Sunday, May 14, 2006

Heineman vs. Hahn: Post-Primary Gut-Check

by Kyle Michaelis
There are many theories out there as to why and how Gov. Dave Heineman vanquished Coach and Congressman Tom Osborne in last Tuesday's Republican primary, becoming the new front-runner in the race and earning the chance to be elected in his own right.

Needless to say, it was an impressive performance - Heineman's 50% to Osborne's 44% besting my own estimation that Osborne would squeak-by on election day and even those polls towards the end that had Heineman up by a lesser margin. As even Heineman's elated campaign manager, Carlos Castillo, stated in today's Lincoln Journal-Star, "I thought it would be closer. It’s Tom Osborne."

What's hard to say is whether Heineman's surprising performance is more a commentary on the candidates or on Nebraska's Republican voters. The other important question that arises is what this means for the general election and the prospects for Democratic challenger David Hahn.

There is certainly some evidence to support the notion that Osborne was too independent for Nebraska Republicans' tastes. For a party that has become accustomed to George W. Bush's Patriotism = no-questions-asked style of "leadership", it's understandable that Osborne would be considered something of a threat.

Sure, he's been a lap-dog for the Republican leadership in Congress for six years, but he hasn't needed to be. His freedom from the corporate and special interest PAC money that pervades Republican politics was a needless risk when Heineman proved more than happy to pick up the slack.

And, despite his voting record, it could be said that Osborne has never exercised a suitable degree of conservative zealotry to please his party's right-wing. I mean - let's face it - the man is no Adrian Smith.

The extent to which his support of in-state tuition for undocumented students cost Osborne votes is hard to say. It's also hard to say how much Heineman benefitted from his politically-advantageous defense of rural and suburban school districts in their respective battles. But, with Republican voters in particular, there's no doubt these issues chipped-away at what would have otherwise been Osborne's base.

Of course, there's no end to the theories of how Osborne lost this race. What's far clearer is how Heineman won it. He followed the political winds with expert precision and took advantage at every turn of the connections he'd made after years in the trenches of Republican Party politics.

As for what this foretells in November, who really can say? I've never put too much faith in election forecasting - even my own - and the Osborne-Heineman race certainly hasn't done a thing to change that.

To those Democrats who've long thought Heineman would be an easier match-up for their candidate, Hahn, I fear conventional wisdom may - again - have led us astray. Either Republican was going to come out of the primary the favorite; no one was under any illusions otherwise. The main difference is that Heineman comes out of this primary with "the big MO!" - momentum.

Osborne, on the other hand, even in victory, would have come out of this primary weakened in stature and proven a generally ineffective campaigner. I would also propose that Hahn's greatest strengths - his youthful vigor and vision for Nebraska's future - would have posed a much starker contrast with the aging Osborne.

As the younger candidate (than Osborne), the more effective campaigner (than Osborne), and the incumbent, Heineman is going to be tough to beat. That becomes even clearer when you add in the fact that Heineman's clearly positioned himself with organized labor and the GOP's core constituencies as the heir to the Johanns legacy - a legacy of mostly inoffensive political opportunism that voters have thus far accepted without question.

The trick for Hahn - and it's a mighty one - will be convincing voters to break with the Johanns/Heineman status quo, which has hovered near a 70% approval rating for years, no matter how poor the state's economic performance or how burdensome its tax structure. So far, voters have failed to hold the state's chief executives responsible for the faults of their administrations - whether appointing a drug addict to the state legislature, hand-picking a corrupt State Treasurer, or leaving the child welfare and Health & Human Services systems disastrously underfunded and underperforming at great human cost.

The evidence is there. No one has been able to make it stick. If Hahn's going to have a chance in November, he's got to do precisely that. It's not an impossible task, but it's not an enviable one either.

Hahn can win the battle of ideas, but he won't be able to win the election on vision alone. Voters have to take this campaign seriously first, and that requires their recognizing the stakes. Heineman has to be put on the defensive, the sooner the better. That's not a call for getting personal, but Hahn has no choice but to go negative. Simply put, if voters go into that ballot box content with the last eight years of Republican leadership, Heineman comes out the winner...probably by a very wide margin.

Heineman is the status quo. Without saying so, he will try to make that his strength. It worked in the primary, in part because Osborne was never willing to challenge Heineman and Johanns' records. That assumption may have been fatal to Osborne's campaign. For Hahn to make a similar assumption would mean the end of his campaign before it has even started.

Nebraskans do deserve better than Heineman/Johanns, but they haven't realized it yet. And they won't unless someone forces them to it.

Our complacency is deeply-rooted. Our Republican-leanings are well-entrenched. Before Hahn can win on the ideas, Nebraskans need a wake-up call.

We need a true picture of where this state stands and how its current leadership has failed before the possibility of change will ever capture our imagination. On a gut level, many of us know Nebraska is not fulfilling its potential, but we need the why and the how put in words for us. We need the reminder that we should be doing better before the explanation of how we will do better carries any weight.

If Hahn accomplishes that - what no one else has been able to accomplish over the last eight years - then, we will have the contest this state deserves come fall. And, I truly believe, that's a contest Hahn can win.


Blogger Unknown said...

I haven't really been able to articulate well why we needed Heineman to win, but I think it's important for several reasons, including many that you laid out here.

- Heineman represents the status quo in an election year where our entire message should be about making change. If Osborne was the candidate, we lose the opportunity for any concrete criticism of our opponent. And there is plenty of opportunity when it comes to Dave Heineman.

- Hahn actually presents an independence of thought that is refreshing in this state. I think he presents a clear choice between the insider and the outsider. You lose that advantage with Osborne in the race.

- It drives down turnout in the fall. High Republican turnout in the primary screwed us in a few nonpartisan races. Republican turnout in the fall could be the difference between winning and losing in NE-01.

- Most importantly, as it turned out, Tom Osborne got a good amount of Democratic support. Not enough to win him the election, possibly enough to cost him. Turncoats, but not without their reasons. Every Democrat who switched to vote for Osborne did so because they did not want Dave Heineman as governor.

Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...


I think our differences in perspective can largely be attributed to the 2002 race, in which Nebraska stood in no better condition than it does today - in fact, a good deal worse - yet Johanns breezed to victory, barely acknowledging that a campaign even existed.

Now, David Hahn is a better-prepared candidate than Stormy Dean, but that doesn't change the fact that voters have yet to prove willing to break with the status quo. In fact, Heineman's victory over Osborne is a testament to the status quo's stranglehold on Nebraska politics.

Osborne would have at least introduced a note of chaos into the mix - forcing voters to take a real look at the issues and make a choice in November. Now, they have the option of falling back on the same ol'-same ol' of the last eight years....and that's exactly what they'll do if we let them.


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