With Nebraska Sen. Mike Johanns retiring next year, Republicans already have a candidate in the race that they are confident can keep the seat in GOP hands – Shane Osborn, former state treasurer and U.S. Navy hero.
Osborn, who was held as a POW by the Chinese in 2001, is the only Republican currently in the race who has previously won an elective office. No Democrat has yet announced a bid for the seat.
In an exclusive interview with Newsmax, Osborn said the toughness he gained while in captivity will help him stay focused on pushing needed political reforms.
"You can count on me not going along" with the political culture that perpetuates the status quo, Osborn said.
"When the Chinese Communists held me prisoner for 12 days and repeatedly threatened my life, I didn't break. Washington won't break me either," he said.
Osborn, 39, became a statewide hero in 2001 when, as a U.S. Navy pilot, his EP-3E reconnaissance plane had a mid-air collision with a Chinese fighter jet off Hainan Island.
Osborn's plane was severely damaged and was sent into an inverted dive, dropping 8,000 feet in 30 seconds, and then falling another 6,000 feet before Osborn righted the plane. The Chinese aircraft was cut in half and its pilot did not survive.
After being forced to land in China, Osborn and his crew of 23 were held for 12 days where Osborn was exposed to long interrogations and sleep deprivation. Upon release, Osborn was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Meritorious Service Medal.
"I looked at the world and, as we say in the Navy, 'Not on my watch,'" Osborn told Newsmax, explaining why he decided to make the Senate race two years after retiring as treasurer.
The conservative hopeful said that he was concerned about "serious problems in the Middle East and the Far East, with North Korea and Iran. I think someone with my personal experience will bring a fresh perspective to dealing with these problems."
But Osborn added, "The greatest threat to our national security is the debt the U.S. is running up. And I can bring some fresh thinking to that as well."
As treasurer, Osborn reduced his staff by 28 percent in four years and won the Marquee Award for the most efficient treasurer's office, public or private, in the nation.
"How many candidates do you interview who can say they've actually shrunk government?" Osborn said, adding that he cut his personal office budget by 12 percent and brought transparency to the entire state budget.
Having traveled 7,000 miles since becoming a candidate in June, Osborn is the favorite over two Republican primary opponents: Ben Sasse, former assistant secretary of U.S. Health and Human Services, and attorney Bart McLeay, a political newcomer and litigator with the Omaha "super-firm" Kutak Rock.
A graduate of Harvard and holder of a Ph.D. from Yale, the 41-year-old Sasse ran his family's business in Fremont, Neb., and worked on Mitt Romney's transition team.
Although considered an expert on healthcare and entitlement reform, Sasse has never held office and may suffer on the party's right for his association with Romney.
While not criticizing his two opponents, Osborn was quick to point out that he is the only contender who has held elective office, adding that he is a University of Nebraska graduate, a veteran, and small businessman who has created jobs.
Asked why he retired as treasurer in 2010 after a solo term, Osborn did not flinch, saying that he and his wife were divorced during his time in office and he was awarded sole custody of their young children.
While raising his children, Osborn launched small businesses of his own, including one to help disabled veterans to find jobs. Two years ago he remarried, and his new wife has one child from a previous marriage.
"All of my family is strongly supportive of my running," he said. "It is like 'The Brady Bunch' and it works," referring to the 1970s TV series about a blended family.
The failure of Cornhusker State Democrats to come up with a heavyweight contender for the open seat is obviously good news for Republicans. Political scientist Larry Sabato's "Crystal Ball" lists Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler and former Lt. Gov. Kim Bobak as possible Democratic hopefuls for the seat.
But in a state where Deb Fischer beat Bob Kerrey 58 percent to 42 percent in Nebraska's last Senate race, winning the Republican primary may be tantamount to winning the election. In the GOP's effort to win the six seats they need to take control of the Senate, Johanns' open seat seems to be one they don't have to worry about keeping in their column.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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