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Republicans Zero In On Nebraska's U.S. Senate Seat

May 14, 2012
Originally published on May 14, 2012 8:24 am

Republicans hope to wrest control of the U.S. Senate in November from the majority Democrats, who have twice as many seats to defend this year. One state where the GOP has high hopes is Nebraska, where two-term incumbent Ben Nelson, a Democrat, is retiring. Voters from both parties will select their nominees Tuesday, and the Republican winner is likely to face a familiar face: former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey.

For Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, it's been a heady spring. In March, he sat in the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court as the challenge he helped lead to President Obama's health care law was argued. Now he is seen as the man to beat for the GOP Senate nomination. Bruning, 43, has made taking on the health care law a central part of his campaign narrative.

"This lawsuit, I gave birth to it along with some of my colleagues," Bruning says, "so I think I've proven that I'm willing to stand up. My opponents are talking about it. I don't blame them — I would, too. But Nebraskans know that I'm not just talking — I'm doing it."

All three of the major Republican candidates can tout endorsements from key conservatives. Bruning has former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum's backing. State Sen. Deb Fischer recently received Sarah Palin's endorsement. And, State Treasurer Don Stenberg, who is making his third try for the Senate, has support from South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint and from the Club for Growth, which bought TV ads attacking Bruning.

In fact, according to calculations by the Omaha World-Herald, outside groups supporting Stenberg have spent some $2.1 million on ads attacking Bruning.

Stenberg points to last week's defeat of Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana at the hands of the Tea Party's Richard Mourdock as a sort of template for Nebraska.

"I'd be the Richard Mourdock of the Nebraska race — the person who has the support of Club for Growth, U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, FreedomWorks," Stenberg says. "Jon Bruning is the establishment candidate. He has the establishment money and establishment endorsements."

But Bruning dismisses the comparison, saying despite all Stenberg's outside help, he's likely to finish third Tuesday. Bruning says he's the candidate of conviction in this race.

"We do need to be able to work with each other, but as far as compromising my principles, I firmly believe we have to reduce the size and scope of our government," Bruning says. "We have too much government today, too much spending. We have $16 trillion in debt, so on that issue I'm not looking for compromise; I'm looking to figure out how to balance the budget."

There are few substantive differences between the candidates seeking the Republican nomination. All are conservatives in a deeply red state, says University of Nebraska political science professor Michael Wagner.

"There's not a whole lot of space between them in terms of how they would behave as a U.S. Senator to the best that we can tell," Wagner says. "Bruning is a little more ambitious and seems to be a little more willing to play the bipartisan game in a way that Stenberg doesn't seem as willing to play."

At a Mitt Romney campaign rally at an Omaha restaurant last week, a random sampling of voters showed some support for all three major candidates.

James Degner from Papillion said he'd be voting for Bruning for one reason: "Because I don't want to see Bob Kerrey in there. Send him back to New York where he came from. He's a disgrace to the state of Nebraska."

It's not likely many Nebraskans hold Kerrey, 68, in such contempt. The former Navy SEAL was awarded the Medal of Honor for his service in Vietnam and served as Nebraska's governor and as a two-term senator.

But Kerrey clearly has fences to mend after moving back to the state from New York, where he was president of The New School. On the eve of the filing deadline, after first rejecting entreaties from party leaders to run for the seat, Kerrey decided to jump in after all.

At an Omaha coffee shop, he seemed at ease with his decision.

"I personally think it's a good idea to leave and get the perspective from being on the outside," Kerrey says. "So it's easier for me to run for the Senate today than if I had spent the last 11 years in the body."

But whether Kerrey gets to spend any more time in the Senate is problematic. While he faces only token opposition Tuesday, any of the three major Republicans running are seen as likely to put the seat into GOP hands come November.

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Now, most odds-makers give Republicans a good chance to win control of the Senate this fall. Democrats have to defend more seats than Republicans do and have a number of senators retiring. One of the states where the GOP sees a good opportunity to pick up a seat is Nebraska. Two-term Democratic Party incumbent Ben Nelson is stepping down.

Tomorrow, voters from both parties will select their nominees in the race to replace him. The Republican winner is likely to square off against a familiar name and face, a man who held that Senate seat over a decade ago, Bob Kerrey.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: For Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, it's been a heady spring. In March, he sat in the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court as the challenge he helped lead to president Obama's health care law was argued. Now he's seen as the man to beat for the GOP Senate nomination. The 43-year-old Bruning has made taking on the healthcare law a central part of his campaign narrative.

JON BRUNING: So this lawsuit was really, you know, I gave birth to it along with some of my colleagues. And so I think I've, you know, proven that am willing to stand up. My opponents are talking about it and that's fine, I don't blame them. I would if I was them too. But Nebraskans know that I'm not just talking, I'm doing.

NAYLOR: All three of the major Republican candidates can tout endorsements from key conservatives. Bruning has Rick Santorum's backing. State Senator Deb Fischer recently received Sarah Palin's endorsement. State Treasurer Don Stenberg, who's making his third try for the Senate, has support from South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint, and the Club for Growth, which bought TV ads attacking Bruning.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He voted to raise Nebraska's sales tax, doubled his office spending, and praised the Obama stimulus. Jon Bruning talks a good game, but the more you learn his record, the worse it gets.

NAYLOR: In fact, according to calculations by the Omaha World Herald, outside groups supporting Stenberg have spent some $2.1 million dollars on ads attacking Bruning. Stenberg points to last week's defeat of Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana as a sort of template for Nebraska.

DON STENBERG: I'd be the Richard Mourdock of the Nebraska race, the person who has the support of Club for Growth, U.S. Senator Jim DeMint, Freedom Works. Jon Bruning is the establishment candidate. He has the establishment money and the establishment endorsements.

NAYLOR: But Bruning dismisses the comparison, saying despite all Stenberg's outside help, he's likely to finish third tomorrow. Bruning says he's the candidate of conviction in this race.

BRUNING: I think we do need to be able to work with each other, but you know, as far as compromising my principles, I firmly believe we have to reduce the size and scope of our government. We have too much government today. We have too much spending. We have 16 trillion in debt. So on that issue, I'm not looking for compromise. I'm looking to figure out how to balance the budget.

NAYLOR: There are few substantive differences between the candidates seeking the Republican nomination. All are conservatives in a deeply red state, says University of Nebraska political science professor Michael Wagner.

MICHAEL WAGNER: There's not a lot of space between them in terms of how they would behave as a U.S. senator to the best that we can tell. Bruning is a little more ambitious and seems to be a little more willing to play the bipartisan game in a way that Stenberg doesn't seem to be as willing to play.

NAYLOR: At a Mitt Romney campaign rally at an Omaha restaurant last week, a random sampling of voters showed some support for all three major candidates. James Degner from Papillion said he'd be voting for Bruning for one reason.

JAMES DEGNER: Because I don't want to see Bob Kerrey in there. Send him back to New York, where he came from. He's a disgrace to the state of Nebraska.

NAYLOR: It's not likely many Nebraskans hold Kerrey in such contempt. The 68-year-old former Navy Seal who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his service in Vietnam and served as Nebraska's governor and two-term in the Senate. But Kerry clearly has fences to mend after moving back to the state from New York, where he was president of the New School.

On the eve of the filing deadline, after first rejecting entreaties from party leaders to run for the seat, Kerrey decided to jump in after all. At an Omaha coffee shop, he seemed at ease with his decision.

BOB KERRY: I personally think it's a good idea to leave and get the perspective of being on the outside. So easier for me to run for the Senate today than it would be if I'd, you know, spent the last 11 years in the body.

NAYLOR: But whether Kerry gets to spend any more time in the Senate is problematic. While he faces only token opposition tomorrow, any of the three major Republicans running are seen as likely to put the seat into GOP hands come November.

Brian Naylor, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.