Nebraska: Race for the Senate
Chuck Hagel had always thought about the possibility of running for office and in the early 1990s he started to seriously consider it when friends and acquaintances in Virginia urged him to run for state governor. While he had lived almost half his life in Virginia by then, Hagel chose to seek an opportunity at running for political office in his home state of Nebraska. With this plan in mind, in 1993 the Hagel family moved to the Heartland.
It was only a few short years later when the opportunity Hagel was looking for arose. In 1995, U.S. Senator James Exon chose to not seek a third term. Hagel had originally intended on running for Senate against Exon, but with the incumbent stepping down, the race became slightly less daunting. Hagel was still running in a state where he was virtually unknown compared to his competitors, the Nebraska attorney general and Republican Party leader, Don Stenberg, as well as the Democratic Party leader and Governor, Ben Nelson.
As Hagel faced the uphill battle of winning the election, he had to find ways to become known to the general public. He started with a concert in Kearney, Nebraska where the headliner, Lee Greenwood, garnered Hagel some support. Hagel also spent a lot of time on the ground at local events and parades across Nebraska getting to know the people of his state.
Chuck Hagel wasn't alone in his campaign work. His family supported him immensely throughout the process. Lilibet, Allyn, and Ziller attended events and walked in parades with Hagel. Even his mother, Betty, had her own personal banner for whenever she road in the parades supporting her son. His brothers, Mike and Tom, often assisted as well. The campaign was truly a family effort.
Even with all of the groundwork that Hagel and his campaign staff did, the fight for the Republican Party nomination and the U.S. Senate seat was tough. The Stenberg and Nelson campaigns noticed that Hagel was gaining on them and they quickly ran negative ads expounding on the new contender's lack of connection with Nebraska, pointing out that he had lived much of his life in Virginia. These ads significantly hurt the campaign making many believe that there was no way Hagel could recover. To make matters more difficult, Hagel refused to run a negative campaign; he did not want to retaliate in kind because he felt that positive campaigning showed a commitment to high principles and Hagel believed Nebraskans would be turned off by negative campaigning.
It turned out that Hagel was right about negative campaigning. His staff came up with an ad in which campaign volunteers explained how angry they were about the negative ads that were being directed at their candidate. This ad won over so many Nebraskans that Hagel managed to beat Stenberg in a landslide primary race victory. The unknown Nebraska native now had name recognition across the state and a campaign victory under his belt; at this point Hagel turned his eyes toward November, Ben Nelson, and the Senate seat.
In November of 1996, as the polls closed, everyone in the state waited in anticipation to see who would be the next U.S. Senator of Nebraska. In a surprising turn of events Chuck Hagel, the underdog, managed to come out victorious over Governor Nelson. The Hagel campaign and family were overjoyed. Through all of their hard work, Chuck Hagel would return to Washington, D.C., representing his home state in the federal government.