Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning (R) is scheduled today to announce he will seek the Republican nomination for Senate in 2008, even if doing so puts him on a collision course with two-term incumbent Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).
Hagel, who has flirted with running for president — possibly as an Independent — has not revealed whether he will run for re-election. But Bruning, according to an advance copy of his announcement speech, is girding for a race against Hagel, and is prepared to make the incumbent’s virulent criticism of President Bush and the Iraq War a major theme of his primary campaign.
“We want a leader who will stand with our troops, our military commanders in Iraq, and our Commander-in-Chief in this time of war,” Bruning is scheduled to say during a 10 a.m. news conference set for the rotunda of the state Capitol in Lincoln. “I am disappointed that we have not received that leadership from Chuck Hagel.”
Hagel’s office declined to comment on the Senator’s timeline for deciding what he’ll do next year. But Hagel political director Kevin Chapman responded to Bruning’s critique, indicating the Senator doesn’t plan to let the attorney general’s attacks go unanswered as the campaign gets under way, albeit without him.
“For Jon Bruning, who has never served his country in uniform, to question Chuck Hagel’s commitment to the troops, it’s laughable. He’s in over his head,” Chapman said Wednesday.
Despite some early polling conducted for Bruning that showed him atop a hypothetical GOP primary candidate field — including one with Hagel as a candidate — a well-placed Republican operative based in Nebraska said the attorney general faces significant challenges either way.
If Hagel doesn’t run, this Republican is “confident” that Agriculture Secretary and former Gov. Mike Johanns will jump into the race, and Bruning “can’t beat Johanns.” A Republican operative based in Washington, D.C., also expects Johanns to run for Senate if Hagel retires, and agreed that Bruning would lose to Johanns.
Republicans monitoring the race believe Bruning faces significant challenges, although they acknowledge that Hagel has some wounds to heal with his voting base should he run for re-election.
If Hagel runs, they say Bruning’s fundraising is likely to dry up quickly, because, among other reasons, Nebraska’s community of Republican campaign contributors will be loath to anger an incumbent who sits on the Banking Committee. And yet if Hagel doesn’t run, Bruning won’t be able to harness the dissatisfaction much of the base has with Hagel to fuel his campaign.
“Bruning has defined himself as the anti-Hagel candidate. Without Hagel, who is Bruning?” the Nebraska Republican operative said.
“What Bruning is banking on,” added former Nebraska GOP Chairman David Kramer, who harbors no particular affection for Hagel, “is that people are going to be so unhappy with Hagel’s style — not his substance — that they will bounce him out of office, and that’s a tall, tall order.”
Kramer is an Omaha lawyer who finished third in last year’s Republican Senate primary.
Hagel has a solid Republican voting record in the Senate and has voted in line with Bush on most domestic issues.
But he has long been a critic of the Iraq War and Bush’s foreign policy generally, and over the past few months he has particularly angered the GOP base in staunchly Republican Nebraska by refusing to rule out running for president as an Independent, and declining to strongly oppose presidential impeachment.
Most of the contributions for federal races in Nebraska, however, emanate from the more moderately Republican Omaha business community, and it is less inclined to turn its back on Hagel in favor of Bruning, should the incumbent Senator run for re-election. Candidates for state office in Nebraska are permitted to raise unlimited corporate money, and some have speculated that Bruning could have trouble adjusting to the $4,600 per-individual limit for federal contests.
Still, Bruning nabbed MidAmerican Energy Holdings Chairman David Sokol to be his finance chairman, and his campaign manager Jordan McGrain promised that the attorney general’s second-quarter fundraising haul would turn some heads, though he declined to elaborate.
“People will be surprised at how successful [his fundraising effort] has been,” McGrain said.
Though the two major political parties usually try and avoid divisive primary contests — the National Republican Senatorial Committee is certain to stick with Hagel unless he indicates he isn’t going to run — Republicans’ quest to hold Hagel’s Senate seat wouldn’t necessarily suffer if one occurs.
In the previous cycle, the Nebraska GOP endured one of its most bloody gubernatorial primaries on record, but still won the general election handily. Acting Gov. Dave Heineman (R) defeated then-Rep. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.) — the popular former Nebraska University football coach — before going on to trounce his Democratic opponent in the general election to win a full term.
In a state that already tilts significantly Republican, the Democrats don’t appear to have a top-tier Senate candidate in the offing, and Nebraska Democratic Party spokesman Eric Fought didn’t offer up any names beyond Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey (D) — although he vowed his party would field a formidable challenger.
“There’s no doubt that any trouble or contested primary on the other side will be a benefit to us, especially if we have the strength of candidate we believe we’ll have,” Fought said.
Fahey has expressed interest if the Senate seat is open and the popular former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) has said there’s a “1 percent chance” he would run if there’s a vacancy. Scott Kleeb, the Democratic nominee in the 3rd district last year, also is said to be a popular choice among Democratic activists.
Among Republicans, former Rep. Hal Daub, who also served previously as Omaha Mayor, has considered launching a Senate bid, as has wealthy businessman Tony Raimondo.