(More commentary from our man on the ground in Nebraska. – promoted by James L.)
In assessing the lay of the land in Nebraska, as it is becoming increasingly likely that Chuck Hagel is seeking reelection, and almost a certainty that Jon Bruning will be his opponent for the Republican nomination, it’s helpful to look back at the last high-profile Republican primary fight in Nebraska, the 2006 governor’s race between Tom Osborne and Dave Heineman. What’s different, here? And what might we see repeat itself?
I still contend that Heineman’s victory was a triumph of machine politics. Hagel came out early in vocal support of Heineman, while the only prominent elected Republican to endorse Tom Osborne for governor was – you guessed it – Jon Bruning.
But still, there’s no doubt that Heineman was the underdog in this race. Despite the advantages of incumbency, he hadn’t really done anything since assuming office in 2005.
A combination of factors contributed to Heineman’s ultimate victory, but the fact that Heineman was backed by almost every prominent Republican while Osborne’s most prominent endorsements were from Democrats (Warren Buffett actually switched to the Republican Party to vote for Osborne), may have sealed the deal.
A quick look at the voter registration numbers in Nebraska shows 187,000 registered “nonpartisan” voters, or independents. (About 16% of registered voters in Nebraska). Nebraska law allows independents to vote in federal primary elections by requesting either the Democratic or Republican ballot. In 2006, independents found that they could not vote in the high-profile gubernatorial primary because state law requires party affiliation to be declared to vote in state primary elections.
Theoretically, this means that those voters could swing the Republican nomination back toward Hagel. However, the 2006 Senate race saw only 4,104 nonpartisans, just 3% of the total vote, vote in the primary. It may be significant in a close race, though, and if independents are aware that they can vote in the primary, the percentage may be higher. But historically, independents have not had much of an influence on the election.
Here’s where the key difference comes in. I alluded to this above, that Democrats in 2006 switched parties to vote in the governor’s race. Heineman was exceedingly popular – to the bewilderment of those of us who knew his politics. And Osborne, of course, is a demigod in Nebraska.
So the state party, in their infinite wisdom, decided to concede this race from the start, and because of their negligence, saw thousands of Democrats leave the party to vote in the Republican Primary, and leaving Democrats in nonpartisan races at a serious disadvantage.
A Lincoln businessman named David Hahn got into the race, but with limited resources and a state party that didn’t give him the time of day or any respect, it was a campaign that died on the runway. Now, Hahn could have done things differently. No one, in my opinion, had more limited resources or got treated as poorly by the state party as Jim Esch, but he performed better than any Democratic congressional candidate has in NE-02 for more than a decade. Hahn got less than 25% of the vote. Much of the blame for that has to rest at his feet.
Bruning may be an even worse story, though. The Democratic Party didn’t even bother to field a candidate against him for Attorney General (which led to this light-hearted Facebook campaign we started at UNO). Bruning still ended up spending $300,000 on ads, in an unopposed race. This was the first public sign that he was going to be running for Senate in 2008.
Now, I want to say that I feel the people responsible for those decisions and those attitudes within the state party are no longer employed by the Nebraska Democratic Party. I’m optimistic that the NDP isn’t going to concede a race before the primary this time around.
One of the key differences among Democrats this time, though, is that Jon Bruning would be an unacceptable choice as a U.S. Senator. So a credible candidate can – and likely will – run and get the support of Nebraska Democrats.
They didn’t exist in the 2006 campaign. The most controversial issue that came up during the 2006 primary was the Omaha school segregation bill, which Heineman signed into law, and Osborne denounced. That didn’t exactly help Osborne among Republican primary voters, as a few prominent Democratic legislators quickly endorsed Osborne for Governor. That was late April 2006, less than a month before the primary.
This one will be all about the issues, while Chuck Hagel will seek to make it about character, knowing he can’t expect to win a Republican nomination if the focus is on the war or immigration. Bruning’s going to have to fight to keep the focus away from his past political beliefs, which Hagel’s people have been hammering hard for the last week.
The Civil War
This has been brewing for years, as Bruning’s faction has been trying to dethrone Hagel as the king of the Nebraska Republican Party. Heineman’s victory last May was a victory for Hagel. And everything in the Nebraska GOP in the last several years has some tie to this ongoing fight. (For a deeper background on Heineman-Hagel and Bruning, see this post). While the Osborne-Heineman race remained above the fray much of the time, this race has the potential to tear the Republican Party apart, and provide a real opening for the Democrats to make up some ground. If they purge Chuck Hagel, who votes with Bush 95% of the time, who’s next?
UPDATE: Looks like Hagel’s in it. Whatever his ultimate decision, it doesn’t look like retirement is on the table anymore, and running for President seems increasingly unlikely, but Hagel’s holding a high-dollar fundraiser in Omaha next month.