A Look at Nebraska

Posted June 13, 2003 at 6:06pm

Republicans are one Senate seat away from all but completely dominating Nebraska politics.

The state’s governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general are Republicans, as are its other two constitutional officers. Thirty-three of 49 state Senators side with the GOP, as do the state’s three Congressmen and Sen. Chuck Hagel. That leaves Sen. Ben Nelson, a former governor, as the lone prominent Democrat in the Cornhusker State. [IMGCAP(1)]

Republicans and Democrats both want to change that, of course — Democrats by taking back the governor’s mansion and at least one House seat, and Republicans by evicting Nelson in 2006.

The three Congressmen face re-election in 2004, as do state Senators representing odd-numbered districts. At first glance, none of the three Members appears to be in danger.

In 2002, their narrowest victory margin was Lee Terry’s 63 percent to 33 percent nail-biter over Democratic Internet entrepreneur Jim Simon in the 2nd district, which covers the Omaha area. In the other two districts, Democrats didn’t even bother fielding candidates.

But incoming Nebraska Democratic Party Executive Director Barry Rubin warned that the GOP “isn’t going to get a free ride” come 2004.

“We are primed to take potentially two of those seats,” he said, pegging Terry as particularly vulnerable. “These campaigns will be competitive. We’re planning to play a very active and aggressive role in all three Congressional races.”

Rubin does not consider the 2002 results a harbinger of things to come in 2004, in part because a popular incumbent — Gov. Mike Johanns (R) — was at the top of the ballot last fall, which won’t be the case next time. However, he declined to name any potential Congressional candidates. He also pointed to Democrat Coleen Seng’s victory this spring over her better-funded opponent, Glenn Friendt (R), in the Lincoln mayor’s race as evidence that the state is by no means hospitable to just one party.

Nebraska’s unique, unicameral Legislature is officially nonpartisan — members do not caucus by party, and names appear on ballots sans “D” or “R” — but most politicos will tell you to surround the phrase “nonpartisan” with ironic air quotes (the Lincoln mayoral race was also officially nonpartisan).

Nebraskans love the idea of a nonpartisan Legislature, but a Democratic source said the chamber features a “tremendous amount of partisanship.” And several unofficial Republicans ousted several unofficial Democratic incumbents in 2002.

The GOP also won all five state constitutional offices, all the way down to state auditor.

“In 2002 we had a tremendous year,” said John Barrett, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party. “But now we just have to keep the momentum going. … In the next four to five years, we have some major elections we have to be prepared for.”

The governor’s office is next up for grabs in 2006, and Johanns is term-limited. Lt. Gov. Dave Heineman may be tapped by the GOP to replace him, but any of the state’s three Congressmen — especially wildly popular Rep. Tom Osborne, the former University of Nebraska football coach — could run, too. Another potential candidate, though he may wait a few more cycles, is Attorney General Jon Bruning (R), who at 32 is the youngest AG in the nation.

A possible Democratic candidate is Jim Jenkins, a rancher from western Nebraska who has not held political office, but who is a “very astute businessman,” according to a Democratic source — perhaps in the mold of Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D).

With Johanns moving out of the governor’s mansion in 2006, he could launch a Senate bid against Nelson, a first-term Senator who is also Johanns’ predecessor. However, Johanns recently downplayed that idea, saying he hoped a “Chuck Hagel type” would enter the race and that “there is no Senate race. … That is just not what I have to worry about today.”

It seems, however, that Johanns has not closed the door on a run. Nelson is seen by some Republicans as vulnerable; he narrowly won his seat in 2000 against then-state Attorney General Don Stenberg, 51 percent to 49 percent, while Johanns was re-elected with 69 percent of the vote in 2002. On the other hand, Nelson’s moderate voting record — he supported President Bush on 91 percent of votes in 2002 and was one of only three Democrats to OK final passage of the latest tax cut — may satisfy Nebraska’s conservative population.

Nelson “will be tough to beat,” conceded a Republican source, but a Senate race against Johanns, Osborne or even former Secretary of State Scott Moore likely would be a fierce battle, garnering national attention.

Democrats think voters won’t support Johanns for Senate following his handling of the state’s budget crisis. Faced with a steep deficit, Johanns moved to slash funding by 10 percent across the board. The Legislature balked, and came up with a budget, school aid bill and tax increase of its own, all of which Johanns vetoed. The Legislature then overrode the vetoes.

Rubin, citing a “leadership vacuum” in the governor’s office, accused Johanns of leaving it to the Legislature to make the tough decisions and said that, had the governor’s budget been left standing, the state may have had to slash Medicaid benefits and lay off teachers and tenured professors.

“Leaders lead and politicians politick,” Rubin said. “Johanns simply acted like an irresponsible politician. Thank goodness the Legislature cleaned up the mess.”

GOP chairman Barrett, however, blamed Nelson, governor from 1990 to 1998, for the budget crunch.

“Nelson sent us on a spending course that got us in this situation to begin with,” he said, and Johanns “is just trying to react to lower tax receipts. If spending hadn’t been so high, we wouldn’t have had these problems.”

Johanns’ refusal to raise taxes may help him maintain his popularity.

Both sides say they have plenty of rising stars in their ranks. Most prominent on the Republican side may be Bruning, who as attorney general has already been elected statewide. He previously served in the Legislature and looks to have many political years ahead of him.

Other up-and-comers include state Sen. Adrian Smith, 33, who could vie for Osborne’s seat should the former coach try for another office, and state Auditor Kate Witek.

“She could run for governor or Senator,” a Republican source said. “She’s pretty popular and has won statewide.”

As for the Democrats, Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey is one person to look out for. Fahey “has been doing a spectacular job,” according to a Democratic source. He has “tremendous approval ratings and is considered a thoughtful, business-friendly and pragmatic Democrat.” State Sens. Nancy Thompson or Matt Connealy are also prospects for future higher office.

Of course, all of this assumes that outside the guise of the “nonpartisan” Legislature, Smith really is a Republican and Thompson and Connealy really are Democrats.