LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Former University of Nebraska Regent Chuck Hassebrook will announce this week that he's jumping into the 2014 race to fill the seat of Gov. Dave Heineman.
The Democrat told The Associated Press he will kick off his campaign Tuesday in his hometown of Lyons, in northeast Nebraska, where he serves as director of the Center for Rural Affairs.
Hassebrook is the first Democratic candidate to declare his candidacy for governor of Nebraska. If he wins the Democratic nomination, the 58-year-old faces a tough race in the Republican-leaning state but said he plans to appeal to rural residents with a focus on early childhood education, job training programs and renewable energy.
"We have a lot of communities out there fighting for their lives in Nebraska," Hassebrook said. "We have people who receive lower livelihoods just because they made a commitment to stay in their rural community. I think that for Democrats to do better in rural Nebraska, they have to do a better job of addressing rural concerns. And that's been my life's work."
Hassebrook has spent 38 years as executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs, a nonprofit that advocates for rural communities. He served for 18 years on the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, representing a region that covers 15 counties in northeast Nebraska.
He resigned the regents' seat to run for U.S. Senate in 2012 but dropped his plans after Democrat Bob Kerrey decided to run, saying the former senator and governor had a better chance of helping Democrats keep the seat.
Hassebrook had been mentioned as a possible candidate for the U.S. Senate in the 2014 race. He said he opted for the governorship because of dysfunction in Washington.
"Nebraska's still a place that works," Hassebrook said. "There are certainly times that it becomes more bogged down in partisanship than I would like, but overall Nebraska is still a place that works. Washington isn't, and that in itself makes it much more appealing to stay in Nebraska."
Hassebrook is the first Democrat to announce his campaign for governor in the 2014 race to replace Heineman, a Republican, will leave after 10 years in office because of term limits.
Hassebrook said his campaign will focus on the expansion of early childhood education and job-training programs through Nebraska's community colleges. He also plans to campaign for more wind energy as well as policies designed to attract small-scale entrepreneurs.
Other possible Democratic gubernatorial candidates include state Sen. Steve Lathrop, of Omaha, and former gubernatorial candidate Mike Meister, a Scottsbluff attorney who lost to Heineman in 2010. Democratic Party activists have also approached state Sen. Annette Dubas, of Fullerton.
On the Republican side, state Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont has launched a campaign for governor and started traveling the state to court conservative voters.
Democrats have struggled in recent years. Last year, they lost a U.S. Senate seat to Republican Deb Fischer, who defeated Kerrey in the race to replace outgoing Democrat Ben Nelson. Republicans now hold every seat in Nebraska's federal delegation, the governorship, and every other top statewide office.
"It's a real uphill battle for any Democrat, but it's not impossible," said Paul Landow, a former Democratic consultant and University of Nebraska political science professor. "Mr. Hassebrook is well-known, and he's been on the ballot a number of times before. He's done some good work with the regents, so would have a shot. But it will be difficult."
Running for governor is also likely to cost less than a U.S. Senate bid and shouldn't attract as much out-of-state money by special interest groups, Landow said.
The governor's race has been wildly unpredictable so far, with the sudden resignation of Republican Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy, who was looking to replace Heineman, and the withdrawal of former Republican Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood, whose wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.