Chuck Wagon

Senator’s Decision to Leave Sparks Tasty Succession Fight

Posted September 10, 2007 at 6:47pm

With Sen. Chuck Hagel’s (R-Neb.) retirement a done deal, attention turns to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns (R) and former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) — and whether both will enter the 2008 Senate race and touch off a backyard brawl of Nebraska political heavyweights.

Neither Johanns, the popular former governor, nor Kerrey were commenting on their political plans Monday. But both have held discussions with

their respective Senatorial campaign committees, with some well-placed Nebraska Republicans predicting Johanns would shortly announce his candidacy and Democrats holding out hope that an undecided Kerrey would do the same.

“I still think [Johanns] is in,” one Nebraska Republican said on Monday, following Hagel’s announcement in Omaha that he would not seek a third term. “There are two groups of Republicans: One group of people believes he will resign in the next 48 hours and jump in. Another group believes he doesn’t want to run against Kerrey and will not run.”

Johanns, then Nebraska’s governor, was tapped in 2005 by President Bush to take over as Agriculture secretary. He has talked with the National Republican Senatorial Committee about running for Senate in 2008, a GOP source said. But Johanns’ spokesman at Agriculture declined Monday to comment on the secretary’s 2008 plans.

Bob Wickers, Johanns’ former political consultant who is directing the Senate bid of Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning (R), said he and the secretary have not discussed next year’s race. Wickers said his close personal relationship with Johanns — and his decision to take on as a client someone whom the secretary might face in the May 2008 GOP primary — should not be interpreted as a signal of Johanns’ intentions either way.

“He’s very genuine when he talks about the Hatch Act and being precluded from discussing it,” Wickers said.

Kerrey, meanwhile, is expected to be in Washington, D.C., today. Schedule permitting, he might meet with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) to discuss his potential candidacy.

According to one Democratic source, it was Kerrey who first broached the idea of running in 2008 with Schumer, not the other way around. Kerrey said prior to Hagel’s retirement announcement that he would not run next year if the Senator ran for re- election.

Kerrey, also a former Nebraska governor, retired from the Senate in 2000 and is currently president of The New School in New York. The former Senator has not lived in Nebraska for several years and would have to uproot his family from Manhattan and relocate to his home state — where he remains popular — should he decide to run.

“Kerrey would be the strongest candidate,” said one Democratic strategist who follows Senate races.

Absent Kerrey, Democrats have two potential candidates to turn to: Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey and 2006 3rd district Democratic nominee Scott Kleeb. Both are seriously considering running if Kerrey does not.

Nebraska is a state with solid conservative moorings and a majority of Republicans elected to statewide office — Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) being the notable exception. But with Hagel’s retirement adding to the growing list of Republican-held Senate seats that will open next year, the DSCC and the Nebraska Democratic Party are planning to strongly contest for the seat, even if Kerrey chooses to stay in New York.

Hagel’s retirement was rumored for months, and Republicans interested in running saw an opportunity to advance to the Senate without having to trample an incumbent and already had begun positioning themselves.

Bruning had decided to run regardless of whether Hagel sought another term and has banked around $1 million since entering the race this past spring. Johanns is considered the strongest GOP candidate for the general election, but Republicans do not expect any of their fellow party members who are either running or considering a bid to be scared off by the former governor.

A spokesman for the Bruning campaign said as much on Monday.

“We were running a campaign and prepared to take on two-term United States Senator, so we’re not going to back down,” Bruning campaign manager Jordan McGrain said. “We’re not going to stop for anyone or anything.”

In addition to Bruning, former Omaha Mayor and ex-Rep. Hal Daub (R) is examining a run, as is manufacturing company CEO Tony Raimondo. Financial analyst Pat Flynn (R) has already announced, although both he and Raimondo are considered to be long shots without a chance of seriously contesting for the GOP nomination.

Johanns and Kerrey are clearly considered by their political compatriots to be favorites for their respective parties’ nominations, not to mention victory in the general election. But in addition to their strengths, each brings certain weaknesses to the table.

Although he switched parties nearly 20 years ago, Johanns is a former Democrat. Should he run, his Republican primary opponents might make an issue of that — until Hagel announced he would retire, Bruning in particular took great pains to point out where the Senator differed from rank-and-file Republicans.

As Agriculture secretary, Johanns recently chose to shut down certain Farm Service Agency offices, including some in Nebraska. It was an unpopular move back home and could cause him a political problem should he run for Senate, as could this year’s farm bill, which has yet to pass and in fact might not pass before year’s end.

However, Johanns was popular in Nebraska before coming to Washington, D.C., to serve in Bush’s Cabinet, and he proved his mettle in several campaigns throughout his career.

In 2002, he became the first Republican since 1956 to be re-elected governor. In 1998, during his first campaign, the then-Lincoln mayor won a three-way Republican primary over state Auditor John Breslow and then-Rep. Jon Christensen despite spending less than his opponents. In that race, Breslow spent $3.8 million, Christensen spent $1.8 million, and Johanns spent $1.7 million.

“Johanns is kind of the darling of the [GOP] back there,” said one Republican consultant with experience running races in Nebraska.

Kerrey also brings political liabilities to the contest, even though his image among Cornhusker State voters generally remains untarnished.

Despite the Republicans’ political troubles nationally and the continuing unpopularity of the Iraq War, the GOP remains strong in Nebraska, with the state having moved considerably to the right since 1994, the last time Kerrey ran and won a race there. Republicans have a 17-point advantage among enrolled voters — 50 percent to 33 percent.

In 1994 the Republican lead among registered voters was approximately 10 points — 50 percent to 40 percent.

With a lifetime 8 percent rating from the American Conservative Union, the increased strength of the Nebraska Republican Party over the past dozen years could cause Kerrey a problem.

However, the politically savvy Kerrey still cuts a popular figure in his home state.

He is a Vietnam War veteran not known as a liberal firebrand, and an independent, populist streak underscores Nebraska politics, as evidenced by Nelson’s re-election last year and the warm feelings voters have displayed for Hagel despite his run-ins with the White House over Iraq.

“I’m concerned about [Kerrey]. He’s a formidable candidate,” said the Nebraska Republican who believes Johanns will run. “He can be beat, but we have to define his voting record first.”