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Nebraska Senate Race Shapes Up

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) made it official today: he will retire in 2008 after two terms.

"I will not seek a third term in the United States Senate, nor do I intend to be a candidate for any office in 2008," said Hagel at a press conference this morning in Omaha. "It has been my greatest honor and privilege to serve my country and represent my fellow Nebraskans in the U.S. Senate."

Aiming to bring you the latest and greatest here at The Fix, we did some reporting over the weekend to find out exactly what the race to replace Hagel looks like.

Let's start on the Democratic side where the marquee name is former Sen. Bob Kerrey, whose Nebraska political career began in 1982 when he defeated Gov. Charles Thone (R). Kerrey was popular and expected to cruise to a second term when he abruptly announced he would retire (a recurring theme in his political life). Two years later Kerrey was back at it, easily defeating appointed Sen. David Karnes (R).

In late 1991 Kerrey announced he would run for president but dropped his candidacy in 1992 after a disappointing finish in New Hampshire and several Western states. In 1994 Kerrey was re-elected with 55 percent. Kerrey was a heavy favorite for a third term but decided against a re-election bid -- to the surprise of only those who hadn't followed his unpredictable career.

Now Kerrey is seriously flirting with a return to the Senate after spending the last several years living in New York City and serving as president of the New School. He is coming to Washington tomorrow to meet with Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Chuck Schumer (N.Y.). Those familiar with Kerrey's thinking paint him as genuinely undecided on the race, though from what we hear he is leaning toward the race.

Paul Johnson, who managed Kerrey's Senate races in 1988 and 1994, said that Kerrey's interest in returning to the Senate is nothing new. "He has been thinking about it and talking about it for a while," Johnson said, adding that Kerrey is "very serious" about the race and will likely make a decision "in the next few weeks."

Kerrey would bring two major advantages to the race: name identification and fundraising ability. Kerrey is a known commodity to many of the state's voters who still remember his service -- both in the military (he was awarded a Congressiol Medal of Honor) and in politics. (We hear Kerrey's name ID is lower than you might expect by the way.)

He also is a proven fundraiser with a national network both from his presidential campaign and his chairmanship of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the 1996 election cycle. In 1994 Kerrey spent $5 million and roughly $3.5 million in 1988 -- a whopping sum for the time and in a state like Nebraska.

Even Republicans acknowledge that Kerrey would be Democrats' strongest candidate but argue that he hasn't been on the ballot in the state since 1994, and his time in New York will allow GOPers to paint him as an outsider to Cornhusker voters.

Johnson pushed back that Kerrey has stayed connected to the state, often traveling back and forth between there and New York. Johnson also noted that Kerrey is currently the chairman of the "Back to the River" project aimed at revitalizing the Missouri River.

The Republican side appears to be shaping up as a primary between state Attorney General Jon Bruning and former Gov. Mike Johanns.

Johanns appears to be the preferred choice of many national Republicans but Bruning has been running for months (he had planned to primary Hagel) and has a following in Nebraska.

"He was prepared to run against a two-term incumbent United States Senator - I think he's proven that he's not afraid of a challenge," said Bruning campaign manager Jordan McGrain. "Jon Bruning is in this race to win and will take on all comers, including Mike Johanns."

McGrain added that Bruning will show more than $1 million raised for his campaign by the end of September and has banked $875,000. That's a formidable sum in Nebraska -- especially for a candidate who can't self fund the race.

Assuming Johanns gets in, Bruning's fundraising should slow, but he's off to a very strong start. It's also possible that the Club For Growth would throw their lot with Bruning in a competitive primary against Johanns -- a move that would ensure financial party for Bruning . (The Fix erred; we have been assured the Club thinks highly of Johanns' fiscal record as governor.)

A Bruning-Johanns race would be a major contrast in styles, according to those familiar with both men. Bruning is the more charismatic/brash of the two, having been elected to his post in 2002 as the youngest attorney general in the country. Bruning long pined for the governor's office but the victory last year by Gov. Dave Heineman (R) and the likelihood that Heineman will serve until 2014 has put the Senate race front and center for Bruning.

Johanns, on the other hand, is more reserved -- a quieter, steady presence with whom Nebraskans feel comfortable. In 1998, Johanns, who had spent the last seven years as mayor of Lincoln, was considered a major underdog in the primary against Rep. Jon Christensen and state Auditor John Breslow. Johanns came from behind to win that race with 40 percent and won the general with 54 percent. He cruised to re-election in 2002 with 69 percent against the awesomely named Democratic candidate Stormy Dean.

As Johanns was finishing his term, he was widely expected to transition into a race against Sen. Ben Nelson (D) in the 2006 cycle but was plucked by President Bush to serve as Secretary of Agriculture in January 2005. Some Johanns detractors argue he took the post because he didn't want to face the nastiness of a race against Nelson and question his commitment to campaign politics. From our view, however, a Cabinet post is a cabinet post and remains a major honor.

What's clear from preliminary conversations with Republican insiders is that there is a fight brewing between Johanns and Bruning. This has all the elements of a great primary and a great general election assuming either Kerrey or Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey (D) runs.

And, for those of you who dimiss Democrats' chances in Nebraska, a quick bit of history. Aside from Hagel, the last time a Republican won a Senate seat in Nebraska was 1972.

By Chris Cillizza  |  September 10, 2007; 12:43 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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