Democrat Chuck Hassebrook for this election cycle had to choose between two of the biggest political offices in Nebraska: governor or U.S. Senate.
He is choosing governor.
Republican Shane Osborn, the former Navy pilot who rose to fame after landing a crippled spy plane in China, is choosing the U.S. Senate.
Hassebrook, 58, and Osborn, 38, jumped into their respective races this weekend, marking the start of what is expected to be a wave of candidates to come.
For the first time in a generation, Nebraska has open U.S. Senate and governor seats in the 2014 election because U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns has decided to retire and Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman hit his term limit.
Hassebrook said he could make a bigger difference as governor than as a senator.
“Frankly, Washington is dysfunctional. It's hard for one person to change things. But you can change things in Nebraska,” said Hassebrook, a former member of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents and the executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs.
Osborn said he too believes Washington is dysfunctional, but he finds that to be a challenge.
“I'm the kind of person who likes to fix broken things. While Nebraska is in great shape, D.C. is a mess,” Osborn said.
The last time both the Senate and the governor's races had no incumbent running was in 1978, when Jim Exon left the Governor's Mansion to run for retiring U.S. Sen. Carl Curtis' seat.
But even in that race, Exon was the favorite in the Senate race, having left the governorship to seek that spot. This year, there are no clear front-runners.
“My expectation will be a number of legislators and possibly city officials and mayors will try their hand at this,” said Tim Hill, a political scientist at Doane College. “As far as I can tell, it's anybody's guess who will rise to the top.”
Hassebrook is the first Democrat to announce a run for either office. The only other gubernatorial candidate in the race is Republican State Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont.
In the last Senate go-around, Hassebrook found himself in a bit of a controversy when some said he was betrayed by former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey. Hassebrook mounted a bid for U.S. Senate only after Kerrey said he would not run. Kerrey then changed his mind and jumped back into the race, prompting Hassebrook to withdraw.
Hassebrook said he doesn't feel resentful toward Kerrey.
“I don't hold grudges,” Hassebrook said. “I always felt like when you hold grudges, it hurts you more than anyone else.”
The longtime advocate of small farmers, who hails from Lyons, said he believes he can make inroads with voters in rural and western Nebraska — usually tough electoral neighborhoods for Democrats.
Hassebrook said his goals will be to improve early childhood education, create jobs and promote small businesses. An opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline, he also said he will promote the development of renewable energy, including wind.
“The evidence is real — that the climate is warming and fossil fuels are contributing to that,” Hassebrook said.
No doubt there will be more gubernatorial candidates announcing in the coming months, and the primaries could be competitive on both sides of the aisle.
Democratic State Sen. Steve Lathrop and Scottsbluff attorney Mike Meister are considering running for governor, and former Republican State Sen. Mike Flood could jump back into the race.
Flood initially dropped out after his wife, Mandi, was diagnosed with breast cancer. But he and others have said her prognosis has improved and he is again contemplating making a run.
In addition, two Republican businessmen may enter the fray: former Gallup executive Mike Van Buskirk of Hay Springs and Charles Herbster of Falls City.
Herbster owns Conklin Co., which produces fertilizer and animal supplements and is headquartered in Kansas City, Mo.
On the Senate side, Osborn is the first candidate out of the gate.
Osborn captured the nation's attention in 2001 when the spy plane he was flying near China collided with a Chinese fighter jet and was damaged. He made an emergency landing on a Chinese island, saving the lives of his 23 crew members. He and his crew were held by the Chinese for more than 10 days before they were allowed to return home, to heroes' welcomes.
Osborn eventually was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He then returned home to Nebraska, running and serving a single term as state treasurer.
Osborn said he plans to run as a fiscal conservative with a call to reduce government spending.
“First and foremost, I see the biggest problem we face is people need two jobs to support their families,” Osborn said. “The government is growing at an unbelievable rate, and it's putting pressure on middle-income Nebraskans.”
Other Republicans who may wind up running for Senate include Ben Sasse, the president of Midland University in Fremont.
Sasse, who is a relative newcomer to Nebraska politics but who has won the backing of former Nebraska GOP Chairman Mark Fahleson, announced last week he would embark on a 45-day listening tour this summer.
Another possible contender is Omaha investor Pete Ricketts, a wealthy businessman whose family owns the Chicago Cubs. Ricketts first entered politics in 2006 when he made an unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate against then-U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson. He poured more than $10 million of his own money into that race.
If he enters this race, his money could give him a formidable advantage against either the little-known Sasse or Osborn, who has been out of politics for more than two years.
“Pete obviously has run before, and he has perhaps learned some lessons from that,” Fahleson said. “He would be a great candidate.”
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