A few days ago, I had a chance to catch up with Nebraska attorney general Jon Bruning, who recently announced he was challenging Senator Chuck Hagel in the Republican primary. Hagel's positions against the war in Iraq and for the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill have placed him at odds with most conservatives. Read on to see Bruning explain why "conservatives need a voice," share some of his campaign's internal polling, and talk about his own record, one he says consists of "zero maverick moments."
Bruning was re-elected to the attorney general's office last November unopposed. To learn more, visit his Web site at www.JonBruning.com.
PR: Challenging an incumbent is always daunting. How's it going so far?
JB: It's going spectacularly well by almost any measure. We've gotten a steady stream of emails from Nebraskans and even others out-state, saying "How do I help? How do I help you from Minnesota, how do I help you from Arizona?" And of course Nebraskans who feel very passionately about their state and the fact that they elected a Republican to act like one.
Frankly, that's what kicked me into this race in the first place. Initially when Hagel did his strange little press conference on March 12 when he said, "I don't know what I'm going to do," and the national media was very angry and Nebraskans were very embarrassed and the whole thing was a bit odd, I came out a couple of days later and said, "Yeah, I'll think about running, but I won't run against Hagel." I had always been a Hagel supporter, but I was just growing more and more frustrated.
In 2004, we had to listen to John Kerry in the debates quoting Hagel to our President. It was painful for Nebraskans, and more and more he was breaking with the President, and more and more he was doing it in a way that was an attempt to embarrass the President and the Republican Party. In March of this year, he votes with the Democrats on the strict timeline for troop withdrawal, and he talks about the impeachment of the President, and I just had had it, and thought, "You know what, I'm in a position to do something about this." Conservatives need a voice. And so ultimately in early April I decided I was going to run.
PR: I was going to mention that press conference. Three months later, we're still not sure what office he's running for. Does it help or hurt you to have such an elusive opponent?
JB: I didn't want people to think that I was unwilling to take on the big guy. I understand the size of that mountain that I'm attempting to climb. Incumbents don't lose very often. It's pretty hard for them to lose in a primary especially.
I don't take this lightly. I don't like the idea of a primary fight. But I'm not the one that left the Republican Party. I'm right where I was at the beginning of this thing. Hagel is the one who has turned hard left. And not just on the big issues. He voted with the Democrats on Iraq, which is just very frustrating. He's voting with a mixed coalition that includes the President on immigration, which I think is a very bad bill. But even though I disagree with the President, I'm not going to call for his impeachment on that. I think it's a bad bill. If I was in the Senate I would go down the street and say "Mr. President, I disagree with this bill, and I can't support it." But I wouldn't demagogue the issue, and it's kind of embarrassing when someone talks of impeachment. And he voted for this silly resolution of no confidence against Attorney General Gonzales.
Hagel is just gone, in terms of everything. You'll find that even on the little votes now, Hagel will stick it to his own party. That kind of disloyalty doesn't go unnoticed. The other Republican Senators are very frustrated with him.
PR: Iraq has been a very challenging issue for the country and for the Republican Party. Do Republican voters in Nebraska still side with you, or with Chuck Hagel?
JB: No question that there are a lot of conflicting emotions when it comes to Iraq. Nobody loves war. But I think Nebraskans still stand in a place where they believe that it's better to engage terrorists and have the War on Terror over in the sand several thousand miles away than it is to have it on our soil here.
This War on Terror and this War in Iraq is not just about Iraq. It is about terrorism worldwide. This is the front line in the battle against al Qaeda. This is it. It's in Iraq right now. And if we leave Iraq, al Qaeda will have won. And eventually they're going to be back here on our soil. Right now they don't have time to figure out how to get here, because they're fully engaged with us there. And they are wearing out their welcome. You listen to General Petraeus and you know that al Qaeda is wearing out its welcome. Its tactics in the long term are going to serve to alienate the people of Iraq. I firmly believe we're doing the right thing. It's a horrible thing to have to pay for our efforts in the lives of American soldiers, but freedom isn't free. And it takes the courage of our soldiers to keep this great country free.
PR: We know that Chuck Hagel is a supporter of the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill. How would your approach to that issue be different than Hagel's?
JB: Every proposal Hagel has had out there has included amnesty. I think it's wrong for the United States to again, 21 years later, lay out another amnesty plan. If we start doing this more often than once a generation, why would anyone abide by the laws? You just wait for the next amnesty offer. It just breeds disrespect for our laws.
How would I do it different? I would start by securing the border. We have not done that well enough. There are many many things we can do. We can start with the billion dollars that's been appropriated but not been spent by Homeland Security. This is the greatest country in the world and to say we can't secure our borders is crazy.
I don't think anyone thinks we're going to end immigration. We're all immigrants. I've got a picture here on my desk of my great great grandfather and my great great grandmother who came to Ellis Island in 1861 and ended up in Nebraska, in the little town of Bruning, by the way. They came in the right way, if we need to allow more people into the country to keep the economy churning, then write it into the laws that way – Congress, you have the power. What we can't do is have a set of laws we're just ignoring.
PR: Does the campaign have any internal polling you can share?
JB: We polled it at the end of April, so it's probably six weeks old now, give or take, and I led Hagel by 9 points. In a Republican primary sample, I led him by 47 to 38 percent. If you push it just a little bit, when you say that Hagel had discussed the impeachment of the President as an option, and if you knew Senator Hagel had voted with the Democrats on matters regarding Iraq, including a strict timeline for troop withdrawal, then for whom would you vote, it goes to a 24 point lead – 55-31 percent.
PR: How do you feel about your chances in a highly contested statewide race? Lots of times people will throw out the argument, "Well, he's challenging an incumbent who can win. Why rock the boat?" How are you different?
JB: I've been elected statewide twice, which is the exact number of times Chuck Hagel has been elected. Nebraskans know me. I'm a known quantity. The statewide name ID figures for Hagel and I were virtually identical, except my favorables were higher and unfavorables were lower. We were both at 90-something name ID. My favorables in the 60s, his were barely over 50%. His unfavorables were 40% and mine were 6%.
I'm a known quantity in Nebraska. My family is five generations of farmers. I married a farm girl. Nebraskans know that at the end of all this for me, that I'm going to live here. There's just no doubt in my mind where I'm going to be when I'm 65 or 70 or whatever it is when I hang it up.
I think people ought to ask Senator Hagel the same question because he's lived in Virginia since 1971. He moved back to Nebraska in '94 to run for the Senate seat after having considered whether or not to run for governor of Virginia. He decided that a Senate seat here in '96 would be a better play. He won the Senate seat and promptly moved back to Virginia. I'd be interested in the largest number of days he spent in a row in this state since he won the Senate election. He probably never sold his Virginia house.
How do I feel about the opportunity to win a general election? I feel fine about it. I know Nebraskans, whether you're in a small town or from Omaha and Lincoln. I'm right in the middle of that. I'm not someone who needs to work hard to figure out to fit in with Nebraskans. I am one.
PR: I'm guessing conservatives will be very happy to know you're not Chuck Hagel. If I'm an activist in Pennsylvania or Iowa who's thinking about supporting you, what should I know about Jon Bruning?
JB: They should know that I'm going to be steady to the point of boring them. They're not going to have to guess where I'm going to be. I've got a ten year history in politics that is straight as the Nebraska interstate. I'm going to be in favor of the Second Amendment, every time. I'm going to be pro-life, every time. I'm going to be in favor of more efficient smaller government and lower taxes every time. If they would look at my legislative record and couple it with my record as Attorney General, they are going to find zero maverick moments. I know what I believe. I'm comfortable with what I believe, and that's what Nebraskans are going to get when I'm in the Senate. That's what Americans are going to get when I'm in the Senate. I'm not saying I don't think about the issues. I think about them very deeply, but I know what I believe. And I'm not going to blow with the political winds based on my own ambition or the moment in history.