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Primary Day Primer: Nebraska and West Virginia

Once considered a safe bet to win Nebraska's GOP gubernatorial nomination this year, football-titan-turned-congressman Tom Osborne faces the fight of his political life today against Gov. Dave Heineman.

Osborne, who is revered in the state for his days as the head coach of the University of Nebraska football team, has watched his massive lead in the polls steadily erode, despite the fact that the governor has not said a single negative thing about the congressman in any of his paid media.

Nebraska's gubernatorial primary is the marquee race on the ballot today, but the state's voters will also select a GOP nominee to challenge Sen. Ben Nelson (D) in the fall as well as a replacement for Osborne in the state's 3rd District.

West Virginia also hosts a primary today, although there is considerably less action on tap than in Nebraska. Three Democrats are competing for the chance to challenge 2nd District Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R). In the GOP Senate primary, 1984 nominee John Raese leads a crowded field of Republicans competing for the right to take on Sen. Robert Byrd (D) in the fall.

If you haven't been following these race as closely as you would like, never fear, The Fix is here. Below is a quick primer on the races to watch and the likely outcomes. Enjoy!

4th and 1 in the Cornhusker State

Polling in the race between Osborne and Heineman shows that the governor has a slight (but steady) lead heading into primary day. A tracking poll conducted by the MSR Group -- an independent polling firm based in Omaha -- has shown Heineman ahead six of the last eight days with leads ranging from one point to four points. The survey released Monday showed Heineman with a 45 percent to 42 percent lead over Osborne; businessman Dave Nabity took six percent while seven percent were either undecided or favored some other candidate. Heineman is running ahead of Osborne in the latter's home 3rd District (49 percent to 39 percent) and also in the eastern Nebraska 1st District (49 percent to 40 percent). Osborne leads in the Omaha-based 2nd District by a 48 percent to 37 percent margin.

Heineman's lead, however, is well within the poll's 4.4 percent margin of error -- a sign not to invest too much meaning into the survey's findings. Nonetheless, Heineman deserves considerable credit for the fact that he has pushed himself into a toss-up race with an iconic figure in the state.

As The Fix discussed in a previous post on the race, Heineman has largely focused on stacking up accomplishments since taking over the state's top post in January 2005, operating under the belief that if Nebraska voters like the direction of the state, they will be less likely to vote for a change at the top. As he did in his successful campaign for Congress, Osborne has focused his campaign on himself -- and the trustworthy and solid image that conveys. He has also sought to cast himself as a reformer during his six years in Congress, an image bolstered by his recent endorsement by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

No matter whether Heineman or Osborne wins tonight, the seat is almost certain to stay in GOP hands this fall. Two unknown Democrats -- David Hahn and Glenn Boot -- are seeking their party's nod.

Ricketts: Chuck Hagel, Part 2?

Senate Republicans struggled mightily to find a top-tier candidate after the White House picked Gov. Mike Johanns (R) last year to serve as secretary of Agriculture. Osborne was courted and quickly demurred, as did Heineman. Enter Pete Ricketts, the former CEO of Ameritrade and a political novice. Ricketts has performed extremely well so far in his first political campaign and has shown he is more than willing to spend from his personal fortune to win today's primary. (As of Sunday, he had contributed $4.75 million to the campaign).

The MSR tracking polls show that investment is paying off. After starting as an unknown in the state, Ricketts now has a comfortable double-digit margin over former state Attorney General Don Stenberg, who was the party's nominee against Sen. Nelson in 2000, and former state party chairman Dave Kramer. The last MSR survey showed Ricketts at 48 percent to Stenberg's 28 percent. Kramer received just 11 percent in the survey.

Republicans are already drawing comparisons between Ricketts and Sen. Chuck Hagel, who ran against Nelson in 1996 for the Senate seat vacated by James Exon (D). Like Hagel, Ricketts is a wealthy businessman running as a political outsider. And, like Hagel, Ricketts is using media consultant Doug McAuliffe as one of his lead strategists. Hagel, however, had the additional credibility of his service in Vietnam while Ricketts does not.

Given Nebraska's major Republican tilt (President Bush carried the state by 33 points in 2004), this could be a race to watch in the fall. It comes in at no. 9 on The Fix's latest Friday Senate Line. Here's more background on the race.

Osborne's Successor

Osborne's decision to vacate the 3rd District seat after three terms created a competitive GOP primary to replace him. Three candidates -- state Sen. Adrian Smith, former Osborne aide John Hanson and Grand Island Mayor Jay Vavricek -- are seen as potential winners in today's crowded primary field, with Smith and Hanson the two frontrunners.

Smith won the endorsement of the D.C.-based Club For Growth, which has meant a major financial windfall for the legislator. As of April 19, Smith had raised $435,000 for the contest, compared with $315,000 for Vavricek and $267,000 for Hanson. Smith, who is in his mid-30s, has served in the state's unicameral legislature for the past eight years.

Hanson has strong connections with the agricultural interests in the district (he is Osborne's agriculture director) and should enjoy the benefits of Osborne's political organization -- such as it is.

Democrat Scott Kleeb is unopposed for his party's nomination, a not terribly surprising development given that President Bush won the district by 51 points in 2004. The GOP winner Tuesday night, barring a major misstep, will be the next congressman from Nebraska's 3rd.

West Virginia: GOP Wishful Thinking?

Republicans believe that John Raese will pose a real challenge to Sen. Robert Byrd in the fall, but it remains a decidedly uphill contest. Raese must first secure his party's nomination against a crowded field of challengers led by 2004 state attorney general candidate Hiram Lewis. Lewis has raised more than $1 million through a national direct-mail effort and has attacked Raese for the fact that his wife lives in Florida, not West Virginia. Raese should win the primary, but it will be a low-turnout affair -- meaning anything could happen.

Byrd's vulnerability is almost entirely dependent on how he performs on the stump. At 88 years old, Byrd is slowed by Parkinson's disease (CORRECTION: Byrd's office said this morning that the Senator actually suffers from a condition called "benign essential tremor" not Parkinson's. The Fix regrets the error.) but remains an active figure on the Senate floor. If Byrd can show he is up for another six-year term, it will be difficult for Raese or anyone else to dislodge him.

In the 2nd District, which is centered on Charleston, three Democrats are competing for the nomination to challenge Rep. Capito. Former state party chairman Mike Callaghan is the preferred candidate of the national party. Whoever wins will have little chance (barring a Democratic tidal wave) against Capito, who has held the seat since 2000. President Bush won the district by 15 points in 2004.

Up in the 1st District, Republicans have rallied around state Del. Chris Wakim to challenge Rep. Alan Mollohan (D), who made headlines last month after the National Legal & Policy Center filed a complaint with the Justice Dept. alleging -- among other things -- that Mollohan had inaccurately reported his wealth in past personal financial disclosures. The complaint also called into question the massive increase in Mollohan's household assets over the past four years, the same period during which he secured more than $200 million in earmarks for nonprofit groups that he helped to establish.

Check back tonight and again on Wednesday morning for primary results.

By Chris Cillizza  |  May 9, 2006; 6:02 AM ET
Categories:  Governors , House , Senate  
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