The author, of Omaha, is a longtime Nebraska political reporter and retired managing editor of The World-Herald.
When former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel appears today before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republicans on the panel have ample reason to look at him with skepticism. President Barack Obama's choice for secretary of defense has given a number of Republicans at home in Nebraska and in Washington reason to regard him as a RINO — Republican in Name Only.
While Nebraska Democrats — from the late Edward Zorinsky through Ben Nelson — built their reputations and re-election campaigns by crossing the partisan divide, Republicans put a much higher premium on party loyalty.
Hagel violated that loyalty test when he turned against President George W. Bush's Iraq War policy.
By 2008, Democrats constantly invoked Hagel's name to attack both Bush and GOP presidential nominee John McCain. Hagel did not endorse Obama for president. He stood on the sidelines, angering Republicans who suspected he was a closet Obama supporter. Hagel further poisoned his relationship with many Nebraska Republicans by backing Democrat Bob Kerrey for the Senate at the urging of mutual prominent Omaha friends.
What all this leaves out is the very conservative Republican voting record Hagel compiled in the Senate.
Yes, Hagel was viewed as a maverick by the end of his Senate career because of his stands on international issues and immigration reform.
But the other “m-word” — moderate — never defined Hagel's voting record or views. He had a lifetime 96 percent rating from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a 100 percent rating his last two years from the Christian Coalition. He seldom partnered with Nelson in the middle searching for bipartisan deals in the Senate.
Seemingly forgotten at this moment is the essential role Hagel played in building, or rebuilding, the Nebraska Republican Party.
Chuck Hagel arguably fathered today's total GOP domination of all major state and federal offices in Nebraska, including newly elected Sen. Deb Fischer.
Few recall the Democratic dominance pre-Hagel. Democrats controlled the governor's mansion for 26 of the 38 years between 1960 and 1998. Starting in 1976, Democrats won seven straight U.S. Senate races.
In 1991, Democrats held both Senate seats, the governor's office, a House seat and two constitutional offices. This was the strongest showing by Democrats in the state since FDR's 1936 landlslide.
The GOP's 1994 revolution largely skipped Nebraska. Nelson won re-election as governor in a landslide. Kerrey beat back a strong challenger as he was condemned for his pro-tax vote. Republicans, with all the advantages, narrowly won back the 2nd District House seat.
Then came Hagel.
He was viewed as a distinct underdog against Nelson, who was at the top of his popularity in 1996. Polls at the end of the summer had Nelson up by 20 percentage points.
Hagel had a tight team of Nebraska-based political veterans. The campaign was disciplined, stressing deeply conservative positions on domestic policy and social issues, including an uncompromising pro-life stand. The one oddity in the Hagel campaign was a largely ignored foreign-policy speech that signaled Hagel's internationalist bent.
Once in office as Nebraska's highest ranking Republican, Hagel turned his attention to party building. Many of those who cut their political teeth on his campaign signed up with another underdog — Democrat-turned-Republican Mike Johanns, who was running for governor. At a key moment late in the 1998 primary, Hagel flew back to Nebraska to rescue Johanns from harsh attacks.
Johanns arguably owes his political life to Hagel. The same might be said for Gov. Dave Heineman. Few were giving Heineman a chance to win the governor's office he inherited after Johanns stepped down to become U.S. agriculture secretary.
With much of the state power structure lining up with then-Congressman Tom Osborne for the Republican nomination, Hagel stood with Heineman. Why? Hagel saw Osborne as apolitical with little interest in party building and Heineman as a super-partisan who would continue the GOP's momentum.
Look at the whole record and how can you question Chuck Hagel's Republican credentials? Maybe it's that absolute party loyalty thing.