With Nebraska Governor Out, Senate Race is Wide Open

Image: With Nebraska Governor Out, Senate Race is Wide Open Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman is applauded by first lady Sally Ganem and Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff at the conclusion of the annual State of the State address to lawmakers on Jan. 15, 2013.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013 08:21 AM

By John Gizzi

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Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman's announcement on Saturday that he would not try to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Mike Johanns means that a "B-team" of contenders will fight it out in next year's GOP primary.

The scenario of second-tier Republicans holding a no-holds barred primary has raised the odds that a Democrat might be able to take the open Senate seat. But this will depend on whether Democrats in the state can recruit a top contender of their own and that is also questionable.

Cornhusker State sources were nearly unanimous that Heineman would have been a cinch to succeed Johnanns. Heineman had moved from lieutenant governor to the top job in 2005, when then-Gov. Johanns was named President George W. Bush's secretary of agriculture.

But, at 65, Heineman was not anxious to move to Washington and start a new life as a freshman in a group of 100.

"Look, Dave is a West Point graduate and former U.S. Army ranger," one source close to the governor told Newsmax, "He is more suited to the executive role than as a legislator. And remember, he worked in Washington in the 1980s [as top aide to Republican Rep. Hal Daub] and didn't like it at all. He's Nebraskan through and through."

The most-oft mentioned Republican names in a Heineman-free primary are those of former state Treasurer Shane Osborn and Pete Ricketts, 2006 U.S. Senate nominee and former GOP national committeeman.

Osborn became a statewide hero in 2001 when, as a U.S. Navy pilot, his EP-3E plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet off the Hainan Islands in China and he ordered his 23-member crew to bail out. After being held for ten days by the Chinese, Osborn and his crew were released and he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Multimillionaire Ricketts is one of his state's biggest contributors to conservative causes and candidates. Among those who have benefited from his support are the pro-free market Platte Institute and Americans for Prosperity.

But both Osborn and Ricketts have their own political scars. Osborn came under fire for working in the insurance business while serving as treasurer. Ricketts spent heavily of his own wealth in his 2006 campaign but lost badly to Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson.

While Osborn and Ricketts are still considering the race and won't make announcements until later, former Assistant U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Ben Sasse is officially joining the race on Wednesday. A graduate of Harvard and holder of a Ph.D. from Yale, the 40-year-old Sasse ran his family's business in Fremont, Neb., and has taught at the university level. He is considered an expert on health care and entitlement reform and an excellent platform speaker.

In an election cycle when political outsiders seem increasingly in vogue, Sasse is being watched in large part because he has not held elective office or been much involved in Republican politics.

Also mentioned as a GOP contender is state Attorney General Jon Bruning, who lost the Republican Senate nomination to present-Sen. Deb Fischer in 2012.

With three, and perhaps four, Republicans vying for the Senate standard, a heated primary is virtually inevitable. Quite often in historically Republican Nebraska, that has been a formula for a Democratic resurgence.

In 1960, for example, state Sen. John R. Cooper, past commander of the Nebraska American Legion, won the spirited Republican primary for governor over former Sen. Hazel Abel, and state Sen. Terry Carpenter. But so fractured were Republicans that liberal Democrat Frank Morrison defeated Cooper in November.

Ten years later, centrist Republican Gov. Norbert Tiemann barely staved off a re-nomination challenge from conservative state Sen. Clarence Batchelder in a contest that focused on Tiemann's support of gun-control measures. So politically damaged was Tiemann that in the fall, he was unseated by Democrat and first-time candidate Jim Exon.

The Democrats’ dilemma in 2014 is the apparent lack — for now, at least — of a fresh and dynamic contender. One frequently mentioned possibility is Chuck Hassebrook, who had left the University of Nebraska Board of Regents to run for the Senate in 2012 but was convinced to leave the race in favor of former Sen. Bob Kerrey, who went on to lose to Fischer. Also mentioned are state Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha and former Lt. Gov. Kim Robak, who is thought unlikely to return to politics if it means giving up the lucrative lobbying business she shares with her husband.

Had Heineman chosen to run, he would have had smooth sailing. But with him out of the race, the Republicans will have to put resources in a state they should handily win.

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.


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