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Kerrey Won’t Try Comeback if Hagel Runs Again

As the halfway point of the season (read: election cycle) approaches and the trading (read: filing) deadline looms, Nebraska Democrats are looking past their bereft farm system and hoping to sign superstar free-agent (read: former Senator) Bob Kerrey as their 2008 Senate nominee. [IMGCAP(1)]

Kerrey, president of The New School in New York, has indicated he might be inclined to run for Senate next year if Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) retires, adding that he will almost certainly not run if Hagel seeks a third term. Hagel, who has said he might run for president, is expected to reveal his 2008 plans sometime this month.

Kerrey describes his odds of running generally as pretty low — meaning Nebraska Democrats might turn to Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey (D) or 2006 3rd district Democratic nominee Scott Kleeb to fill out their 2008 slate. In a brief telephone interview last week, Kerrey said a Hagel candidacy is the only factor that would automatically compel him to stay put in New York.

Agriculture Secretary and former Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns (R), a political heavyweight, also is said to be considering a run for Senate if Hagel retires. But Kerrey said what Johanns does would not affect his decision.

“The only one that will [affect] my decision is Hagel,” Kerrey said. “Even if I wanted to I wouldn’t come back” if Hagel runs.

Republican insiders based in Nebraska expect Johanns to run for Senate if Hagel retires, although there has been no official word from Johanns himself. Meanwhile, Republicans who have been waiting for a Senate seat to open up are being far less patient than Kerrey.

State Attorney General Jon Bruning (R) launched his 2008 Senate campaign earlier this year and said he will run regardless of what Hagel does. He closed the second quarter of the year with $643,000 on hand and has been attacking Hagel for months, largely over Hagel’s public skepticism over the Iraq War.

Ex-Rep. Hal Daub (R), who also is the former mayor of Omaha, is seriously contemplating running, as are financial analyst Pat Flynn (R) and manufacturing company CEO Tony Raimondo (R).

Despite Sen. Ben Nelson’s (D) re-election victory last year, Nebraska remains solid Republican territory, when it comes to both enrolled voters and the number of elected officials. The GOP controls the unicameral Legislature as well as the state’s three Congressional seats.

This political dominance is reflected in the bench of candidates waiting in the wings to advance to federal office in the event that Republican Reps. Jeff Fortenberry, Lee Terry or Adrian Smith retire and a vacancy occurs.

The Republicans are stocked while the Democratic bench is relatively thin. In fact, while Republicans boast three to four potential candidates for each Congressional district, Democrats currently can offer only one or two.

Still, the Nebraska Democratic Party argues that it is making headway as it seeks to gain ground on the GOP.

“We continue to build on our 2006 successes,” state Democratic Party spokesman Eric Fought said. “We ran the most aggressive statewide coordinated campaign that this state has ever seen thanks to Nebraska’s Senator Ben Nelson and his investment in the venture.”

Fought said Democrats don’t expect to turn Nebraska blue “overnight.” But he noted that Democrats won nine of 10 targeted state Senate races last year — many of which were in districts that historically voted Republican.

Unless they seek another office, however, Fortenberry, Terry and Smith are likely to stick around the House for a while. Fortenberry, a sophomore, is just 46 years old. Terry, though he was first elected in 1998, is just 45. Smith, a freshman, is just 36.

But that hasn’t prevented a line of ambitious pols from queuing up in their districts.

In the 1st district, Democrats are looking to University of Nebraska Regent Chuck Hassebrook, who is considering running for Congress next year. State Sens. Bill Avery and Amanda McGill also are viewed as potential candidates in activist circles.

Among Republicans, the possible candidates if Fortenberry moves on include Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood; state Treasurer Shane Osborn; attorney and State Board of Education member Bob Evnen; Lancaster County GOP Chairman Mark Fahleson; state Sen. Tony Fulton; and Mike Foley, who is Nebraska’s elected state auditor.

In the 2nd district, 2006 Democratic nominee Jim Esch is considering another run against Terry. State Sens. Tom White and Steve Lathrop, both Omaha-based attorneys, also are said to be eyeing Congressional bids.

The 2nd district Republicans viewed as viable if Terry departs include 2006 Senate candidate and former state GOP Chairman David Kramer; Omaha attorney Scott Lautenbaugh; current Nebraska GOP Chairman Mark Quandahl; state Sen. Mike Friend; Omaha City Councilmen Jim Vokal and Dan Welch; Papillion Mayor James Blinn; and Chip Maxwell, the executive director of the Nebraska Coalition for Ethical Research.

In the 3rd district, which Smith, an ex-state Senator, won last year after former Rep. Tom Osborne (R) vacated the seat to run for governor, Democrats are looking to Kleeb, who was handily defeated in the general election by Smith, as well as state Sens. Annette Dubas and Russ Karpisek.

Dubas farms with her husband in rural Fullerton; Karpisek is the former mayor of Wilber and owns a meat market there. Kleeb, who has begun raising money, is teaching at Hastings College while he weighs his options for next year.

Smith survived a deep primary last year to secure the GOP nomination and advance to Congress — and is expected to remain on Capitol Hill for awhile. But should he decide he’s had enough of Washington, D.C., as his popular predecessor did after just three terms, five Republicans are waiting in the wings.

Among them are state Sen. Phil Erdman; 2006 3rd district candidate and former Grand Island Mayor Jay Vavricek; Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale; state Sen. Deb Fischer; and former state Sen. Bob Kremer, a longtime chairman of the state Senate Agriculture Committee.

Tiffiny Carlton, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska GOP, said she expects Republicans to dominate politics in the state this cycle — and to do so handily for many years to come. Republican candidates, she noted, won a majority of state legislative races in the previous cycle, not to mention 77 percent of county races and all of the campaigns for statewide office, save for the U.S. Senate race.

“The Nebraska Republican Party continues to recruit, train and elect candidates at local levels,” Carlton said. “These local officeholders along with the activists who help with their campaigns are the future statewide and federal officeholders for the Republican Party.”

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