Yesterday, the local news was making a big todo about the Chuck Hagel announcement coming on Monday from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. And rightly so. I remember the last time one of Nebraska's own made a run for the top job. Bob Kerrey created a lot buzz and a pretty big stir when he threw his hat in the ring for a relatively short run. I don't expect that to be the case this time around. This one's gonna be interesting. I can attest to that because I've been watching Senator Hagel from the farmhouse for quite a while now.
A brief history as I recall.
Before Chuck Hagel came into the picture, his senate seat was held by Democratic Senator James Exon. James Exon was a much beloved and highly regarded Nebraska politician having won five consecutive state elections and never having lost. He was a popular two term governor before taking on the Senate. He retired from politics in 1997 at the age of 76. Enter Ben Nelson. Another very popular two term Democratic governor and odds on favorite to succeed Senator Exon. Also enter Don Stenberg, a very popular Attorney General, and Republican party golden boy.
Everyone was eagerly anticipating the showdown between Nelson and Stenberg as if it were a sure thing. It was set up to be a knock down drag out. The Democrats held that seat for decades even through the Reagan years and the Republicans wanted it badly. Out of the blue, and I mean that like..."Where the heck did he come from and who is this guy?"...along comes Chuck Hagel. Everyone's first response to the plain spoken man from North Platte was one of writing him off as an "also ran".
Being from North Platte which is in the panhandle country of Nebraska is like being from the Upper Peninsula if you are a Michigander. There is Omaha and Lincoln and their surrounding areas...and then there is the whole rest of the state. The Omaha/Lincoln crowd pretty much run the show in Nebraska.
Well, the plain spoken man campaigned tirelessly. He talked to people not at them. He sounded like them. And what he said, made sense to them. There was no lawyer speak, or polished phrasing. He kept it simple. Think John Wayne as opposed to Dick Powell. That was the difference between Chuck Hagel and Don Stenberg. Add to that the times. The prevailing thought was that there were already too many lawyers in Washington. The voters responded. Chuck Hagel won the primary. Eyebrows were raised. No one saw this coming...but they should have, and would have if they had been paying attention. They had just "assumed", and Stenberg grossly underestimated not only Hagel, but the voters. Ben Nelson wasn't about to make the same mistake.
The election of 1996 was a humdinger. It got heated in a big way. The two men obviously didn't have much use for each other, and the feelings that were born out of that election continue to this day. Remember those Pace Picante sauce commercials? I remember that Ben Nelson used them to try and cast aspertions on the fact that Chuck Hagel had left Nebraska to enter big business...and that his values were no longer Nebraska values, but rather from New York City.....that's NEW YORK CITY! Still cracks me up.
However, Chuck Hagel's base served him well. As a child his family had moved several times all around Nebraska. He knew LOTS of people and those people all vouched for his Nebraska values. Not only that, Chuck Hagel was a bonafide decorated army veteran, having served as a grunt during Vietnam. Those were some huge props that served him well with the military folks. In addition, he had graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha...not the Lincoln school. The Omaha college was the working mans school. There were no on site dormitorys. It was not a frat school, or a party school. This was a school were you went to get the degree that would help you move up in the world.
Again, Chuck Hagel spoke to the people and addressed the issues that were their issues. His campaign message was that he wasn't trying to get elected to serve himself, he was trying to get elected to be their voice. And they believed him and believed in him. And that's why Chuck Hagel got elected and Ben Nelson didn't. Voting machines aside...the exit polls verified that the people thought that Chuck Hagel represented Nebraska in more ways than one.
So on Monday, when Chuch Hagel makes his announcement whatever it is (I'm bettting he'll go the exploratory committee route) from the University of Nebraska at Omaha....he starts out on this journey with the same foot and the same message. That message is that I am one of the common folk, who started out with nothing, served my country when my country called, went to school to get my degree right here at this school not some Ivy league elite school, worked hard, started a family, and made some money the old fashioned way. I care about all the things you care about especially this debacle in Iraq...because I am just like you. Let me be your voice.If you think there aren't voters that are going to respond to that...think again. Oh and one more thing...in Nebraska Chuck Hagel is even more popular with Democrats than he is with Republicans. Try figuring that one out.
Originally posted yesterday at the author's Yahoo360 blog.