Say what you will about Dave Heineman, and, believe me, I can say a lot. But he didn’t get where he is today by being a bad politician. I mean, for someone with as little personality as “Heine,” he managed to defeat a Nebraska deity, and then went on to win with over 75% of the vote. Not bad for someone who has all of the inspiring qualities of a pet rock. By comparison, Lee Terry seems like a rhetorical giant.
How does a man like Dave Heineman become governor of Nebraska?
In 1994, Heineman defeated incumbent State Treasurer Dawn Rockey by a 54-46 margin, spending what was, by 1994 standards, a large sum of $100,000 on the race. (Compare that to last year, where Bruning spent 3 times that amount just on television ads, in an unopposed race). Before that, he was a Fremont City Councilman, and executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party.
In 1998, he was reelected with little trouble, and in 2001, was appointed lieutenant governor by Mike Johanns after David Maurstad took a regional director position with FEMA. Heineman’s successor, Lorelee Byrd, managed to cause quite a bit of controversy. More on that in a little bit.
Lt. Governors are sort of afterthoughts in Nebraska politics. No one really pays attention to them – they don’t have any real power. Mrs. Heineman has more power than the Lt. Governor. Quick, name our Lieutenant Governor. (It’s Rick Sheehy). So to say that Heineman was “elected” Lt. Governor in 2002 is a bit of an overstatement. Johanns was re-elected as governor, and Heineman stood there quietly, along for the ride.
Byrd, the Deputy Treasurer, was appointed to succeed Heineman, with Heineman’s backing. In 2002, she was elected, unopposed by any Democrat (this seems to be a common problem, folks. Can we fix that??). Then, she decided she was going to write $300,000 worth of checks, hold them, and void them after the legislative session ended so her office could have more money. Yeah, no impropriety there. None whatsoever.
This is where the trouble starts – it was brewing long before Heineman became governor. Long before Osborne got in the race. Long before Kate Witek decided she wanted to be a Democrat for a week.
Witek, as State Auditor, requested an investigation into the cancelled checks. Attorney General Bruning sent in the state patrol. From there, the investigation consumed the State Treasurer’s office, even at one point focusing on Heineman himself. Were that this the only conflict between Witek and Heineman – it was not, they clashed before during Heineman’s tenure as Treasurer – it might be explained away. But the seedy underbelly of Republican politics that lies just beneath the surface of the story of Dave Heineman helps provide some background to the bad blood between Bruning and Hagel/Heineman – and why I never believed for a second that Bruning was in fact a “Hagel guy.”
The whole thing threatened to boil over in 2005-2006. Virtually everyone assumed that Tom Osborne would run for governor in 2006, and Mike Johanns – term-limited out of office – would challenge Ben Nelson. So when Bush tapped Johanns in late 2004 to become the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, everyone was thrown for a loop. Heineman appeared to be every bit the “lame-duck” governor. His most important decision, by his own admission, was picking the design for the Nebraska state quarter. So, political observers were still convinced that Heineman wouldn’t dare run for a full term, not with the giant, Tom Osborne, on the horizon.
Heineman’s announcement that he would indeed seek a full term as governor came as a surprise – but nowhere near the surprise of Chuck Hagel’s preemptive endorsement of Heineman for governor, before Osborne had even made an official announcement. Osborne even took care to announce his runningmate – State Auditor Kate Witek. Bruning endorsed Osborne for Governor. Heineman ran an impressive campaign. And it was all over. Hagel and Heineman asserted their absolute control over the state Republican Party. Against this backdrop, a right-wing, anti-choice Republican decided she needed to leave the party and go join the Democrats (after all, they’re desperate!).
Bruning’s role in this is one of ruthless ambition – not unlike Heineman’s. The difference is, Bruning attached himself to the man he saw as the rising star, while Hagel made his man the star. The giant killer. And, even if Heineman didn’t hate Bruning’s guts already for launching an investigation into his office, or endorsing his opponent, Heineman owes Hagel his political career. Now, Bruning – ever the political opportunist – sees an opening as the king of the Nebraska Republican Party has alienated himself from Nebraska Republicans by saying things that make sense. One last opportunity to overthrow the Hagel/Heineman crowd and make himself the king of the Nebraska GOP.
Make no mistake, this is a sordid lot, a mix of unsavory characters known as the Nebraska Republican Party. And they’re about to go for each other’s throats. Grab the popcorn. This is gonna be fun.