Bereuter Battleground

GOP Has Lively Primary; Democrats Hopeful

Posted March 8, 2004 at 5:54pm

At first glance Nebraska’s 1st district House race appears to be an open-and-shut case.

Thirteen-term Rep. Doug Bereuter (R) announced in mid-December that he was leaving the seat and immediately endorsed state House Speaker Curt Bromm (R) to replace him.

Bromm instantly leapt to the front of the field, and most observers of House elections considered the race all but decided.

In the intervening months, however, the dynamics have changed, with establishment Republican support split and Democrats beginning to believe they may be able to steal a seat come November.

The developments, which to this point have largely flown under the radar, illustrate the intense focus put on even somewhat marginal House seats in a cycle where the playing field is exceedingly narrow.

On the Republican side, Bromm has been joined in the race by two other serious candidates, former Lincoln City Councilman Jeff Fortenberry and Nebraska Cattleman’s Association Executive Vice President Greg Ruehle.

For Democrats, state Sen. Matt Connealy is the overwhelming favorite and has the backing of current Sen. Ben Nelson and former Nebraska Democratic Sens. Bob Kerrey and Jim Exon.

“If Democrats are going to take back the House, this is the kind of place it is going to happen in,” predicted Karl Struble, who is Connealy’s media consultant.

Republicans currently hold a 12-seat majority in the body, and most neutral observers do not see House control up for grabs come November.

The intrigue at this point is most acute among Republicans.

While Fortenberry and Bromm have been in the race for several months, Ruehle just made his candidacy official Jan. 25, less than four months before the state’s May 11 primary.

Ruehle was urged into the race by individuals with close ties to Gov. Mike Johanns (R) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R), both of whom were concerned that Bromm could lose a primary to the conservative Fortenberry, according to a knowledgeable Republican supporting the Ruehle campaign.

Neither elected official is expected to endorse Ruehle, but each has made it clear in Washington and Nebraska political circles that he is their preferred candidate, the source added.

In an interview Monday, Bromm said he put “zero stock” in the idea that Hagel or Johanns is silently backing Ruehle.

“I’ve had nothing but good support from the governor and the Senator,” he added.

Much of the concern surrounding Bromm’s ability to win the Republican primary, according to Ruehle partisans, comes from his tenure as Speaker of the state’s unicameral Legislature, the only one of its kind in the country.

First elected to the state Senate in 1992, Bromm has served as Speaker since 2002.

During that time, Bromm led the fight to balance the state’s budget, which involved passing $344 million in tax increases — not typically a solid launching pad to run and win a Republican primary.

He defended those increases as the “better choice of the alternatives we had before us.”

The other option, according to Bromm, was “trying to do some things with smoke and mirrors and delay the problems.”

Ruehle is clearly hoping to capitalize on Bromm’s decision to raise taxes, although he was careful not to go after the Speaker by name in an interview.

“I made the decision to get into the race because the position I have of lower taxes and reduced federal spending was part of this primary debate,” said Ruehle. “Notwithstanding who else was in the race, those issues needed to be on the table.”

Ruehle is positioning himself as a conservative alternative to Fortenberry, who most national Republicans believe would struggle to hold the seat in November due to his lack of financial backing.

Ruehle is also hoping to capitalize on his past experience in Washington as well as the age difference between himself and Bromm.

Ruehle spent four years working in D.C. for the National Cattleman’s Association in the 1990s, a tenure he believes is “beneficial to a candidate” for federal office.

He also notes that at 40, he has “the energy and drive to win the race and serve voters of the 1st district for a long period of time.”

Although Ruehle did not mention Bromm by name, the contrast is implicit; Bromm will turn 59 on March 19.

Bromm notes that while Ruehle is younger, he doesn’t have “as much experience and ability to get [things] done.”

Citing former Rep. Jon Christensen (R-Neb.), who was elected to the 2nd district in 1994 at age 31 and left after just four years to run unsuccessfully for governor, Bromm said: “There are no assurances of how long anyone will stay in Congress.”

“I don’t go into things on a short-term basis,” he added.

While Republicans fight it out in the primary, Connealy appears to have a more clear path to his party’s nomination.

Janet Stewart, an attorney and first-time candidate, is touting her credentials as a “pro-choice, Democratic woman,” but the state and national party establishment are clearly behind Connealy.

“We fully expect to be the dominant candidate in the primary,” said Connealy, who was first elected to his Burt County seat in 1998.

Connealy and Struble argue that national Democrats have overlooked the seat because of Bereuter’s long tenure and the strongly Republican nature of Nebraska as a whole.

“Often Washington doesn’t get it,” said Struble. “After the fact they begin to realize where their opportunities are.”

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Communications Director Kori Bernards was supportive — if not effusive — about the party’s chances in the 1st.

“This is a difficult district, but with the right candidate we can take this seat,” she said.

The 1st district, which takes in all of eastern Nebraska with the exception of Omaha, was carried by both Kerrey and Nelson in their most recent statewide runs.

Even former Kerrey aide Bill Hoppner won the district in his unsuccessful gubernatorial race against Johanns in 1998. Johanns won that race 54 percent to 46 percent.

President Bush carried the district with 59 percent, however, and some national Democrats may shy away from the race after a well-funded challenger in the Omaha-based 2nd district took just 33 percent in 2002 against Rep. Lee Terry (R).

National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Carl Forti dismissed Democrats’ increased optimism.

“We have several very good candidates in this race, and this is a district where President Bush is going to get 60 percent or better,” he said. “Democrats are a long shot at best.”