine), with Landrieu once again placing to the right of Chafee andbeing the only other Democrat to place to the right of any Republicans.

Nelson was one of only two Democratic senators to vote against the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. Nelson is strongly opposed to replacing the income tax with a national sales tax, a position that finds favor with increasingly many conservatives. He has voted with Republicans on matters of bankruptcy reform, environmental protection, lawsuit reform, and trade. In 2004 he was one of only three Democratic senators to vote to invoke cloture on the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment; in 2006 he was one of only two Democratic Senators to vote that way. He was the only Democratic senator to vote against a 2006 bill that would have extended federal funding for Stem Cell Research. He has, however, voted consistently against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refugemarker. He has also opposed President Bush's plan to send an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq. [44898]. Early in Bush's first term he voted with the majority of his party against scrapping President Bill Clinton's expansive new rules on ergonomics regulation for workers; many of his fellow conservative Democrats like John Breaux, Max Baucus, Blanche Lincoln, and Zell Miller voted with Republicans on the issue.

On July 12, 2007, Nelson broke with his party in a vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee, restoring funding to Vice President Dick Cheney's office.

Stimulus plan

Nelson is currently regarded as a close Senate ally of President Obama and the key leaders of the so-called coalition with moderate Republicans to pass a bipartisan stimulus bill. TIME magazine (February 6, 2009) described him as Obama's "ambassador to the right".

Nelson and Susan Collins (R-ME) organized the complete elimination of National Science Foundation, Department of Energy Office of Science from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, along with deep cuts to science programs at NASA, NOAA, and NIST. Nelson and Collins' amendment also eliminated funding for Head Start, school improvement, and child nutrition, as well as cutting $60 billion for school construction, which represented the bulk of the cuts. In place, Nelson and Collins organized additional spending on defense operations and procurement and transportation.[44899][44900]

2006 re-election campaign

Election results by county for Nelson's 2006 reelection bid

Nelson was thought to be in danger of losing his seat in 2006, as it was thought his successor as governor, Mike Johanns, was almost certain to run against him. However, that speculation ended when Johanns was appointed U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. With Johanns' move to Washington, few high-profile Republicans stepped up to run against Nelson, as the state party focused its attention on the governor's race. The Republican nomination was won by Pete Ricketts, a former TD Ameritrade executive.

In the general election, Nelson was endorsed by the National Rifle Associationmarker, Nebraska Right to Life [44901], Nebraskans United for Life [44902], the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Businesses [44903], Nebraska Farmers Union PAC, National Farmers Union PAC, the Veterans of Foreign Wars PAC, the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, and the Omaha Police Union, all of which are conservative-leaning groups.

Nelson easily defeated Ricketts 64-36%, the highest victory margin for a Democratic Senate candidate in Nebraska since Edward Zorinsky won 66 percent of the vote in his 1982 reelection bid.[44904] In doing so, he received the votes of 42% of Republicans and 73% of Independents on top of 96% of those from his own party. He also won all but 12 counties in the western part of the state, a surprising feat in normally heavily Republican Nebraska.[44905] [44906]

2008 Presidential election

In the 2008 Democratic Party primary elections Nelson endorsed fellow senator Barack Obama.

Electoral history

  • 1996 Nebraska United States Senatorial Election
    • Chuck Hagel (R), 56%
    • Ben Nelson (D), 42%


  1. SurveyUSA - 100 US Senator Approval Ratings 05/06 Sort By Approval
  3. 1
  4. Lincoln Journal Star, "Nelson's Past Motivates Crusade for Senate Seat," Oct. 1, 2000, page 1A
  5. THE 1994 ELECTIONS: CONGRESS; Who Won Where - The Races For Governor - New York Times
  7. USDA (;
  8. State of Nebraska Annual Budgetary Reports, 1987-1998
  9. Lincoln Journal Star, Oct. 1, 2000, page 1A, "Nelson's Past Motivates Crusade for Senate Seat"
  10. Nelson, Hagel pledge to work together
  11. Home Page
  12. boardofdirectors
  13. Welcome to Nebraskans United for Life!
  14. Ben Nelson May Become the Stupak of the Senate on Abortion and Health Care
  15. - 'Have you been to Iraq?' 76 sens. say they have
  16. - Transcripts
  17. Jones Commission Report pg. 127,
  18. Jones Commission Report pg. 130,
  19. Sioux City Journal: Nelson break ranks on Democratic call for Iraq pull out
  20. Congress Adopts Budget Proposal With Big Tax Cut - New York Times
  21. Omaha World Herald, 5/16/2003, "Grassley, Nelson have helped shape tax-cut package in Senate"
  22. Radman, Adam. " Ask Sen. Ben Nelson to Keep His Taxpayer Protection Pledge on Any Health Care Votes." October 26, 2009. Accessed November 6, 2009.
  23. Omaha World Herald, 8/3/2007, "Future of Nelson earmarks unclear",
  24. Omaha World Herald editorial 8/16/2007, The Oklahoman 8/6/2007, Senator attacks 'pork'; State avoids extra trims from Coburn
  25. NATIONAL JOURNAL: 2007 Vote Ratings (03/07/2007)
  26. [1] [2]

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