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Turning to ‘Plan C’

Nebraska GOP Bullish on 2006 Senate Race Despite Stars’ Departures

After enduring back-to-back blows to their candidate recruitment efforts against Sen. Ben Nelson (D) late last year, Nebraska Republicans remain convinced they can oust the freshman Democrat despite those early setbacks.

The 2006 Nebraska Senate contest has been priority No. 1 for state Republicans since Nelson narrowly won the open seat of Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) in 2000.

Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns (R) was the odds-on nominee against Nelson but was unexpectedly picked by President Bush late last year to serve as Agriculture secretary.

Attention quickly turned to 3rd district Rep. Tom Osborne (R), the legendary former coach of the University of Nebraska football team.

Under a crush of political and media pressure, Osborne bumped up his timeline for a decision on the race by six months, telling his party “no” on Dec. 10.

Those twin developments effectively robbed Republicans of their two best-known candidates in the space of a month.

But according to Nebraska Republican Party Executive Director Jessica Moenning, there are a number of candidates waiting in the wings who could give Nelson a real race.

“I don’t believe we have gone through the bench by any means,” said Moenning.

She added, however, that it would behoove a Republican candidate to be in the race by the summer, just in time for Nebraska’s parade season.

“This is a state where parades are still important political events,” Moenning said.

Leading the list of would-be GOP candidates are state Attorney General Jon Bruning and state party Chairman David Kramer, both of whom sounded decidedly eager about their prospects.

“I am extremely interested in this race,” said Bruning. “I continue to talk to friends and advisers.”

Bruning, is also mulling a 2006 primary challenge to appointed Gov. Dave Heineman (R). Osborne is also looking at the governor’s race.

Kramer said that within the past six months he has seen three private polls that had Nelson between 41 percent and 44 percent; as a result, Kramer believes Nelson is “the most vulnerable of any of the Democratic United States Senators up in 2006.”

Kramer also suggested that the best candidate to run against Nelson is someone without a long political record, pointing to the success that Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) had in 1996 when he came from the private sector to beat Nelson in an open-seat race.

Left unsaid in Kramer’s formulation is that he is the best-known potential candidate who has never held political office before.

Barry Rubin, executive director of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said that “no matter who runs that person is ‘Plan C’ for the Nebraska Republican Party.”

Rubin added that he expects Kramer to be the candidate and welcomes that matchup.

“He can run but he can’t hide from the fact that he has thrown more mud in his career than a hippo running through a swamp,” Rubin said. “Nebraska voters don’t like dirty politics.”

Other GOPers mentioned as potential candidates — though not as likely as Bruning or Kramer — include state Sen. Kermit Brashear and Republican National Committeeman Kerry Winterer. State Sen. Mike Foley has also been mentioned, but he said last week he is “not likely” to run.

The linchpin for Bruning and Kramer is the degree of commitment by both the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the White House to defeating Nelson.

“The open questions are whether or not the Senate committee and [NRSC Chairwoman Elizabeth] Dole [N.C.] will target this and whether or not [Karl] Rove and the White House operation treat this as a targeted race,” said Bruning.

Part of that concern is based on perceived friendliness between Bush and Nelson.

The Democratic Senator was sounded out by the White House as a potential nominee for Agriculture secretary last year and has even been given a nickname, “Nellie,” by President Bush.

Despite the apparent amicability between the two men, Senate Republicans are not likely to pass over a state that gave Bush a 33-point margin in 2004 — by far his strongest showing in a state represented by a Democratic Senator up for re-election in 2006.

Brian Nick, a spokesman for the NRSC, said the committee plans “on fielding a very strong candidate in Nebraska and having an extremely competitive race.”

The real question is not whether the national party is committed to knocking off Nelson but how much weight — financially speaking — is behind that commitment.

Because Nebraska is a small state, the majority of the millions necessary to run and win a statewide campaign need to come from national sources, according to Moenning.

In 2000, Nelson raised $2.8 million, outspending then-state Attorney General Don Stenberg (R) by $1 million.

Stenberg’s financial woes limited his television budget in the last weeks of the campaign, a critical lapse that may have cost him the race. Nelson held on to win 51 percent to 49 percent.

Stenberg’s past fundraising problems are clearly on Bruning’s mind as he mulls the contest.

“Will the national party provide the millions of dollars necessary to beat Sen. Nelson?” he asked. “If a person decides to jump into this race, you have got to know the national party is in it with you.”

Kramer was more optimistic about the fundraising commitment.

“Nebraska is one of those states that it doesn’t cost $50 million [to run for Senate], it costs $5 million,” he said. “If everything we have heard from the White House and the Republican National Committee is right, money isn’t going to be an issue in this race.”

Nelson is a strong fundraiser and is likely to eclipse the amount he raised and spent in the 2000 contest. He is expected to show approximately $1 million in the bank in year-end reports due at the Federal Election Commission this week.

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