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Primary Headache in Nebraska’s GOP Contest

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Sen. Ben Nelson (above) has yet to announce whether he will run for re-election, but he already has a host of GOP challengers and could face one more if Gov. Dave Heineman jumps into the race.

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman’s (R) second look at challenging Sen. Ben Nelson (D) creates a promising opportunity for Senate Republicans — but it could also wreak havoc on the GOP primary in a race that tops the party’s list of targets.

Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), an influential player among conservatives, said he was displeased after hearing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) have been pressing the popular governor to reconsider his earlier decision not to run.

“Obviously I’m just disappointed that the party folks in Washington think they need to recruit someone else,” DeMint, who supports another GOP candidate in the race, said in an interview Tuesday. “Nebraska is a race the Republicans should win. ... There are some good candidates in that race already.”

Republicans need a net gain of four seats next year to take outright control of the Senate, and it’s hard to conceive of a path to the majority that doesn’t run through Omaha. Public polls show Nelson remains one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for re-election next year.

So far, none of the three GOP challengers in the race have proved to be Nelson’s perfect foil — stoking fears that the Nebraska Senate race could escape the GOP’s grasp. Over the past several months, state Treasurer Don Stenberg, DeMint’s endorsed candidate, struggled with fundraising, Attorney General Jon Bruning has confronted ethical issues, and state Sen. Deb Fischer failed to raise the kind of money needed to boost her name identification.

Heineman initially ruled out a bid last year, but more recently he hinted to local reporters that he might be open to the race following repeated pleas from party leaders in Washington, D.C.

“They initiated the phone calls, and I listened to them,” Heineman said Tuesday morning, according to the Omaha World-Herald. “I also indicated that it would take a lot to change my mind.”

Senate leaders are mum about a potential Heineman candidacy. A visibly uncomfortable Cornyn balked Monday night at the Capitol when questioned about whether Heineman is reconsidering.

“I don’t have anything to add to what he said,” Cornyn told Roll Call. When asked whether his overtures to Heineman sends a message to the other GOP candidates that they are lacking, Cornyn replied, “I talk to every single one of them.”

DeMint said he has already given his opinion to Cornyn.

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