OMAHA, Neb. — Democrat Bob Kerrey got an atta-boy Thursday from former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, who said the former senator would break the partisan "nonsense that's literally strangling our country." Republicans supporting GOP hopeful Deb Fischer in Nebraska's tight Senate race scoffed and suggested Hagel was sniffing around for a cabinet seat under President Barack Obama.
"I think at the end of the day, people are going to look at this endorsement and see it for what it is," said Republican Sen. Mike Johanns, a personal friend of Hagel's who pointed out that the former senator angered the GOP with criticism of former President George W. Bush's handling of the war in Iraq. "It's a step in his path to try to build those bone fides that he is truly an Obama person and deserves a place in his cabinet."
At a news conference later Thursday to announce his endorsement of Kerrey, Hagel dismissed the criticism. Hagel said if he were angling for a Cabinet position under Obama, "I'd be out in Virginia or Ohio campaigning for the president, not Bob Kerrey." He demurred when asked if he would consider any future Cabinet post offer from Obama.
Nebraska is being closely-watched in the broader fight for control of the Senate. Republicans must gain four seats to win the majority if Obama is re-elected, or three seats if Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney prevails.
Hagel said he was backing his former colleague as the best candidate to ease the partisan gridlock that has gripped Congress in recent years.
"We must put an end to this senseless and irresponsible partisan paralysis that has locked down our government," said Hagel, who represented Nebraska from from 1997 to 2009, four years of which he served with Kerrey. "We must start working together again for the good of our country."
Speaking at a state party gathering Thursday in Lincoln, Fischer said the Hagel endorsement wouldn't swing enough votes for Kerrey. The Valentine rancher pointed to her endorsements from major Republican figures in the state: Gov. Dave Heineman, Johanns, Nebraska's three GOP congressmen, and former governors Kay Orr and Charlie Thone.
Fischer also argued that her record is bipartisan, pointing to her work as a state lawmaker in Nebraska's officially nonpartisan legislature. She noted several measures introduced by Democrats that she helped fast-track for the good of the state.
"The record shows that I'm the one who has worked with Democrats and Republicans in the state Legislature," she said.
Asked whether the Hagel endorsement would make a difference in the election, Heineman leaned into the microphone and simply said: