Tossup in Nebraska

No Clear Primary Favorite in Bereuter District

Posted April 28, 2004 at 6:41pm

Less than two weeks before the Republican primary in Nebraska’s open 1st district, none of the three top-tier GOP candidates would even hazard a guess as to who will wind up on top come May 11.

“This race is just a tossup,” said Nebraska Cattlemens Vice President Greg Ruehle (R). “Voters are just becoming focused on the race.”

“I am not aware of any polling out there so it’s all guesswork at this point,” agreed Dan Parsons, a spokesman for former Lincoln City Councilman Jeff Fortenberry (R).

State House Speaker Curt Bromm said he was “optimistic” about the primary but admitted that the race remained up for grabs.

Ruehle, Fortenberry and Bromm are all competing for the GOP nomination to succeed retiring Rep. Doug Bereuter (R), who will resign his seat Sept. 1 to take over as president of the Asia Foundation.

Democrats have a primary of their own, with state Sen. Matt Connealy the heavy favorite over attorney Janet Stewart and several other lesser known candidates.

What initially appeared to be an open-and-shut race following Bereuter’s endorsement of Bromm has grown increasingly complex, as Ruehle partisans argue that he was recruited into the race by establishment Republicans concerned that if Bromm won the primary the seat could be in jeopardy in the fall.

Although knowledgeable GOPers insist that close aides to both Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) and Gov. Mike Johanns (R) were involved in recruiting Ruehle, both men vehemently deny that they are playing even a behind-the-scenes role on his behalf.

Neither the governor nor the state’s senior Senator are expected to endorse in the primary.

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding his entry into the race, Ruehle is clearly trying to coalesce economic conservatives around his campaign.

Bolstering that effort, he received the endorsement of the Club for Growth, the fiscally conservative organization based in Washington, D.C.

The club recently sent a fundraising appeal on Ruehle’s behalf to its 16,000 members in which Bromm’s tax record is described as “dreadful.”

Bromm is the only one of the three major Republicans who has not signed the Americans for Tax Reform pledge that he will not vote for a tax increase.

And, as Speaker of the state’s unicameral legislature, Bromm rode herd on an effort to balance Nebraska’s budget, which resulted in $344 million in tax increases.

Bromm said he believes the club’s endorsement will ultimately bounce back to hurt Ruehle.

“I am glad he’s got it and I didn’t,” said Bromm. “Nebraskans are by nature independent people. We like to choose our own representatives.”

Bromm added that he would never have accepted large fundraising contributions from groups based outside of Nebraska.

Bromm is also the only one of the three serious GOPers not to be endorsed by Nebraska Right to Life due to his past support in the Legislature for fetal tissue research at the University of Nebraska, according to the group’s executive director.

Supporters of Bromm maintain that the lack of an endorsement has less to do with his stance on abortion than the fact that he beat the father of the group’s executive director to win his seat in the state Senate.

Despite these apparent setbacks, Bromm led the field in fundraising during the first three months of the year, although none of the candidates had particularly stellar cash totals.

Bromm brought in $138,000 from Jan. 1 to March 31 and had $115,000 left on hand.

Ruehle raised $102,000 with $88,000 in the bank.

Nebraska Republican observers expressed disappointment with Ruehle’s fundraising but believe he will ultimately have enough money to get out his message effectively.

Fortenberry, who to this point has focused on building a grassroots network for the contest, raised a better-than-expected $97,000 with $53,000 left to spend.

“We said all along we didn’t have to match our competitors dollar for dollar because what we may lack in a few thousand dollars we have made up for in organization,” Parsons said.

Pre-primary financial reports, covering March 1-20, are due at the Federal Election Commission today.

All three candidates are currently running television ads in the eastern Nebraska district, with both Ruehle and Fortenberry focused on outlining their conservative credentials.

“For us it’s been the same message all along,” said Ruehle, noting that his current commercial outlines his opposition to abortion, his support for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and his desire to lower taxes.

Fortenberry, who is widely regarded as the most conservative of the three candidates, has centered his campaign on a pro-family agenda.

“The strength of this nation depends on the strength of its families,” said Parsons. “From defense issues to economic issues to life issues, Jeff has talked about a consistent message.”

With two of the three top-tier Republicans appealing to the conservative wing of the party, some GOPers have suggested Bromm will emerge with a unified coalition of moderate voters.

Bromm said that “people who know me and that have worked with me in my political days find it astounding that I am being pictured as a moderate.”

“I don’t think all moderates are open-minded and all conservatives are close-minded,” he added, referring to his willingness to hear various sides of even controversial social issues.

Ruehle rejected the idea that he and Fortenberry would divide the conservative vote, arguing that his message as a “strong social conservative and a strong economic conservative that has Washington, D.C., experience” differentiates him from the field.

Ruehle spent four years working in D.C. for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in the 1990s.

Parsons, the Fortenberry spokesman, said his candidate “has resisted labels.”

“We feel that our message is the one resonating with voters,” he added.