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GOP to lose another in the Senate

Sen. Hagel of Nebraska, who often strayed from the party line, says he will not seek reelection.

September 09, 2007|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, an outspoken Republican critic of the war in Iraq who this year flirted with running for president, has decided not to seek reelection, congressional sources say.

Hagel informed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) of his decision Friday, according to one aide, telling McConnell that at 60 he still felt young enough to pursue other opportunities. The Nebraska senator has scheduled a news conference in Omaha on Monday morning to announce that he will not seek the presidency or reelection in 2008.

Hagel would be the third Senate Republican to announce his retirement since the party lost control of both houses of Congress last year, underscoring the difficulty of being in the minority party. Sens. John W. Warner of Virginia and Wayne Allard of Colorado have also announced that they will not seek reelection.

With Democrats holding a fragile 51-49 majority in the Senate, the retirements have helped put the GOP on the defensive as it seeks to regain control of the Senate in 2008. Of the 34 Senate seats up for election next year, 22 are held by Republicans, forcing the GOP to defend territory in more battlegrounds.

"What we're seeing is that some important senators are deciding not to run," said Robert Schmuhl, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame. "This potentially changes the political landscape, and not to the Republicans' benefit."

On the Democratic side, Bob Kerrey, a former governor and U.S. senator from Nebraska who now is president of the New School university in New York, has publicly mused about running for the seat if Hagel did not. Kerrey told the Lincoln Journal Star that he would reveal more about his own plans Monday. Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey, who met this spring with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has also expressed interest.

On the Republican side, Hagel had already drawn a serious primary opponent in Nebraska, Atty. Gen. Jon Bruning. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, a former governor of Nebraska and mayor of Lincoln, is also said to be interested.

Hagel had a conservative voting record in the Senate -- interest group rankings put him in the class of former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a darling of the right -- but his opposition to the war in Iraq separated him from his colleagues.

A decorated combat veteran of Vietnam, Hagel often expressed fear that the Bush administration was repeating the mistakes of that conflict in its handling of Iraq. Earlier this year, he called Bush's decision to send additional troops to Iraq "the worst foreign policy blunder since Vietnam."

His presidential ambitions were likewise tempered among primary voters because of his opposition to the war, and among independent voters because of his conservative domestic policy views. He opposes abortion, favors school prayer and has backed school vouchers.

But Hagel often strayed from GOP orthodoxy. He joined with former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to sponsor a bill offering illegal immigrants "earned legalization" after four years of work and mastery of English. And he opposed the Bush administration's 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill, calling it "a sham and a rip-off for everybody" and predicting it would "make our problems worse."

Hagel, a native of North Platte, Neb., who worked his way through the University of Nebraska, is a onetime newscaster and radio talk show host who made his mark in business by starting Vanguard Cellular Systems Inc., a major independent cellphone company that was acquired by AT&T Corp. in 1999.

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