Seeking a New Coach

Posted May 2, 2005 at 6:02pm

Nebraska Rep. Tom Osborne’s (R) decision to run for governor in 2006 opens the door for a cavalcade of would-be GOP replacements previously forced to the sidelines when the former football coach came to Congress just five years ago.

Although he had lived in Lincoln for much of his adult life, Osborne’s popularity as a result of his years as the successful coach of the University of Nebraska’s football team made him the heaviest of favorites in the 2000 race, driving Democrats and Republicans from the contest.

Osborne trounced his two primary opponents, winning with 71 percent of the vote; he won a similarly astounding 82 percent in the general election in the heavily Republican seat. He was re-elected with 93 percent in 2002 and 87 percent in 2004.

A number of candidates who passed on that race, however, are said to be interested in the newly open seat, including Osborne’s director of agriculture policy, John Hanson.

Hanson, who is from Lexington, Neb., dropped his bid in 2000 during Osborne’s announcement speech and immediately became his campaign chairman.

Hanson currently works out of Osborne’s Kearney district office. Should Hanson secure either the Congressman’s public or tacit backing, it would provide a major boost to his campaign.

He did not return a call Monday seeking comment.

Aside from Hanson, state Sen. Adrian Smith, Grand Island Mayor Jay Vavricek, state Treasurer Ron Ross, Nebraska Public Service Commission Chairman Jerry Vap, and insurance executive Jim Christensen — brother of ex-Rep. Jon Christensen (R) — are all interested in the contest, according to informed GOP sources.

Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale, one of the two Republicans who challenged Osborne in 2000, took himself out of consideration Monday.

“He plans to run for re-election as secretary of state in 2006,” a Gale spokesman said.

Smith appears to be the furthest along of any of the potential Republican candidates mentioned as Osborne replacements.

“The interest is certainly there,” Smith said Monday, adding that he will make a decision on the race by next week.

Phil Erdman, a colleague of Smith’s in the state Senate, predicted that Smith will run and called him a “very strong candidate.” Erdman, who is also talked about as a potential candidate, said his own run is “probably unlikely.”

Smith, 34, cast his youth as his primary selling point, saying he would be “willing to serve a good long time.”

The 3rd district’s two most recent Members — Osborne and his predecessor, Bill Barrett (R) — were both in their 60s when they were elected and served short tenures by Congressional standards.

Barrett was elected in 1990 at age 61 and served 10 years in the House before retiring; Osborne, 63 when elected in 2000, has held the seat for just three terms.

Voters in small states like Nebraska often put heavy emphasis on seniority since they view it as the best way to ensure that the state gets it fair share of federal spending.

Smith was first elected to the state’s unicameral Legislature in 1998 and re-elected in 2002. His Senate district sits in the far western portion of the state near the city of Scottsbluff.

The sheer size of the 3rd district likely guarantees a serious challenge to Smith.

It encompasses roughly 85 percent of the state’s land area and is home to one-third of its population, spanning the entirety of central and western Nebraska.

Communicating to voters in a district so large is next to impossible, as the 3rd is covered by nine media markets in six different states: Sioux City (Iowa), Cheyenne (Wyoming), Denver (Colorado), Wichita (Kansas), Sioux Falls and Rapid City (South Dakota), and, in Nebraska, North Platte, Omaha and Lincoln-Hastings-Kearney.

Given the enormity of the district and the likelihood that no candidate will enter the race with the vast name recognition that Osborne had in 2000, the contest is likely to turn into a battle of geographic bases.

The population crown jewel of the seat is Grand Island in the district’s eastern reaches. Grand Island has roughly 40,000 residents — 13,000 more than Kearney, which lies approximately 40 miles due west of it.

As a result, Vavricek would be a heavyweight if he got into the contest.

“I am flattered by the consideration,” Vavricek said Monday. “I wouldn’t close the door on anything right now.”

Vavricek must decide whether to seek re-election or run for the 3rd district in 2006.

Vavricek was elected mayor — a nonpartisan position — in 2002 after emerging from a seven-candidate primary field and a head-to-head general election.

Prior to being elected mayor, Vavricek was a radio broadcaster. He owns five stations across the state.

National Democrats are extremely unlikely to target the district, which President Bush carried by 51 points in 2004.

Among the Democratic candidates mentioned are attorney Mike Meister, businessman Jim Jenkins and podiatrist Steve Bennett.