LINCOLN, Neb. — Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska said Tuesday he will retire rather than seek a third term next year, dealing a significant setback to Democratic efforts to maintain control of the chamber.
The 70-year-old conservative Democrat, whose seat is being heavily targeted by Republicans in 2012, said in a statement that "while I relish the opportunity to undertake the work that lies ahead, I also feel it's time for me to step away from elective office, spend more time with my family, and look for new ways to serve our state and nation."
Nelson is the seventh member of the Democratic caucus to decide to retire from the Senate after the current term.
Republicans, who need to net four seats to take back the Senate next year, say Nebraska has tilted further to the right in recent years and have made Nelson's seat a 2012 priority. Nelson is the lone Democrat among the state's five-member congressional delegation, and Republicans think his vote for President Barack Obama's signature health care legislation would have weighed him down.
Nelson still could have given Democrats a fighting chance. A two-term governor before winning a Senate seat, he has shown an ability to rebound after being down in previous statewide races.
But he's recently expressed dismay about a divided Congress' inability to pass meaningful legislation, frustration that echoed in the Tuesday statement in which he said public office is "about promoting the common good, not the agenda of the radical right or the radical left."
"I encourage those who will follow in my footsteps to look for common ground and to work together in bipartisan ways to do what's best for the country, not just one political party," he said.
Prominent Nebraska Democrats said they were shocked by his announcement and concerned about who they might field against the Republican nominee.
"I'm absolutely stunned," said Kathleen Fahey, a Democratic superdelegate in 2008. "Ben has been such a great senator for everybody. I'm not liking this."
The GOP candidates include Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, state Treasurer Don Stenberg, state Sen. Deb Fischer, and investment adviser Pat Flynn.
Nelson first was elected to the Senate in 2000, defeating Republican contender Stenberg to replace the retired Bob Kerrey. His centrist stance helped him get re-elected even as already-conservative Nebraska became even more dominated by Republicans.