Gov. Dave Heineman edged past Rep. Tom Osborne late Tuesday night to win the battle of GOP titans.
Osborne phoned Heineman with his congratulations, both men addressed their cheering supporters in Lincoln hotel ballrooms, and Nebraska’s most dramatic primary election contest in memory was over well before midnight.
While Osborne captured populous Omaha and Lincoln, Heineman sealed his victory in rural counties and key population centers in western and central Nebraska’s critical Republican battleground.
Those communities — Grand Island, Kearney, Hastings and Columbus — are in Osborne’s 3rd District.
Osborne, the three-term congressman and former Nebraska football coach, was winning North Platte and Scottsbluff.
Addressing a jubilant crowd at The Cornhusker, Heineman said all Nebraskans share “enormous respect for what (Osborne) has done for our state,” pointing in particular to his lifelong work in helping young people.
“What an incredible victory!” the governor said later in an interview.
“You never totally see it coming, but in the last three or four weeks I could feel the energy and excitement growing.”
Osborne told his supporters at the Embassy Suites he hopes some of the ideas he advanced to make the state more competitive will bear fruit.
If so, he said, the effort will have been worthwhile.
“This is a tough one to take,” Osborne acknowledged. “It’s hard. It’s hard to lose the last one.”
The defeat probably spells the end of a brief six-year political career for the man who gained a state’s affection and gratitude by winning three national football championships in the 1990s.
Later, in an interview, Osborne said he hopes Nebraskans “will pull together behind the governor.”
The struggle for the GOP gubernatorial nod produced a classic confrontation between the celebrity congressman and an incumbent governor who held the endorsement of key GOP interest groups along with the support of Sen. Chuck Hagel.
Fighting to retain a grip on the governorship he inherited when Mike Johanns resigned last year to become U.S. secretary of agriculture, Heineman employed the skills he honed as a longtime party activist to transform what once appeared to be a slam-dunk for the popular Osborne into an even match.
Heineman, who turns 58 on Friday, is regarded as a consummate political strategist and tactician, and he has governed with an eye on this election showdown.
Osborne, 69, didn’t enter politics until 2000, when he won the first of three House races in the 3rd District. Prior to that, he was head coach at Nebraska for 25 years, stepping down in 1997 after winning his third national title in four years.
The winner of the GOP race will face Democratic nominee David Hahn, a 50-year-old Lincoln attorney and Internet entrepreneur, in the November general election.
Finishing third in the Republican battle was Omaha financial adviser Dave Nabity, who mounted a gritty uphill fight.
Heineman, former lieutenant governor and former state treasurer, gained the support of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, Nebraska Right to Life and the National Rifle Association in his bid to defeat Osborne.
Those three interest groups have been vital in contested GOP primary races in the past and helped even the race.
As governor, Heineman constructed a record that included major new job creation legislation, and he presided over tax cuts earlier this year.
But it was the political impact of two gubernatorial vetoes that appeared to lift him into a late surge, especially in Osborne’s congressional district.
Heineman’s opposition to Class I rural school reorganization and the granting of resident college tuition rates to the children of illegal immigrants cut into Osborne’s support.
Osborne declined to sign referendum petitions seeking voter repeal of the rural school legislation and said he would have signed the resident tuition bill.
While Heineman appeared to benefit politically from those differences, Osborne pointed to a 14 percent state spending increase under the governor’s leadership and promised a performance-based audit of state agencies and programs to achieve spending reductions.
Reduced taxes are not sustainable at the current rate of state spending, Osborne said, and state government already is on course to another fiscal shortfall.
Osborne proposed a new university-based initiative in bioscience and called for tax incentives to encourage venture capital in the state.
A key element of Osborne’s message has been a stronger assault on methamphetamine traffic and reform of the state’s troubled foster care system.
Nabity, 47, proposed sharp reductions in taxes and state spending, promising to “scrub government like you prune a bush.”
Hahn has waited out of the spotlight for the Republican winner, pledging to engage the GOP nominee on fundamental issues rather than what he called “sloganeering.”
In coming days, he has promised to roll out detailed plans for property tax reduction, health care reform and use of economic tax incentives to help fund college education.
Reach Don Walton at 473-7248 or at email@example.com. L. Kent Wolgamott contributed to this story.