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Ben Nelson

Ben Nelson

American politician
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro American politician
Countries United States of America
Occupations Politician Lawyer
Gender male
Birth 17 May 1941 (McCook, Red Willow County, Nebraska, U.S.A.)
Politics Democratic Party
Education University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Ben Nelson
The details

Earl Benjamin "Ben" Nelson (born May 17, 1941) is an American politician and member of the Democratic Party who served as the 37th Governor of Nebraska from 1991 to 1999, and as a United States Senator from Nebraska from 2001 to 2013.

Nelson was an insurance executive before he entered politics. His first run for office was in 1990, when he narrowly defeated incumbent Republican Governor Kay A. Orr. He was re-elected by a landslide in 1994. He ran for an open U.S. Senate seat in 1996, losing in an upset to Republican Chuck Hagel. He was elected to Nebraska's other Senate seat in 2000 and was re-elected in 2006. He did not run for a third term in 2012 and left the Senate in 2013.

Nelson was one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate, frequently voting against his party.

Early life and education

Earl Benjamin Nelson was born on May 17, 1941 in McCook, in southwestern Nebraska. He is the only child of Birdella Ruby (née Henderson) and Benjamin Earl Nelson. He attended local public schools. He earned a B.A. in 1963, an M.A. in 1965, and a J.D. in 1970 from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


Early career

After graduating from law school, Nelson landed a job as assistant general counsel for Central National Insurance Group of Omaha. After several years in the business, in 1975, he was appointed by the governor as state insurance director. After the administration changed, he returned to work for Central National Insurance as an executive vice president and eventually president. Nelson made most of his career earnings and made his early reputation from work in the insurance industry.

Political career

Nelson became more involved in state politics, joining the Democratic Party. In 1986, Nelson served as state chairman of Democrat Helen Boosalis's gubernatorial campaign. She was mayor of Lincoln, Nebraska. Boosalis was defeated by state treasurer Republican Kay Orr, who captured 53% of the vote to Boosalis' 47%.

Governor of Nebraska

He ran for his first electoral office in 1990, gaining election as governor of Nebraska. In the 1990 Nebraska gubernatorial election, Nelson defeated first-term Republican incumbent Kay A. Orr by a margin of 4,030 votes out of over 586,000 votes cast. 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 tenure, Nelson cut spending from the previous administration by 64%, when it was forecast 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. He also cut taxes for over 400,000 middle income families in Nebraska.

As governor, Nelson took some conservative stances on issues in right-leaning Nebraska. He pushed welfare reform before it was done at a national level and opposed President Bill Clinton's efforts on health care.

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 lawsuit that Nebraska settled for $145 million.

Nelson ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1996 when fellow Democrat Jim Exon retired. He was defeated by Republican businessman and Vietnam veteran Chuck Hagel in one of the political upsets of 1996.

In 1998, Nelson was ineligible to run for re-election because of Nebraska's term-limits law. He was succeeded as governor by Mike Johanns, the Republican mayor of Lincoln.

Election to the Senate

Senator Ben Nelson (right) with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD).

Nelson was 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.


Nelson was re-elected to the Senate in 2006.

In 2011, Nelson was named 48th of 50 in the list of The Hill, on the wealthiest members of Congress, with an estimated net worth of at least $6.6 million. He owns investment and rental properties in Nebraska, Washington, DC; and Chicago, and his wife has significant holdings of Berkshire Hathaway stock.

Post-Senate career

In January 2013, Nelson was named chief executive officer of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, an organization of state insurance regulatory agencies for the United States and several of its territories. The body establishes standards and coordinates regulatory oversight for the state agencies. He left the association and returned to his private law practice in January 2016.

Committee assignments and caucus memberships

Committee assignments

  • Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry
    • Subcommittee on Rural Revitalization, Conservation, Forestry and Credit
    • Subcommittee on Energy, Science and Technology
    • Subcommittee on Domestic and Foreign Marketing, Inspection, and Plant and Animal Health
  • Committee on Appropriations
    • Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies
    • Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government
    • Subcommittee on Homeland Security
    • Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies
    • Subcommittee on Legislative Branch (Chairman)
    • Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Senators Ben Nelson and Jim Webb prior to a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the START Treaty.
  • Committee on Armed Services
    • Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities
    • Subcommittee on Personnel
    • Subcommittee on Strategic Forces (Chairman)
  • Committee on Rules and Administration

Caucus memberships

  • International Conservation Caucus
  • Senate Air Force Caucus
  • Space Power Caucus
  • Sportsmen's Caucus

Political positions and votes


Nelson describes himself as "pro-life". In the 2006 election, he was endorsed by Nebraska Right to Life and Nebraskans United for Life. Nelson expressed strong support for the Stupak-Pitts Amendment to the House of Representatives' 2009 Affordable Health Care for America Act, which placed limits on taxpayer-funded abortions. However, he lost the support of Nebraska Right to Life after he voted in favor of the Senate's version of health-care legislation, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which did not contain the Stupak language.

Judicial appointments

Nelson was the lead Democratic Senator among the "Gang of 14," a bloc of 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 Gang of 14, 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 States. 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 Washington."


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, 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 L. 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 acted on through legislation, a view long held by Nelson, was also recommended by 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 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. President George W. Bush and General David Petraeus were then required to report on the advancement of these "benchmarks".

Nelson and Collins (a Republican) 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 was one of five Democratic Senators who voted for the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001. The measure called for $1.35 trillion in tax cuts over 11 years, and for nearly $2 trillion in spending for the following fiscal year. The spending was close to that proposed by Republican President George W. Bush; the tax cuts were slightly less than the $1.6 trillion sought by Bush. 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.

In October 2009, the organization Americans for Tax Reform stated that Nelson was the only Democratic Senator who had 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 asserted, contained "billions of dollars in income tax hikes."

In July 2012, Nelson, with 18 other senators, cosponsored a bill that would allow states to collect sales taxes on interstate sales, including catalogue and Internet sales. The bill (Marketplace Fairness Act (S.1832;112th Congress), S.1832) would require any seller who sold a product or service to a consumer from another state to calculate, collect and pay to that other state the sales tax based on the tax rates of that other state. Proponents argued that the measure would redress an unfair economic advantage enjoyed by online sellers over local businesses, arising from the fact that the former were often not required to collect sales taxes from their customers. Opponents maintained that it would be unfair to require interstate merchants to collect sales taxes in jurisdictions where they had no physical presence, and thus derived no benefit from the taxes; and that the variety and complexity of state and local sales taxes would place a burden on merchants required to keep track of them in order to collect the taxes.


In July 2007, fellow Senator Tom Coburn criticized earmarks that Nelson had inserted into the 2007 defense spending bill. Coburn alleged that these 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 that he 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. Coburn's motives were called into question by more than one publication, as his criticism did not include his own state delegation's earmark requests.

Health care

In late 2009, the Senate's 40 Republicans unanimously opposed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the Senate's version of health-care legislation. To end a Republican filibuster and pass the measure, the Democrats needed the votes of all 58 of their senators, plus those of two independents who caucused with their party. Nelson was the 60th and last senator to agree to vote for cloture.

According to Nelson, he wanted to ensure that the final version of the law prohibited the use of public funds to pay for abortions. His cloture vote came after the measure was amended to permit states to opt out of allowing insurance exchange plans to provide abortion coverage. Persons enrolling in plans that covered abortion costs would pay for that coverage separately from their payment for the rest of the plan. The bill also provided full and permanent federal reimbursement for the expenses that Nebraska would incur in its mandated expansion of Medicaid eligibility, an amount estimated by the Congressional Budget Office at $100 million.

The health-care measure was controversial, and Nelson's vote provoked a strong response. The Medicaid reimbursement scheme was derided by the measure's opponents as the "Cornhusker Kickback". Among those denouncing the provision was Dave Heineman, Nebraska's Republican governor. To these criticisms, Nelson responded that he had been attempting to eliminate an unfunded federal mandate upon the states, and that the Nebraska item was a "placeholder", intended from the start to be replaced by a revision that would provide reimbursement for the increased Medicaid costs of all states.

Pro-life organizations also responded negatively to Nelson's vote. Nebraska Right to Life decried the anti-abortion language in the health-care bill as "bogus", and in April 2010 declared that they would never again give their endorsement to Nelson.

Nelson's popularity fell among Nebraskans in the wake of his cloture vote. A December 2009 Rasmussen poll indicated that in a hypothetical Nelson–Heineman race, the Republican would get 61% of the vote to Nelson's 30%. In the same poll, 64% of the Nebraska voters surveyed were opposed to the health-care bill.

With the victory of Republican Scott Brown in the special election to fill the Senate seat vacated by the death of Senator Edward Kennedy, the Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority. Since Brown had declared himself opposed to the health-care measure, the party's leadership opted to enact the legislation through the budget reconciliation process. Nelson voted against the final version of the legislation, the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010. His vote at this stage was not particularly critical, since the reconciliation bill was not subject to filibuster and required only a simple majority.

The measure as ultimately passed eliminated the special Medicaid reimbursement for Nebraska, as Nelson had requested in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid about a month after his crucial cloture vote. Nelson stated that his opposition to the final measure arose from newly added provisions related to student loans, which would adversely affect Nebraska-based student-lending firm Nelnet. Despite his vote against it, he subsequently defended the law, declaring "I am willing to fight to improve it, but not to repeal it."

Other votes

Nelson's votes in the Senate often placed him at odds with the leadership of his party. A National Journal congressional vote rating from 2006 placed him 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). A similar 2007 National Journal congressional vote rating went even further, placing him to the right of eight Senate Republicans (the above five as well as Richard Lugar, Norm Coleman, and Mike DeWine), with Landrieu once again placing to the right of Chafee and being the only other Democrat to place to the right of any Republicans. For 2012, the American Conservative Union rated his overall performance at 48 percent, the highest given to any Democratic senator.

Nelson was one of only two Democratic senators to vote against the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. He 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 Refuge. He has also opposed President Bush's plan to send an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq. 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 April 26, 2010, Nelson was one of two Democratic senators in attendance to vote against the motion to move a financial regulations bill forward, siding with Senate Republicans. The other was Harry Reid, who voted against his own proposed bill out of procedure.

On August 5, 2010, Nelson was the only Democrat to vote against Elena Kagan for confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On December 18, 2010, Nelson voted in favor of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010.

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 Association, Nebraska Right to Life (National Right to Life's state affiliate), Nebraskans United for Life, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, 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. 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 13 counties in the western part of the state, a surprising feat in normally heavily Republican Nebraska.

Electoral history

Nebraska U.S. Senate Election 2000

Nebraska U.S. Senate Election 1996
Party Candidate Votes % ±
Republican Chuck Hagel 379,933 56.14% +15.21%
Democratic Ben Nelson 281,904 41.65% -17.25%
Libertarian John DeCamp 9,483 1.40%
Natural Law Bill Dunn 4,806 0.71%
Write-ins 663 0.10%
Party Candidate Votes % ±
Democratic Ben Nelson 330,366 50.9
Republican Don Stenberg 318,368 49.1
Nebraska U.S. Senate Election 2006
Party Candidate Votes % ±
Democratic Ben Nelson (Incumbent) 377,907 63.9 +12.9
Republican Pete Ricketts 213,054 36.1
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