Sabatos Crystal Ball

Nebraska Races

Senate Outlook for 2008

Can Democrats Take Advantage of the Turf?

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Nebraska (Open Seat)

Outlook: Solid Republican

June 18, 2008 Update:

Rancher Scott Kleeb won the May Democratic primary, marking the second straight election cycle Kleeb will be running as an underdog in the Cornhusker State. In 2006, Kleeb ran in Nebraska’s 3rd congressional district and lost by just 10%, a strong showing in a district that voted 75% for Bush in 2004. This year, Kleeb will be facing off against former Republican Governor Mike Johanns in an open seat battle. Once again, Kleeb will be the underdog as Johanns has popularity, funding, and a substantial lead in recent polling. Johanns has $1.4 million cash on hand to Kleeb’s $250,000 and polls show him somewhere in the high 50% range with Kleeb trailing in the thirties. Kleeb is used to the role of underdog and good thing too. It is a role he will certainly be playing in 2008.

March 25, 2008 Update:

In a state where corn is king, it’s good to have a history in agriculture. Republican Mike Johanns has just that, having served as Secretary of Agriculture for George W. Bush. On the other side of the aisle, Democrats Scott Kleeb, a rancher and 2006 House candidate, and Tony Raimondo, an industrialist and businessman, are duking it out for the nomination, with several ”also ran” candidates filling out the Democratic field. Kleeb leads the pack in fundraising, but lags far, far behind the numbers Johanns has reported. Polling for hypothetical matchups shows Johanns with nearly double-digit advantages over Kleeb. Barring a miracle, Johanns will hold this seat for the Republican Party.

November 26, 2007 Update:

Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning has pulled out of the race for the Republican nomination. Bruning had trailed former Governor and Bush Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns in both polls and fund-raising for some time, and his withdrawal from the race leaves Johanns in excellent position. The Democrats still don’t have a true top-tier candidate in the mix, and if Johanns doesn’t have to slug it out in a primary, he can focus his resources on November 2008. Bruning’s decision gives even more weight to the chances of this seat remaining in Republican control.

November 19, 2007 Update:

With the dust still settling in this race, it looks like Democrats will have to settle for their third pick, rancher and 2006 House candidate Scott Kleeb. Kleeb surprised just about everyone in 2006, winning 45 percent of the vote in a district that went 75-25 for Bush in 2004 and 2000. A recent poll however, showed Kleeb losing 59-28 and 55-29 to the two leading Republican candidates.

On the Republican side, polls from early October showed former Governor Mike Johanns leading state attorney general Jon Bruning in primary polling. The margins varied according to the source, with the NRSC poll showing Johanns at 58 percent to Bruning’s 16, while Bruning claimed the actual deficit was only nine percentage points.

Former Republican Congressman Hal Daub has since dropped out of the race, citing fundraising hurdles that he considered to be insurmountable, while the Green Party is pinning its hopes on oft-candidate Steve Larrick.

October 24, 2007 Update:

Former Senator Bob Kerrey has announced he will not resign from the New School to run for a Senate seat. With the Dems strongest candidate eschewing the race, former Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns appears to be the favorite.

September 19, 2007 Update:

Nebraska Republican Hal Daub has announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination. Daub was a member of the House from 1981-89, mayor of Omaha from 1994-2001, and has twice before run for the Senate, losing the Republican primary to incumbent David Karnes in 1988, and losing the general election to incumbent Jim Exon in 1990. Two other candidates have already announced: Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, and investment adviser Pat Flynn.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns has begun contacting friends and colleagues in Nebraska, informing them of his plans to resign from his position in the Bush administration and wade into the Republican primary fight. Johanns served as governor of Nebraska from 1998 until his confirmation as Secretary of Agriculture in 2005. He is seen as the early front-runner for the nomination, as he brings a unique blend of Washington experience and statewide name recognition. Johanns’s entry into the race provides the GOP with a very strong candidate, both in the primary and the general election.


Now here’s a race that’s as wide open as the Great Plains. Long-serving Republican Chuck Hagel announced he will neither seek a third term in the Senate, nor run for President. Even before Hagel’s announcement, candidates on both sides of the aisle had begun to prepare for the impending campaign battles; now that he’s officially out, the gloves are off and fists are flying.

The only officially announced candidates so far are Republican state attorney general Jon Bruning and Republican businessman Pat Flynn. Former governor and current Bush Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has been mentioned as another potential Republican candidate, and Johanns is undoubtedly the strongest candidate the GOP could field. National GOP leaders are doing everything they can to assure his entry into the race. Congressmen Lee Terry and Jeff Fortenberry won’t run if Johanns does but former Omaha Mayor Hal Daub may throw his hat into the ring regardless. Businessman Tony Raimondo could run, too.

On the Democratic side, the dream candidate is former Senator Bob Kerrey, who is considering entering the race with the intense encouragement of his former Democratic colleagues in the Senate. Current Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey will consider the race should Kerrey pass on running. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has promised to restore Kerrey’s seniority should he return to the Senate, an offer which should sweeten the deal considerably. While some Nebraska observers think Kerrey has been away from Nebraska too long, serving as president of the New School in New York City, others believe Kerrey could quickly rekindle his magic with Cornhuskers. Time may tell.

Bruning has gotten off the first salvo in the impending war of the words, lambasting Kerrey, Hagel, and Johanns as carpetbaggers. Johanns has locked up the support and endorsements from many state officials, as well as prominent Republicans from outside the state, such as Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa. With so many candidates and so little certainty as to who is actually running, we will be keeping a close eye on developments. Nebraska holds the possibility of a Democratic pick-up in a somewhat unlikely place–though quite a few Democrats have served in the U.S. Senate from Nebraska in recent decades.


Scott Kleeb – Democrat – rancher and 2006 NE-03 Democratic nominee

Mike Johanns – Republican – former governor, current Bush Agriculture Secretary

Steve Larrick – Independent – perennial Green Party candidate