OMAHA, Neb. — Mention Rep. Lee Terry's name in this town, and almost everyone has an opinion about the embattled Republican.
"I know I was not happy with the shutdown and his comments," said Patrick Ryan, a veteran of the Air National Guard turned Burke High School social studies teacher, before a Friday night football game. "I was kind of taken aback by it, thinking it was kind of arrogant considering the kind of job he’s in."
"There’s a litany of times when he has literally stuck his 10.5 [size shoe] in his mouth," state Sen. Bob Krist, a Republican backing Terry's Democratic opponent, told CQ Roll Call in his colleague's kitchen on Sunday morning. "Which time do you want to apologize for?"
"Don't get him started," said a woman seated at the bar at The Drover on Oct. 3, an old school downtown steakhouse, pointing to her husband, who regurgitated an unprompted verbatim account of the exact words dogging Terry's quest for a ninth term.
More than a year ago, when the federal government shuttered and federal employees — including active military service members and civilian contractors — feared they wouldn't get their paychecks, Terry was adamant he would keep his own.
“Dang straight,” Terry told the Omaha World Herald for an Oct. 4, 2013, story. “I've got a nice house and a kid in college, and I'll tell you we cannot handle it. Giving our paycheck away when you still worked and earned it? That's just not going to fly.”
He's apologized for the remarks, but the 16-year incumbent can't seem to get out from underneath them. It's an example of how just a few ill-suited words can ruin a congressional career — and the key reason Terry is struggling for re-election in this GOP-leaning district against state Sen. Brad Ashford.
Riding in a red pick-up truck in between stops on a tour of local businesses in La Vista, a suburb of Omaha, Terry acknowledged the challenge ahead of him this year, thanks to his comment during last year's shutdown.
"I made a mistake; it wasn’t me. That’s not who I am because everything I’ve ever done in my life has been to help people," Terry told CQ Roll Call as the truck pulled into the Nebraska Brewing Company's brew facility covered in corrugated gray siding. "I had a moment when I let frustration get the better of me."
Terry's gaffe is compounded in the Cornhusker State's 2nd District — a geographically small area by Midwestern standards, encompassing the city of Omaha and its surrounding suburbs. The district is changing, thanks to an influx of young people who have moved here for job opportunities at companies such as PayPal and Yahoo, which have opened data centers in the area dubbed "Silicon Prairie."
Most importantly for Terry, the district's single media market makes it easy for Democrats to hammer his comment home.
"That’s the only theme they’ve been on," Terry added before his aide's truck parked in warehouse lot outside the brewery.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and House Majority PAC, a super PAC that supports Democrats, will have spent nearly $1 million combined on ads hitting Terry for his comments, according to a source tracking buys in the district. On Monday, the DCCC added an additional week of television airtime here, even as it scaled back ads on other races elsewhere.
Public polling shows why Democrats are shelling out cash in the midterms for a district that voted for Mitt Romney with 53 percent last cycle. An August survey showed the race in a statistical dead heat . The race is rated a Tossup by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call and is one of just three GOP-held House seats in that category.
In a cycle where Republicans look poised to gain in the House, Terry's seat in ruby red Nebraska serves as an ironic bright spot for Democrats.
But this is not Terry's first tough re-election bid.
In 2012, he won re-election by a 2-point margin, even though national Democrats didn't make a major investment in the race. Earlier this year, Terry had an uncomfortably close 6-point primary victory over an unknown opponent, whom he outspent 20 to 1.
Not only is Terry disliked by Democrats, Nebraska political operatives say, but the problem is exacerbated by the area's splintered Republican base — split between business-friendly Republicans and tea party conservatives.
But these midterms present Terry with an additional challenge: There's a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage in Nebraska from $7.25 to $9 an hour by January 2016. It's a cause Terry doesn't support, and one operatives on both sides said will drive turnout from voters who are more likely to support Ashford.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has responded by blasting district with ads highlighting Ashford's record, calling the challenger too liberal for Nebraska for his votes on bills they say raised taxes on hair cuts and auto repairs. All together, the NRCC is spending more than $700,000 to blanket the district with ads paining Ashford as an ally of President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Terry's campaign fueled the fire this week, releasing a new ad saying Ashford is a legislator soft on crime, tying his support to a "good time law" they say allowed violent criminals out early.
It's the Terry campaign's attempt to change the trajectory of this race, which is otherwise tilting in Ashford's favor.
As Ashford walks down the street in the Dundee neighborhood on Oct. 4, the upper-middle-class area where he grew up, a passenger in a car stops to roll down her window and wish him luck. At Pitch, a gourmet pizza joint on a strip of restaurants where Ashford stopped for a Pilsner and spicy orange wings, two separate groups of diners offer their support, unprompted.
"The comment reflects the sense that being in Congress is a job when in fact it's public service," Ashford said of Terry's shutdown remark as he walked around Dundee to knock doors. "It's the, 'I need to get paid' comment when everyone is kind of hurting. And I think that when you're at $175,000 a year, and you work, at least when you're in Washington, less than 130 days a year, the sense is you need to work harder. And if nothing's getting done you're getting paid too much."
Ashford wasn't his party's first choice of candidate.
A year ago, Omaha City Councilmember Pete Festersen entered the race in the wake of Terry's shutdown comments, but he bowed out in February, citing his young family. Ashford, a 64-year-old state legislator, jumped in the race days later, just before the deadline to enter the contest.
Democrats are fully behind Ashford, a long-winded former trial lawyer and 16-year legislator with deep Omaha roots. He ran for Congress as a Republican in 1994, but lost the primary to Jon Christensen. In 2013, Ashford unsuccessfully ran for mayor as an independent, coming in fourth in a seven-candidate field.
While his legal background and legislative career kept him keen on policy, Ashford struggles to stay on message and on task.
He disregarded his staffer's walk sheet, which identified homes with likely supporters, instead taking a winding route to houses where Ashford's friends and family lived. All the while he told stories about people who used to live in the neighborhood when he lived there in the 1950s.
"Brad marches to the beat of his own drum," said state Sen. Heath Mello, a Democrat who serves with Ashford. Mello — along with Krist and state Sen. Steve Lathrop, a Democrat — gathered around the rectangular kitchen table at Lathrop's home in Omaha to voice their support for Ashford's bid. But that may not matter. So far, this race is not about Ashford; it's about Terry.
And the congressman may have run out of time to fix that.
"Whatever they’re trying to say about Brad, people are going to say I don’t care," Lathrop added. Terry's "gotta go."
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