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Mike Johanns with his wife, Stephanie (left), at his side, addresses a Republican victory celebration at the Embassy Suites on Tuesday. (Jacob Hannah)

Mike Johanns sailed through a stormy national sea for Republicans Tuesday night to victory in Nebraska’s Senate race.

President Bush’s former secretary of agriculture, who served six years as Nebraska’s governor, swept aside Democratic challenger Scott Kleeb to reach shore safely on a dark night for his party.

“Part of the reason Republicans are taking such a beating tonight is they lost sight of their fiscal responsibility,” Johanns said in a telephone news conference shortly after sealing his victory.

Johanns promised to work in the Senate to help the federal government “come to grips with its budget woes.”

As a member of the Republican minority, he said, he’ll “work across party lines” in the Senate and is prepared to work cooperatively with Democratic President-elect Barack Obama.

Johanns, 58, built tidy margins in most areas of the state other than Lincoln and denied Kleeb the support he desperately needed in populous Omaha to construct an unlikely upset victory.

As the vote count mounted, Dodge, Hall, Madison, Platte and Sarpy counties fell into Johanns’ column.  Kleeb, who lives in Hastings, held a slim lead in Adams County.

Kleeb, 33, who captured the imagination of Nebraska Democrats two years ago when he threatened to break a half-century Republican hold on western Nebraska’s House seat, slipped steadily behind as the count moved westward.

Johanns, whose all-star resume also includes two terms as Lincoln’s mayor in the 1990s, will succeed Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel in January and join Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson in the Senate.

Hagel, who broke a long Republican Senate drought in Nebraska when he was elected in 1996, chose not to seek re-election to a third term.

Johanns has said he’ll focus early on economic recovery and development of domestic energy resources.

In his conference call, he repeated his intention to seek a seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

His election to the Senate takes Johanns back to the city where he served almost three years in Bush’s cabinet. Johanns resigned as ag secretary last September to return to Nebraska to pursue the open Senate seat.

His return effectively cleared out the Republican Senate field, sending Attorney General Jon Bruning and former Omaha Mayor Hal Daub to the sidelines.

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The Senate race, which also featured a spirited bid by Green Party candidate Steve Larrick and a spot on the ballot for Nebraska Party candidate Kelly Renee Rosberg, was an unusually placid contest waged with gloved hands and largely positive TV ads.

Kleeb was left to run essentially on his own without a helping hand from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

In 2006, Kleeb had excited Democrats with a compelling personal profile as a part-time Custer County ranch hand with two graduate degrees from Yale who chased Republican nominee Adrian Smith to the wire in western Nebraska’s congressional race.

With the GOP’s half-century grip on that House seat in jeopardy, President Bush flew to Grand Island from his Texas ranch on the weekend before the election to rally Republican voters.

As the contest concluded in a flood of negative TV advertising, Smith won by 10 points and Kleeb moved on to a teaching position at Hastings College.

This year, Kleeb emerged as the third option as Democrats sought a high-profile Senate candidate. Only after former Sen. Bob Kerrey and Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey said no did Kleeb enter the race.

Reach Don Walton at 473-7248 or at dwalton@journalstar.com.

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