Hagel Appears Likely to Seek Another Term

Posted March 12, 2007 at 6:33pm

As Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) announced Monday that he would postpone a final decision about the 2008 presidential race, there was little evidence that his flirtation with a national campaign — one based on his vocal opposition to the handling of the Iraq war — would have a negative impact on his re-election efforts back home.

In an anticlimactic bit of political theater, Hagel said Monday he would focus most of his energy on his Senate duties while preparing to run for re-election in 2008, saying during an Omaha news conference that he also was holding the door open to switching gears later this year and running for president.

But in saying his constituents deserve a full-time Senator, while pledging to continue raising money for his Senate campaign and political action committee accounts — forgoing even the formation of a White House exploratory committee — Hagel appeared to signal that his political future lies in the Senate.

“What I got out of it, at least for right now, is that he’s running for re-election to the Senate,” said a Republican operative based in Nebraska. “What he did was really smart; he said that he’ll be a good Senator. That can only help him.”

Lost amid the weeks-long speculation over Hagel’s political future was the fact that Nebraska election law doesn’t force his hand. Rather, it leaves the second-term Senator with plenty of flexibility.

Perhaps most significantly, Nebraska law permits Hagel to appear on the state’s May 9 primary ballot for president and Senate simultaneously. Similar to what Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) did in 2000 when he ran for re-election and for vice president, Hagel has the option of running for Senate and president concurrently.

Meanwhile, the filing deadline for incumbent candidates in Nebraska isn’t until Feb. 15.

Now that several states are in the process of moving up their presidential primary contests to Feb. 5 or earlier, the GOP standard-bearer for president likely will be known by then, meaning Hagel’s fate in the presidential contest, if he ran, would be apparent 10 days before the Nebraska filing deadline.

If he does, Hagel still would have plenty of time to transition to a Senate race in the event that his presidential hopes faltered.

But Hagel’s announcement Monday that he will put off making a final decision about the 2008 presidential race only prompted more head scratching from GOP strategists and political observers already perplexed by the Nebraska Senator’s unorthodox campaign platform.

“Taking a decidedly anti-war position and using that as a launching pad for the presidency of the United States, that dog ain’t gonna hunt,” said Republican consultant Chris LaCivita, who is not aligned with any of the candidates in the current field.

From a more practical standpoint, many strategists wonder where Hagel will look for money and institutional support if he does decide to launch a White House bid. And they privately question whether Hagel has an understanding of the national political infrastructure that would be required to run in 2008.

Additionally, a Hagel bid would no doubt put stress on his relationship with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Hagel’s closest ally in the Senate and one of the leading 2008 Republican contenders. McCain currently has the support of nine of his colleagues, many of whom would appear to otherwise be natural Hagel allies.

Hagel ended 2006 with a little more than $141,000 in his Senate campaign account. His last competitive race was his first run for Senate in 1996, when he defeated then-Gov. Ben Nelson (D) — who is now his junior colleague — in an open-seat race.

But despite Hagel’s pointed criticism of President Bush regarding the Iraq War, he appears safe from a primary challenge should he ultimately choose to run for re-election to the Senate — which is what some sources familiar with his thinking expect him to do.

Hagel continues to be a vocal critic of Bush’s foreign and national security policies, but he has a reliably conservative voting record and has sided with the president on most domestic matters.

That should inoculate him from a primary challenge, with Nebraska’s strong Republican bent putting him in a good position to win re-election over the Democratic nominee.

One Republican operative said Hagel remains popular with the state’s GOP voters — including among the activists who tend to vote in primary elections.

Hagel’s blunt style and public persona of going against the grain have endeared him to Nebraska Republicans, even though at least a few surely must disagree with him on the Iraq War and other foreign policy and national security matters.

If a maverick GOP candidate did decide to take on Hagel, it likely would be difficult, as state GOP rules allow the party committee to endorse incumbents in a primary if the incumbent is running for re-election to his current post.

That means Hagel is guaranteed to have the full support of the party apparatus if he runs for re-election to the Senate, another factor that could discourage a primary challenge.

Additionally, the major donors — most of whom are based in Omaha — are unlikely to contribute anything to a primary challenger, as they are loath to anger a sitting Senator.

“I don’t think anyone will primary him,” this GOP operative said.

If Hagel does retire, or run for president and wins the nomination, there are a bevy of candidates who might jump into the race, especially on the Republican side.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns (R), who served as Nebraska governor before Bush tapped him for his current post, is considered in the top tier of possible Hagel replacements, as are state Attorney General Jon Bruning (R) and Hal Daub (R), a former Congressman and ex-mayor of Omaha.

In fact, some speculate that Bruning might form an exploratory committee on the off-chance that Hagel does retire.

Among Democrats, the two most popular potential candidates among Democratic activists are Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey and 2006 Congressional candidate Scott Kleeb.

Fahey and Kleeb are said to be much more inclined to run if Hagel doesn’t, though both are holding off a final decision pending a better read on Hagel’s plans.

To that end, the Nebraska Democratic Party on Monday practically ridiculed Hagel for not being firm on his future.

“I think it is extremely disappointing that Sen. Hagel would bring the entire state of Nebraska to a screeching halt by holding an elaborate ceremony to announce absolutely nothing,” state Democratic Party Chairman Steve Achelpohl said in a statement.