Months after he made one of the most bizarre announcements in political history, Sen. Chuck Hagel is holding another press conference on his political future this Monday. According to the Omaha World-Herald, he has decided to retire. The decision, which many anticipated, puts the seat in play and expands the playing field further in the Democrats’ favor.
Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning has already been campaigning for months and is currently the heavy favorite for the GOP nomination. Former Rep. Hal Daub and financial analyst Pat Flynn are also in on the action. While at least Bruning and Daub would make strong general election candidates, former Nebraska Governor and current Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns is the establishment’s favorite. While Johanns is a conservative and remains very popular in Nebraska, it is also possible that his ties to the unpopular Bush administration could hamper his campaign, even in the red state of Nebraska.
The Democrats will likely counter with former Sen. Bob Kerrey. Kerrey served as Governor and Senator before moving to New York to take the position of President of the New School, a liberal university. Many Republicans think that this would disqualify him from consideration by Nebraskans, but as we learned in Montana and Virginia last year, voters vote for candidates, not their party affiliations. Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey is also a possibility.
Hagel’s decision completely changes the dynamics of this race. If he sought reelection, Hagel would have been more vulnerable to a primary challenge than a general election challenge, and some Democrats would have stayed out of the race, fearing a head-to-head faceoff with Hagel. Now, though, the seat is in play. If Kerrey decides to enter the race, he would probably start off a slight underdog against Bruning, about even with Daub, and a favorite against Flynn. If Johanns follows suit, we would have a more substantial but by no means prohibitive advantage.
The announcement follows shortly behind Sen. John Warner’s decision to call it quits and is now the third for Senate Republicans whose seats are up next year. The Cook Political Report thinks that as many as five other Republican Senators could follow suit. According to some reports, Idaho Sen. Larry Craig had decided already to call it quits before the latest scandal broke. He is still expected to retire at the end of this month, and Gov. Butch Otter could select a placeholder to serve until next November. Of the rest, two, Senators Thad Cochran (MS) and Jim Inhofe (OK), would be surprise retirements, while Senators Ted Stevens (AK) and Pete Domenici (NM) are both suffering from appearances of impropriety and could still hang it up. Stevens is in considerable more trouble, having had his home searched by the FBI. Domenici could well come away from his scandal, if it can accurately be called that, in decent shape.