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Nebraska Gov: Will a Titan Be Rebuffed?

When Rep. Tom Osborne announced almost a year ago that he would challenge Gov. Dave Heineman in Nebraska's May 9 Republican primary, most political observers -- The Fix included -- assumed the legendary coach of the University of Nebraska football team would roll to a win.

Rep. Tom Osborne
Will Nebraska's Republican voters cast aside Gov. Heineman for Tom Osborne, above, the legendary-football-coach-
turned-congressman? (AP File Photo)

In fact, Senate Republicans repeatedly courted Heineman to drop out of the governor's race in favor of challenging Sen. Ben Nelson (D). He refused, reiterating his commitment to winning a full term as governor (he took over in January 2005 when then Gov. Mike Johanns was named Secretary of Agriculture by President Bush). In conversations with a variety of Republican politicos at the time, none gave Heineman a chance against Osborne, calling his bid a political kamikaze mission.

As the old cliché goes, a year is an eternity in politics. One year after he was left for dead politically, Heineman appears to have moved into a dead heat with Osborne 15 days before the primary.

A poll conducted earlier this month by Jan van Lohuizen for former Ameritrade executive Pete Ricketts (R), who is running for the Senate nomination, showed Osborne with a 44 percent to 43 percent lead over Heineman; financial adviser Dave Nabity took just six percent. Osborne's lead was well within the poll's 4.4 percent margin of error.

How has Heineman closed the gap?

Sources familiar with Heineman's strategy say a decision was made that attacking Osborne, who truly enjoys legendary status in the state, was a non-starter. So the only way to win was for Heineman to focus on accomplishing things for the state in the time he was given. If Heineman could pile up enough good news for the state, a GOP strategist argued, it would raise the question in voters' minds as to why a change needed to be made. The tagline of Heineman's television ads -- "Experience. Results. Nebraska Common Sense" -- seeks to drive that idea home.

"Nebraskans tend to reward good work," said Ashley Cradduck, deputy communications director for the governor.

Vicki Powell, campaign manager for Osborne, said the race has tightened because Heineman has been in the papers everyday "cutting ribbons and kissing babies." But with the Nebraska legislature now out of session and with Osborne now running television advertisements (he gave Heineman a month-long headstart), Powell believes Osborne will pull out a victory.

The amazing thing is that Heineman has made up considerable ground without running a single negative television or radio advertisement against Osborne. Although Heineman has talked about runaway federal spending, Cradduck said, "He has always said Tom Osborne has done good things for the state of Nebraska," she added.

Osborne has not even mentioned Heineman by name in his own advertising, choosing instead to focus on his experience in Washington and his fiscal conservatism. Osborne is better stocked heading into the race's final weeks, ending March with $833,000 on hand compared to $588,000 for the governor.

The entirely positive focus of the campaign could mean that Osborne loses the primary to Heineman even though his favorable ratings remain in the stratosphere. Under that line of thinking, voters love Osborne and his time both as coach of the Cornhuskers and in Congress but simply don't see him in the role of chief executive.

Osborne also may be hampered by the lack of competitiveness in his past races; he won his congressional seat in 2000 with 71 percent in the primary and 82 percent in the general election; in 2002 and 2004 he was reelected with 93 percent and 87 percent, respectively.

Sutton discounted that theory, arguing that although Osborne hasn't had any close races in Congress, he has "been in a lot of close calls in his former job and knows what that's like." She added the obvious: Osborne, the man who led the Cornhuskers to three national football championships, is a "very competitive individual."

Even if the primary turns nasty in its final days, it shouldn't jeopardize the Republican hold on the state's governor's mansion. President Bush won Nebraska by 33 points in 2004, and Democrats have a weak field -- to say the least. One of their potential candidates, truck driver Glenn Boot Jr., looks likely to be disqualified from the primary ballot due to a felony conviction in 1980 for distributing Quaaludes.

By Chris Cillizza  |  April 25, 2006; 8:14 AM ET
Categories:  Governors  
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Posted by: apartments in warsaw | September 18, 2006 11:53 AM | Report abuse

Couple of post comments on this, first I and others think Osborne lost on the two school issues which he remained essentially neutral on, the Omaha merger and consolidation of smaller Class I school districts.

Second, I don't think a Dem has much if any chance in the third District.

Third Osborne lost because he tried to do what he felt was right rather than what was politically expedient, which is called leadership, I have nothing against Heineman personally, but he is just another typical politician who will figure out the right things to say and do to get elected--a follower of the polls and special interects, not a leader.

Posted by: Lincolnite | May 12, 2006 8:31 AM | Report abuse

and if any Dem ever has a chance at winning the NE-03 it is him. You may be suprised but Dems actually do pritty well in 3rd district when the seat is open. In 1990 the Dem candidate lost by less than 1.5% and in 1974 the Dem candidate lost by 737 votes.

Kleeb is extremely charismatic and he is a fairly conservative Dem. The GOP is going to have their hands full in Nebraska this year.

Posted by: I've met Kleeb | May 7, 2006 1:01 AM | Report abuse

Chris, another great piece! Makes me nostalgic for your Nebraska elections coverage in your Roll Call days. Any thoughts on the race to replace Osborne?

Posted by: Nebraska transplant | April 26, 2006 2:41 PM | Report abuse

Husker in VA: Osborne said he would not have signed LB1024 into law and was very critical of Heineman for getting involved in the original issue--siding with the suburban schools who have portions of their districts in Omaha. Omaha used an 1891 law to claim that other districts could not have students or schools within Omaha city limits. It was basically a grab for a higher tax base (after the expansions of Omaha city limits in the last twenty years, the richest parts of Omaha were in other school districts, hurting the property tax monies going to OPS). Osborne said he would have been a mediator to try to work out a deal between the city and suburban school districts. Heineman also advocated for the bill before the Chambers amendment was added (which is what segregated OPS). The other aspect of the bill will create a "learning community," which will force all schools in Douglas and Sarpy counties to share a tax base and encourages voluntary integration (since OPS stopped mandatory bussing in 1997, which is what pissed off Chambers in the first place).

The bill doesn't go into effect until 8/08, and the Unicameral and the Governor have said that the point of the bill was to force the two sides together to work out a compromise and that all parts of the bill could be revisited. Don't be surprised if it never happens.

The poll was taken before 1024 passed, and their has been a lot of advocacy in Omaha to have Dems switch parties to vote for Osborne in the primary. I'm pretty sure it will hurt Heineman on 5/9.

Posted by: Radical Centrist | April 26, 2006 9:03 AM | Report abuse

Maybe Kerry could come in and help the candidates. What a total buffoon

Posted by: Sandy | April 26, 2006 12:08 AM | Report abuse

however, has a democrat ever been a local rancher?? Kleeb can speak for the people of the area and they will trust him to do whats right. What hurts them, hurts him as well. Kinda like why I think Tester will beat out Morrison for the Senate nomination in Montana, Tester is more like the locals than Morrison is.

Posted by: Rob Millette | April 25, 2006 6:45 PM | Report abuse

The 3rd District of Nebraska has NEVER had a Democratic Congressman, since it became the 3rd District. Don McGinley of Ogalala won the 4th District seat in 1958 and was ousted by Republican Dave Martin of Kearney two years later. Sometime during Martin's 7 terms, Nebraska lost one of its four House seats and the modern day Third District was born, although just what one would call "modern" about it escapes me.

Posted by: LonestarJR | April 25, 2006 6:00 PM | Report abuse

thats it RMill. I read it in the hill. I think Kleeb is gonna surprise a lot of people, though he will rely heavily on anti-republican sentimate to get in.

Posted by: Rob Millette | April 25, 2006 5:31 PM | Report abuse

Any other perspectives on how the Omaha school issue and its racial implications are shaping this race? What is Osborne's position on the issue?

Posted by: Husker in Virginia | April 25, 2006 3:11 PM | Report abuse

Would Osborne have even won his House seat if he wasn't the Nebraska football coach? I doubt it.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 25, 2006 3:07 PM | Report abuse

I'm very much aware of the degree of this

"5th grade class president popularity contest"

if American Politics does not pass this level , we will continue on the late 6,5 years!!!!

Posted by: Joachim Kappert | April 25, 2006 2:53 PM | Report abuse

There was an article recently in The Hill about Kleeb, the Dem running for Osborne's seat. He surprised a lot of people with his Q1 fundraising.

Posted by: to RMill | April 25, 2006 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Nebraska 3rd Congressional District is an open seat, vacated by Osborne to run for Governor. It is considered a safe republican seat as witnessed by the Democratic opposition:

RMill, I don't remember where, but I read that Kleeb was doing better than expected.

Posted by: Rob Millette | April 25, 2006 2:19 PM | Report abuse

As a former Nebraska resident, and born in Lincoln, I have to say "what does Nebraska have except to support their "Cornhusker" not "Husker" football team". I guess Nebraska does have a few other things to brag about, i.e. The best beef cattle growers, the best farmers, the second richest person in the world, Warren Buffet, a great Interstate 80 through the State, the most beautiful capital building in the United States, the popcorn capital of the world, North Bend, the least debt free state in the Nation, excellent work ethics, solid banks, and some other things I can't recall right now.

Posted by: ExNebraskaNative | April 25, 2006 2:05 PM | Report abuse

The positive campaign that Chris refers to may be coming to a quick halt. Throughout the campaign, Heineman has touted new sales of Neb. products to Cuba. On Monday, Osborne took a swipe at Heineman, saying he'd be surprised if those sales were profitable for Nebraskans -- as opposed to his own initiatives selling Neb. products to new markets in Iraq and Columbia. As stated above, Osborne doesn't like to lose to an underdog. He won't go quietly into that good night.

Posted by: Leavenworth Street | April 25, 2006 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Nebraska 3rd Congressional District is an open seat, vacated by Osborne to run for Governor. It is considered a safe republican seat as witnessed by the Democratic opposition:

Active Candidates:

Jay Vavricek (R)
Mayor of Grand Island, NE and Business owner
John Hanson (R)
Congressional Aide
David Harris (R)
Non-Profit Group Director
Adrian Smith (R)
State Sen., Ex-Gering City Councilman & Realtor
Douglas L. Polk (R)
Scott Kleeb (D)
Graduate Student & Rancher

Posted by: RMill | April 25, 2006 1:03 PM | Report abuse

Is Osborne also running for Congress too? What happens if he loses the primary, and IF he can't keep his seat in Congress who is running to take his place? Just wondering.

Posted by: Andy R | April 25, 2006 12:57 PM | Report abuse

Regarding "Bad Husker's" comment, yes, we should forget about football for the next ten days. However, that is exactly what Tom Osborne is hoping won't happen. He is banking on Nebraskans voting him into the Governor's office by getting that glazed over look in their eyes when they are standing in the voting booth thinking about the national football championships. Tom Osborne is a fine man, but we have a current Governor, Dave Heineman who is doing an excellent job. He has instilled a "can do" attitude and has worked extremely hard for the benefit of the people of Nebraska. My advice is for voters to check that glazed eye look at the door and vote for someone who has proven himself well. With all due respect, Tom Osborne, this is one trophy that you don't need on your mantle. You will still have all the respect for the things you have done for Nebraska in the past.

Posted by: afterfurtherreview | April 25, 2006 12:42 PM | Report abuse

I first met Tom Osborne about 4 months after he took office in his first term. We were discussing issues very critical to rural NE regarding electricity. All I saw was a "deer in the headlight" look. He should have been up to speed since we had had the appointment to discuss these issues for about a month. By his second term, he was much better. Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of giving him 2 years to get up to speed in the Gov.'s office, especially when we have an experienced man already doing a good job.

Posted by: BGF - Rural NE | April 25, 2006 12:35 PM | Report abuse

It is really sad that in 2006 Nebraska still makes the National news only on football. This is a governor's race we are talking about, not the National Championship for NCAA Football. I know Tom and Dave both, the men and lawmakers. Very great candidates for the position and either way, Nebraska will stay the same... RED. Can we get off the Osborne 90's legacay for 10 days atleast?

Posted by: Bad Husker | April 25, 2006 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Power of the Huskers

Heineman April approval was at 66%. Rasmussen is just releasing their new polls in Nebraska so should be available in a day or so.

Posted by: RMill | April 25, 2006 11:37 AM | Report abuse

The statement that Tom needed Lawrence Phillips to win the national championship is absolutely absurd, given that Phillips' back-up was Ahman Green, who has gone on to a brilliant career in the NFL. Nebraska won the championship that year with a 62-24 win over #2 Florida in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl and anyone who watched the game will tell you it was unclear whether Nebraska needed anyone but Tommie Frazier that night. Phillips was not put back on the team "time after time after time" and to say he was is slander. He was put back on the team after serving a 7-game suspension for conviction of a misdemeanor. He was evaluated by the Menninger Institute, which advised the Head Coach that his changes of overcoming the demons within him would be substantially improved by his reinstatement. Instead of grandstanding and providing himself with a ready-made excuse should the team lose, Osborne chose to do the right thing by the player and the program.

Posted by: LonestarJR | April 25, 2006 11:08 AM | Report abuse

I've had the chance to meet and talk to Tom Osborne on several occasions. He is a good man who is more than able to serve as a fine governor. I don't know much about Dave Heineman - it seems to me like Nebraska has the luxury of choosing between two very good candidates.

Posted by: thv | April 25, 2006 11:05 AM | Report abuse

Big kudos to the Fix for continually coming up with artilces/postings that are politically interesting/informed and haven't been don to death by other media outlets.

Posted by: Augie | April 25, 2006 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Remember Lawrence Phillips the football player--accused of beating his girlfriend among other issues. Rep. Tom needed him to win the national championship so he allowed him back on the team time after time after time. Its more important to win the national championship than to make a statement of saying, "i don't want that type of person on this team".

I lost all respect for Tom Osborne during that episode.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 25, 2006 10:32 AM | Report abuse

The governors position first in support of suburban Omaha schools (keep them all White) and secondly his signing of the NE Bill 1024 that creates 3 racially divided school districts (Black, Hispanic,& Black) is what has closed the gap for him.

Posted by: It'sDifferentInNebraska | April 25, 2006 9:26 AM | Report abuse

Cmon sooner. You know as well as I that running for office in the GOP is akin to a 5th grade class president popularity contest.

Posted by: FairAndBalanced? | April 25, 2006 9:09 AM | Report abuse

Why is that a former football coach is presumed qualified to be a chief executive of a state? Osborne is a decent man to be sure, but running a state is a far cry from creating a championship team or even being a Congressman.

Posted by: SoonerThought | April 25, 2006 8:49 AM | Report abuse

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