It's almost always "Vietnam veteran Chuck Hagel" and almost never "telecom millionaire Chuck Hagel." Yet it's a safe bet that money, as much as military service, carried Hagel into the U.S. Senate in his first run for elected office in 1996. In a November article in Harper's, about the collusive relationships between Republicans and the vote-tabulation industry, Victoria Collier suggests that Hagel had more than his enormous personal wealth working for him when he defeated Ben Nelson, at the time a popular Democratic governor.
Going into the race, polling had Hagel and Nelson in a dead heat. Hagel beat Nelson by 15 points. Most pollsters will agree that upsets that defy polling by such a large margin are one indicator that the election was suspect.
Collier reports that until shortly before the election, Hagel had been chairman of the company whose computerized voting machines counted the votes that swept him into office.
Hagel resigned from the chairmanship of Election Systems & Software two weeks before he announced he was running for the Senate. No proof of fraud, but the huge margin by which Hagel won, according to Collier, had voting-rights advocates asking a disturbing question: "Who controls the new technology on election night?" The answer to that question today is two huge companies with broad and deep connections to the Republican Party.
The privatization of the voting process was still fairly novel in 1996 and Hagel was one of its pioneers. The Democrat who challenged Hagel at the end of his first term tried to turn that fact against him, asking: "Why would someone who owns a voting-machine company want to run for office?"
To be fair, Hagel no longer owned the company, although he still held stock in the holding company that owned it. And he answered the rhetorical question by winning 83 percent of the vote, a margin that suggests "too big to need to steal." But it was odd, Collier notes, that in a state with almost 400,000 registered democrats, the Democratic challenger, who admittedly ran a poorly managed underfunded campaign, got only 70,290 votes. Were I a candidate with some control over the vote count in a race like that one, I would have moved 200,000 votes into the loser's column.
Who knows what sort of senator Charlie Matulka, a construction worker running as a long-shot, would have made if he had managed to deny Hagel a second term. And Hagel was certinly brighter, more principled, and more competent than Ben Nelson, the nominal Democrat who later won a Senate seat from which he retires when the new Congress is sworn in.
The circumstances of Hagel's first election won't stand in the way of his confirmation as Defense Secretary if he's nominated. But they serve as another reminder of how we've turned our elections over to private companies with partisan ties, as Texas journalist Ronnie Dugger warned in a prescient New Yorker article in 1988.