Nebraska Primary Has Big Contrasts

Posted April 14, 2008 at 6:31pm

In what has been a quiet battle that ultimately could be for nothing more than a chance to finish second in the general election, Scott Kleeb and Tony Raimondo are going toe-to-toe for the Democratic Senate nomination in solidly conservative Nebraska.

Awaiting the winner of that May 13 contest is ex-governor and former Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, a well-liked political heavyweight who has a clear path to the GOP nomination and is favored to win in November. But both Kleeb, the 2006 3rd district runner-up, and Raimondo, a wealthy businessman who tried to run for Senate this year as a Republican before being rebuffed by the GOP and switching parties, are thinking upset.

Democrats acknowledge that beating Johanns for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) is not an easy task. But they see a path to victory, one that could be greased if Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) is the Democratic presidential nominee, which looks increasingly likely.

“We certainly understand it’s going to be an uphill battle,” Nebraska Democratic Party spokesman Eric Van Horn said. “But in many respects the battle lines have been drawn, and I like our position.”

The Johanns campaign is careful not to gloat.

But the Republican’s team clearly believes that the political fundamentals of the upcoming race favor its candidate — in addition to his record as a former governor, Agriculture secretary and Lincoln mayor.

Johanns has the crucial support of Hagel and Gov. Dave Heineman (R) and is running in a presidential cycle in an overwhelmingly Republican state that delivered 66 percent of its vote for President Bush in 2004.

And then there’s money: Johanns closed the first-quarter Federal Election Commission fundraising period with more than $1.3 million in the bank, while Kleeb reported $281,000 on hand and Raimondo filed with $141,000 — including $100,000 from his own pocket.

“Nebraska voters know Secretary Johanns represents common-sense Nebraska values,” Johanns campaign spokeswoman Sarah Pompei said. “Regardless of his opponent, Secretary Johanns will continue to travel across the state, listening to Nebraskans and sharing his vision on the important issues confronting our state and nation.”

To date, Kleeb and Raimondo have mostly kept their powder dry, focusing on introducing themselves to Democratic voters statewide while emphasizing an upbeat, albeit vague message of change and taking “common sense Nebraska values” to Washington, D.C. Nebraska Democrats expect the Senate primary to be competitive at all levels.

Kleeb is highlighting his status as, in his opinion, the Senate primary’s only true Democrat. The Yale-educated rancher and current program director at Hastings College was the 2006 Democratic nominee in the incredibly Republican 3rd district, and, although he lost that race to a state Senator by 10 points, earned the enthusiastic support of grass-roots Democrats throughout the state.

Raimondo, a former Bush appointee as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board in Omaha, originally tried to run for Senate this year as a Republican. But after GOP leaders rebuffed him in favor of Johanns, Raimondo became a Democrat. His approach has been to play up his biography as a successful business owner and the only primary candidate with real-world experience.

Democrats unaffiliated with either campaign expect the the battle between Kleeb and Raimondo to center on party loyalty (Kleeb) versus electability (Raimondo.) However, both campaigns cite electability in the general election as a strength.

“Scott ran a really competitive race [in 2006] in the 430th toughest district for a Democrat to run in in the country,” Kleeb campaign spokesman Joe Zepecki said. “The fact that he got 45 percent in the toughest part of state — that makes him very attractive general election statewide candidate.”

Raimondo was the first to advertise on television and is currently on the air in the Omaha, Lincoln, Hastings and Kearney markets.

The ad features some of Raimondo’s employees at Behlen Manufacturing in Columbus, Neb. In the spot, they’re singing the candidate’s praises as a great boss who pays great wages and involves workers in running the multimillion-dollar company.

“Scott has spent most of his life as an academic, and doesn’t have the real-world experience that Tony does,” said Raimondo campaign manager Eric Fought, who left his job as a top official for the state Democratic Party to run Raimondo’s campaign. “I think people are compelled by the story of where Tony’s coming from.”

Name identification, and who wins the battle on this front, could be key to determining the outcome of the primary, say Democratic strategists who are following the race.

Both candidates have some work to do in Omaha, the state’s lone urban center located on the Iowa border. As a first-time candidate, Raimondo has to increase his name recognition throughout the state.

Kleeb is well-known in western and central Nebraska courtesy of his 2006 run for Congress in a House district that covers all of that territory. But Kleeb’s name identification also registers in the Lincoln media market, as he unloaded much of the $975,000 he spent in 2006 on Lincoln television and radio in order to reach the eastern portion of the 3rd district, which is covered by the state capital’s media.

“I think this race is going to be won on TV,” predicted one Democratic operative based in Nebraska.

On the heels of polling that suggest Obama might run competitively in Nebraska this fall, Democrats contend there is reason to believe that Johanns might be vulnerable. The line of attack against the Republican, as indicated by both the Kleeb and Raimondo campaigns, could center on two issues.

The first is that Johanns supported Bush’s plan to overhaul illegal immigration while serving as Agriculture secretary — a blueprint that Nebraska Democrats claim included “amnesty.” The second is that Johanns, also while the secretary, ordered 10 Farm Agency offices shuttered in Nebraska.

Barry Rubin, the former executive director of the state Democratic Party and now a marketing consultant with InfoUSA in Omaha, said Kleeb and Raimondo would both make good general election candidates. Rubin said he doesn’t expect Johanns to make a mistake, but nonetheless believes Nebraskans are itching for a change on Capitol Hill, much like voters elsewhere.

“We’re seeing here what we’re seeing all over the country, a potentially competitive presidential race in Nebraska for the first time since 1968,” Rubin said. The Senate race “has the potential to be a top-tier race once we get into the heat of the general election.”