In at least one state in the midterm elections, the Senate candidate of the tea party and the Senate candidate of the GOP establishment may just be the same person.
While Senate primaries in states ranging from Georgia to Iowa to West Virginia look likely to become fierce clashes between establishment and tea-party forces, Nebraska’s GOP may be free of intra-party conflict in 2014 if the state’s governor, Dave Heineman, decides to run.
Heineman is that rare figure in today’s fractured GOP politics: someone who has won the respect both of his state’s top Republicans and tea-party leaders. David Kramer, Republican national committeeman and former chairman of the Nebraska GOP, describes Heineman as “a very popular governor” and the “strongest Republican candidate.” If Heineman opts to run, “he’s the 800-pound gorilla in the race,” Kramer adds. “He would be the early front runner, there’s no question.” Jim Mason, state coordinator for the Nebraska Tea Party Patriots, is also positive, commenting that Heineman “has demonstrated a tea-party-type conservative leadership.”
Because of term limits, Heineman can’t run for governor again in 2014. He has held that office since Mike Johanns stepped down to become secretary of agriculture for George W. Bush in 2005; Heineman then won reelection twice, in 2006 and 2010. Popular among the state’s Republicans, he won 90 percent of the votes cast in the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary.
Now, after opting not to run for the Senate in 2012, Heineman is considering 2014 in the wake of yesterday’s surprise announcement by Johanns, who was elected Nebraska’s junior senator in 2008, that he won’t run for reelection. Heineman told reporters that over the next few days he would think about entering the race. According to his office, that doesn’t mean he will necessarily announce a decision soon.
“I would put it at less than even odds that he’d run,” says one source close to Heineman. “I just don’t think he relishes going back to D.C. and being in the minority, frankly.” Nonetheless, he stresses that the governor hasn’t ruled it out
Heineman has the luxury of taking his time to think, since most other likely candidates are probably waiting for his decision before they make theirs. “He’s got a network,” points out Jordan McGrain, executive director of the Nebraska GOP. “He’s extremely popular. He’s got connections that run very deep. He’s a former executive director of the state Republican party“So the guy knows the state and knows the political environment better than anybody else around.” Jim Mason agrees: “I’m not sure there’s a Nebraskan that can take on Heineman,” he says, adding that anyone who challenged him in a primary would face “a hard road.”
Another factor that could help Heineman that, so far, no clear front runner has emerged in the race for the GOP nomination to succeed him as governor. For ambitious Nebraska Republicans such as state attorney general Jon Bruning and state treasurer Don Stenberg, who both ran unsuccessfully against Deb Fischer in the 2012 primary, the governor’s race might appear easier than taking on Heineman if he goes for the Senate.
So far, none of the prominent national groups have announced any preference. The Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, the Senate Conservatives Fund, and American Crossroads are all keeping an eye on the race but have not commented yet on whether they will back a candidate or whether they consider Heineman acceptable. Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, says the group has ruled out Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican congressman considering throwing his hat into the ring, because his “record on spending, debt, and taxes in the House is just too liberal.” But on Heineman, the group so far is mum.
Likewise, Senator Fischer, who pulled off surprise wins last year first in the primary and then in the general election, currently has no plans to weigh in on the 2014 race.
Tea-partiers in the state are particularly enthusiastic about Heineman’s fiscal record. Doug Kagan, president of Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, which is affiliated with the state’s tea-party groups, praises Heineman for being “exceptionally good at introducing legislation every legislative session, including this year, to cut the spending.” Heineman has also fought against Medicaid expansion and has promoted tax-reform initiatives. “He has general popularity among the more conservative voters in the state,” Kagan notes.
However, Heineman has had his own setbacks in the fiscal arena. Last week, facing steep opposition, he announced he would no longer champion the cause of eliminating the state’s income tax, an initiative he had proposed this session.
“Governor Heineman is very willing to meet with us grassroots conservatives and tea-party organizations,” Mason remarks. Tea-partiers view Bruning, he says, as “part of the ruling elite of the Republican party inside Nebraska,” but they don’t see Heineman as being cut from the same cloth. “We feel that Heineman is someone we can definitely work with,” Mason adds, and someone who will work “to govern from a position of conservative principles.” If there’s any candidate this cycle who can make Karl Rove and tea-party leaders join together and sing “Kumbaya,” Heineman’s the one.
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.