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Lee Terry's Seat Gives Republicans Heartburn in Nebraska

Terry is a Republican from Nebraska. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., could be in a heap of political trouble this year  — again.  

Earlier this month, Terry posted a lackluster primary performance , winning his party's nod by just 8 points over a lesser-known competitor. Since then, a conservative spoiler has entered the November race with Terry and the Democratic nominee, state Sen. Brad Ashford.  

That's made Terry's re-election a headache for national Republicans. They fear this candidate might peel off Terry's votes to clear a path for the Democrat to win. Terry's camp said it is ready for the challenge.  

“I think we’re in for a probably close election, like we’ve seen over the years," Terry's general consultant, Ryan Horn, said. "Nebraska's 2nd is a contested district, but year after year, Lee Terry has demonstrated that by working hard, voters have continued to send him back to Congress."  

But Terry underperformed in his primary, despite an enormous financial advantage. The slim primary victory marked his second close call in 18 months. In November 2012, Terry won his eighth term by 2.4 percent — a strikingly small margin given that Democrats did not expend any resources there that cycle.  

Smelling blood, former state Sen. Chip Maxwell — who was once a Republican — announced last week that he intends to run as an independent. He denied to The Omaha World-Herald that he is a spoiler in the race , and said he will not accept blame if the seat goes to the Democrats.

Every member of the Nebraska delegation rallied behind Terry last week in a group endorsement stating "unequivocal support" for him.

On the statewide and local levels, Republicans have made increasing gains in Nebraska over the past decade. But the Omaha-based 2nd District is somewhat of a political outlier in the Cornhusker State.  

The Obama campaign targeted and won the 2nd District in 2008, thanks to Nebraska's proportional delegate awarding system in the Electoral College. Terry posted a better performance in the district than the GOP nominee for president, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, that year — but it was still a narrow victory.  

Two years later, Terry won with a 22-point landslide in an election that heavily favored Republicans nationwide.  

But in 2012, his margin of victory was small again: 2.4 percent. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not compete for the seat, and there was no third candidate on the ballot.  

Late last year, Democrats eyed the 2nd District as part of an offensive posture  following the government shutdown, and they even scored a top recruit, Omaha City Councilman Pete Festersen. But the political climate quickly turned against the party during the problematic rollout of President Barack Obama's health care law. Within weeks, Festersen withdrew from the race .  

Since the fall, Democrats operatives have expressed fear they could have a net loss of seats after November. New offensive opportunities became increasingly rare for Democrats, who must net 17 seats to win the majority in the House.  

So now that Nebraska's 2nd District is possibly back in play, Democrats are salivating.  

Nebraska's media markets are inexpensive, and party operatives speculate they could do damage to Terry with a relatively small amount of television advertising spending and the help of a spoiler, Maxwell.  

National Republicans say they are still unconvinced that Maxwell is organized enough to qualify for the ballot or to raise enough money to have an impact. And this district has a history of performing better for Republicans in midterms and for Democrats in presidential races.  

Still, Republicans are privately frustrated with Terry. The incumbent is a strong fundraiser, but some in Washington, D.C. GOP circles are frustrated with his recent gaffes, for example, accepting a paycheck during the shutdown . These Republicans assume they will hold the seat, but it could cost the party attention and money.