Daub becomes second potential Hagel GOP challenger

In another sign of growing impatience with Sen. Chuck Hagel’s (R-Neb.) decision-making process, former Rep. Hal Daub (R-Neb.) announced Tuesday that he would explore a Senate bid and left open the option of a primary challenge against his close friend in 2008.

Daub is the second Republican to disregard the incumbent’s prolonged deliberations over whether to run for reelection to the Senate, run for president or leave office.

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Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning announced an exploratory committee in March and a month later came out forcefully against Hagel, saying he had changed his mind about deferring to the incumbent. He released a poll showing himself leading Hagel 47 percent to 38 percent in a primary and derided the two-termer for voting against the Republican Party and President Bush to withdraw troops from Iraq.

Such onslaughts are unlikely from Daub, who is close to Hagel and has been privy to the senator’s laboring over his political future. Daub characterized Hagel’s retirement as a “distinct possibility” in an interview with The Hill earlier this year.

Daub said that he visited with Hagel three or four weeks ago in Hagel’s Washington office, but declined to say if he gleaned anything from the visit.

“I certainly enjoyed my visit with the senator,” he said.

Even in announcing that he might challenge Hagel, Daub praised the senator and sought to deemphasize the potential primary.

“It is a process that I want to go through,” Daub said. “It isn’t a question of whether I will or I won’t challenge him in a primary. … I’m going to be flexible about this, I’m going to keep my options open, and you never say never, you never shut the door.”

But his announcement highlights the anxiety that Hagel is causing even his friends within the party, Nebraska Republicans said.

Hagel called a press conference in March, only to announce that he had not yet made a decision. Most recently, the most vocal Republican opponent of the war in Iraq has flirted with the possibility of an independent bid for the presidency.

Daub said he will conduct a self-funded statewide “listening and learning tour,” traveling to all 93 counties in the state by Labor Day and raising money that will be put in a trust fund. If he doesn’t run, he will return contributions with interest. He is not forming an exploratory committee.

A Republican National Committeeman and former mayor of Omaha, Daub has long harbored senatorial ambitions, and it wouldn’t be his first senatorial primary challenge.

In 1988, he challenged and lost to incumbent Republican Sen. David Karnes, who had been appointed to the seat after the death of Sen. Edward Zorinsky (D). In 1990, he won the GOP nomination but lost to Sen. Jim Exon (D).

Daub was also recently head of the American Health Care Association, but his differences with the group’s board led to his early departure in 2005.

State GOPers were caught off guard by Daub’s announcement, but they said he is probably just keeping his options open and has had his hand forced by Bruning.

One official said that while Bruning caused a stir with his announcement and has been a well-known Hagel foe, Daub has a little more latitude within the party.

“He’s a fixture in Nebraska politics,” one GOP operative said. “It’s one of those things — everybody hears it, and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s Hal.’ If there’s one person that can get away with it, it’s Hal.”

In Bruning’s polling data, Daub trailed him 55 to 16 statewide. Daub said the polling that matters to him is the polling he’s doing by talking to people around the state in the coming months.

Other potential Republican candidates for the seat include businessman Tony Raimondo, who in announcing an exploratory committee last week indicated he would not run against Hagel.

A spokesman for the top potential Democratic candidate, Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey, said Fahey is standing by his decision not to run if Hagel runs.

“He will not challenge Sen. Hagel, because he believes he’s doing a good job representing Nebraska,” spokesman Joe Gudenrath said. He added that Fahey is more likely to run for reelection to his current post in 2009 than to run for Senate.

Hagel’s office has not returned a call seeking comment.