Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman is coming under increased pressure from national Republicans to drop from the gubernatorial race and instead challenge Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) in 2006.
The recruitment effort is being spearheaded by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and has picked up considerably in intensity since 3rd district Rep. Tom Osborne (R) announced his candidacy for governor last weekend, according to informed party sources.
NRSC Chairwoman Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) has not yet spoken with Heineman about the possibility directly but will attend a state Republican Party Founders Day event in Omaha on May 20.
“We hope he gives it a good hard look,” said NRSC spokesman Brian Nick. “Any time a sitting governor is interested in running for Senate that is a great opportunity.”
Heineman, who did not respond to a call seeking comment Monday, has so far resisted the NRSC’s entreaties. He told a local paper recently that on a scale of zero to 100 his interest in the Senate race is “minus-1000 and dropping.”
But given the political reality he faces, many observers expect him to at least entertain the contest if he wants to remain in politics beyond 2006.
“You just wonder how persuasive people can be if they think there is an opportunity for him to win the Senate race,” said one party strategist familiar with the state’s politics.
Facing Osborne, who gained fame during his time as the head coach of the University of Nebraska football team, in a statewide primary is almost assuredly a losing proposition for Heineman, according to public and private polling.
A poll sponsored by a Nebraska television station and released over the weekend showed Osborne with a 62 percent to 22 percent lead over Heineman in a GOP primary.
A private Republican poll from March showed Osborne with favorable ratings in the 80 percent range and a single-digit unfavorable score. Osborne led Nelson by 20 points in that survey, according to a knowledgeable source.
A Senate race would not present Heineman with the same mountain to climb — at least for the Republican nomination.
Former state Attorney General Don Stenberg is the only announced Republican candidate though former state party chairman Dave Kramer and state Sen. Kermit Brashear are also mentioned. None are considered top-tier candidates.
Heineman would fit that bill although his own past in elected office is brief. He was elected state Treasurer in 1994 following stints as Republican party chairman as well as chief of staff to former Rep. Hal Daub (R-Neb.).
After winning re-election in 1998, Heineman was tapped by then Gov. Mike Johanns (R) in 2001 to serve as lieutenant governor after Dave Maurstad resigned to become a regional director of the Federal Emergency Management Association.
Heineman rejected urgings to consider entering the 2000 Senate race, insisting he was focused on one day serving as the state’s chief executive. He was elevated to governor early this year after President Bush tapped Johanns to become secretary of Agriculture.
State Republican Party Chairman Mark Quandahl said he has had several recent discussions with Heineman about the possibility of him running for Senate but did not think such a bid was likely.
“He made it pretty clear to me that he would not be inclined to run for the United State Senate,” Quandahl said. “He feels his talents are best suited in the executive branch.”
If Heineman chose to run for Senate, he would be the beneficiary of significant spending by the national party, expenditures considered essential to remain competitive with the well-funded Nelson.
The Nebraska Democrat ended March with $1.5 million to spend on the contest.
“Sen. Nelson is planning to wage an aggressive campaign on his record representing Nebraska values in the Senate no matter who his opponent is,” said David DiMartino, communications director for Nelson.
Given Nebraska’s strong Republican leanings, the inability of the NRSC to lure a top-tier candidate into the field to date has been somewhat baffling.
Of the 17 Senate Democrats up for re-election in 2006, Nelson represents the state that Bush carried by the largest margin — 33 points — last November.
The White House, however, has been as much a hindrance as a help to Senate Republicans this year.
First, Bush tapped Johanns to serve in his Cabinet, robbing Republicans of their No. 1 potential recruit against Nelson.
Then in February, Bush traveled to Nebraska to push his Social Security plan. While there he called Nelson “a man with whom I can work, a person who is willing to put partisanship aside to focus on what’s right for America.”
Nelson has repeatedly shown an ability to win statewide. He served two terms as governor from 1990 to 1998 although he lost an open-seat Senate race to now-Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) in 1996. He bounced back in 2000 to defeat Stenberg 51 percent to 49 percent.