Thursday, June 07, 2007

Chuck Hagel vs. Jon Bruning: Guns a'Blazing

by Kyle Michaelis
Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning took the big step today of offically announcing his candidacy for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by two-term Republican incumbent Chuck Hagel.

This move has, of course, been expected for some time. Although it was only March when Bruning declared himself "a Hagel guy" who would only run if Nebraska's senior senator decided not to seek a third term, Bruning has since become convinced that it's time to go for the Nebraska Republican Party's king-maker.

What's probably most surprising is how upfront Bruning has been with his accusations of apostasy. In Thursday's press conference, Bruning used every angle he had to portay Hagel as out of touch with Nebraska and as a traitor to his party and president at a time of war.

This went above and beyond attacking Hagel's half-hearted impeachment talk and his siding with the Democratic Party in opposing Bush's "stay the course" rhetoric and escalation of the war in Iraq. Bruning actually accused the sitting Republican Senator of being a carpetbagger from Virginia more interested in making a name for himself on TV than serving the people of Nebraska. He also went after Hagel for talking about an independent bid for the Presidency as yet another betrayal of the Republican Party.

When challenged with Congressional Quarterly's report that Hagel was more loyal to Bush's agenda than any other Senator in the country in 2006, Bruning bet the questioner "a nickel" that no such report existed. Besides owing that reporter a nickel and looking a bit unprepared and ignorant about Hagel's actual record, Bruning was still able to save some face with the suggestion to “Call the White House and ask them how they feel about Senator Hagel.” Considering the Bush Administration's vindictiveness and Vice President Dick Cheney's outright denunciation of Hagel, it's hard to believe there isn't some behind the scenes support for an anti-Hagel insurgency here in Nebraska (which Bruning appears to have tried tapping with a fundraising trip to New York last weekend).

Considering that Hagel's 1996 Senate victory is rightfully understood as the foundation on which Nebraska Republicans built their position of outright dominance in Nebraska politics, Bruning comes across quite like Robespierre declaring "Louis must die, so that the country may live." (i.e. "Hagel must fall, so that the party may live.")

If history is any indicator, Bruning might just get his way. . . but he's also likely to get his soon thereafter.

It would be one thing for Bruning to have announced that he couldn't wait any longer for Hagel to make up his mind. . . that he's running because it's his time, he's the best candidate for the office, and refuses to be constrained to decisions and time tables outside his control.

Rather than that more respectful approach that would have allowed Hagel to walk away from this race with his dignity intact, Bruning made quite clear today that - besides his own out-sized ego - this campaign is mostly about getting rid of Hagel. Bruning could have left Hagel an out but has instead chosen to define himself as "the anti-Hagel," essentially slapping Hagel in the face and daring him to do something about it.

This might appear to back Hagel into a corner but one can't help wondering if it isn't truly a reflection of the corner into which Bruning had already been backed. Whether or not Hagel was going to seek re-election, the institutional, inner-party forces at his disposal were likely going to work against Bruning and for another candidate no matter what.

In essence, every bit of influence Hagel has (most importantly, that behind the scenes) was probably going to someone who wasn't Jon Bruning. I suspect Bruning realized that and is now taking Hagel on and making him the issue not just as an attention-grabbing strategy but also as a matter of his own political survival. What's impossible to know is whether division in the Nebraska Republican Party made this conflict inevitable (with Bruning permanently wait-listed to make the next step) or whether Bruning's raw ambition simply wouldn't allow him to wait his turn any longer.

An intriguing dynamic any way you look at it. For now, this is a two-man race. But, we don't know if it's Jon Bruning vs. Chuck Hagel or Jon Bruning vs. himself. Bruning is trying very hard to make this a race about Hagel in hopes that Hagel's perceived weakness will play to his benefit whether or not Hagel ever appears on the 2008 ballot.

As Hagel and his people are concerned, Bruning's is pretty much a scorched earth strategy, which suggests divisions in the Nebraska Republican Party even greater than we might have previously imagined. Either that or Bruning just doesn't have the agenda to back up his ambitions and plans to win this race on negativity and personal attacks.

After attacking Hagel with every weapon he had, this latter possibility became especially evident in the delight Bruning showed at suggestion of a general election showdown with potential Democratic candidate and former two-term U.S Senator Bob Kerrey. With perversely little concern for winning an election based on ideas, Bruning's campaign strategy was succinctly revealed in his confidently dismissing Kerrey as "so easy to assail."

For now, Bruning gets points for going on the offensive with such reckless abandon. But, it's very, very early, and there's a lot of fight left - not to mention plenty of other potential challengers waiting in the wings.

Scorecard Through Three Rounds
Jon Bruning 09 - 10 - 10
Chuck Hagel 10 - 09 - 09

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