Illegal-Alien Tuition Decided Neb. Race

The issue of whether illegal immigrants should be allowed to pay in-state tuition at Nebraska state colleges was pivotal in Nebraska’s Republican gubernatorial primary last week.

It helped defeat Rep. Tom Osborne, who served 25 years as the football coach at the University of Nebraska, and who enjoyed mythic status in the state after leading the Cornhuskers to three national championships in the 1990s.

Osborne, who is in his third and last House term, began the primary campaign with a double-digit lead over incumbent GOP Gov. David Heineman (who, as lieutenant governor, inherited the job last year when then-Gov. Mike Johanns was named U.S. secretary of Agriculture).

Last week, Heineman defeated Osborne, 50% to 45%, with Omaha businessman David Nabity placing a distant third. Heineman’s success against the former football coach was in large part due to his veto of a bill passed by the state’s unicameral legislature earlier this year to allow illegal aliens who graduate from high school in Nebraska and promise to continue trying to achieve U.S. citizenship to pay in-state tuition at state colleges. Osborne supported the in-state tuition bill, which became the law when the legislature overrode Heineman’s veto.

“It was certainly one of the major reasons Dave Heineman won and Tom Osborne lost,” said Omaha City Councilman Chuck Sigerson, a former Republican state chairman. Sigerson noted that the issue was widely discussed at the candidates’ debates and in commercials run at the end of the campaign. “Illegal immigrants are coming to Nebraska in significant numbers—in Omaha and Lincoln in particular,” Sigerson said. “The issue of illegal immigration is a growing problem.”

In a debate at Norfolk, Neb., in April, Osborne attacked Heineman over the veto. “You don’t punish somebody for something they had no control over,” he lectured the governor. “Why would you take away that opportunity to better themselves?”

Heineman fired back that giving tuition breaks at tax-funded colleges to people in the country illegally is “not right. It’s not fair. It’s not appropriate. There is a legal way to go through the immigration process.”

Evidence that Osborne feared he had injured himself on the issue emerged when his campaign started doing “push polls” trying to paint Heineman as weak on illegal immigration. dubbed the push polling “the telephonic equivalent of an attack ad.” In one call, the voter was told: “Tom Osborne has voted for tighter border security and proposed measures to allow hard-working immigrants to obtain temporary worker visas. Dave Heineman does not even have a position on illegal immigration listed on his Web site. Does his silence on illegal immigration make you less likely to vote for Dave Heineman?”

Osborne’s defeat, Sigerson said, “came on the heels of all those rallies for illegal immigrant rights—and voters said they were fed up with them.”