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Plains Region Roundup

Nebraska Senate Seat Slips Away From Democrats; All Eyes on Iowa






Gov. Terry Branstad (R)

Electoral Votes: 6
2008 Presidential Vote:
Obama 54%/McCain 45%


1st district | Incumbent: Bruce Braley (D)

3rd term (49.5 percent) | Outlook: Likely Democratic

This is the least competitive House seat in the Hawkeye State, but even this race has experienced some political action. It’s indicative of just how competitive the state has become in recent weeks, thanks in part to a barnstorming presidential race.

Braley will prevail in all likelihood. The National Republican Congressional Committee invested $400,000 for a couple weeks of advertising in the district to boost the GOP nominee, attorney Ben Lange. But the NRCC pulled out of the race at the end of September — at least for now.

This is the most Democratic House district in the state, and Braley is a strong candidate. In 2004, President George W. Bush lost this district with 46 percent.

Watch for next cycle, when this could be an open seat. Democrats expect Braley will run statewide in 2014, either for governor or Tom Harkin’s (D) seat if the Senator retires.

2nd district | Incumbent: Dave Loebsack (D)

3rd term (51 percent) | Outlook: Leans Democratic

Republicans renewed their interest in this race when the national GOP campaign descended on Iowa in late summer. National Republicans view Loebsack as a faulty candidate who could lose to their nominee, former John Deere attorney John Archer.

The district’s makeup is competitive but leans Democratic. Loebsack is vulnerable this cycle because redistricting brought a new, large media market, the Quad Cities, mostly into the 2nd district.

Archer’s greatest hurdle is financial. A competitive primary drained his resources, and now he must compete with both Loebsack and the presidential campaign noise on the air.

A Loebsack loss this November would be surprising. But it’s not impossible — especially if Archer obtains sustained financial help from national groups.

3rd district | Member Vs. Member: Leonard Boswell (D) and Tom Latham (R)

8th term (50.7 percent); 9th term (66 percent) | Outlook: Tossup

This race marked the first Member-vs.-Member contest established this cycle. An independent panel of mapmakers redrew the House boundaries, shrinking the state from five to four districts following reapportionment.

For most of the cycle, Latham held an advantage in this Des Moines-based district. The district’s composition leans Republican — slightly. Latham raked in cash, quickly eclipsing Boswell in fundraising (it helped that the former seed company owner counts Speaker John Boehner as one of his best friends).

Boswell has a geographic advantage because he’s represented more of the redrawn 3rd district in the past. But until recently, even Democrats privately confessed they didn’t see much hope for their Congressman.

Over the summer, outside groups hit the district hard. The pro-GOP Crossroads super PAC invested early, but Democratic groups blasted the airwaves in the months leading up to Labor Day. And a vibrant presidential campaign around Des Moines has helped Boswell.

As a result, the race is competitive — a Tossup in the purest sense.

4th district | Incumbent: Steve King (R)

5th term (66 percent) | Outlook: Leans Republican

This race kicked off as the clash of the partisan titans. King faces his toughest Congressional challenger to date, former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack. The district leans Republican, but King is one of the most conservative Members of Congress.

Forty days before the election, internal polls from Democrats and Republicans showed a single-digit race. That’s a closer contest than a lot of Republicans thought it would be.

Vilsack benefited from outside groups splurging on her race — some say at the expense of Rep. Leonard Boswell. Her advertising campaign emphasizes her approachability, including a spot in which she compares her legislative approach to her seven-layer salad.

King’s campaign, including his creative ads set to patriotic music, caused headaches among Republicans. But with some urging from party leaders, King settled on his message as “an Iowa straight-talker.”

In short, King holds the advantage in this race, but it’s still winnable for Vilsack.


Gov. Sam Brownback (R)

Electoral Votes: 6
2008 Presidential Vote: McCain 57%/Obama 42%


2nd district | Incumbent: Lynn Jenkins (R)

2nd term (63 percent) | Outlook: Safe Republican

There are no competitive House races in the Sunflower State.

Republicans controlled the redistricting process here, but that task proved to be too complicated for local lawmakers. The Legislature never settled on a redrawn map before the early May deadline.

The courts took over the mapmaking process for the first time in state history. Under the court-ordered boundaries, the 2nd district picked up Montgomery and Douglas counties, which include Lawrence and the University of Kansas. With these additions, the 2nd district will more competitive than its current makeup.

But redistricting was completed so late in the cycle — June 8 — that very few candidates filed to run for Congress. The entire delegation is safe for re-election this cycle. Jenkins’ opponent, pastor Tobias Schlingensiepen, is one of two Democrats running for Congress in the state.


Gov. Jay Nixon (D)

Electoral Votes: 10
2008 Presidential Vote: McCain 49.4%/Obama 49.3%


Incumbent: Claire McCaskill (D)

1st term (49.6 percent) | Outlook: Leans Democratic

This is not the race Republicans expected in a GOP-friendly state, but it’s exactly the race McCaskill wanted. She faces Rep. Todd Akin, a devoutly religious conservative who often speaks his mind to the detriment of his campaign.

Ever since Akin made a widely publicized comment about “legitimate rape” in August, national Republicans have refused to support him, depriving the candidate of key funding needed to push back against the incessant attacks of McCaskill and her allies. He is not a particularly strong fundraiser, so Akin has not been able to tell voters about himself in a substantial way, a trend that is likely to continue. Democrats have and will continue to hammer the lawmaker not just for his comments on rape, but also for his position on a slew of other issues from federal subsidies for school lunches to government-backed college loans to Medicare, Social Security and the minimum wage.

A savvy campaigner, McCaskill is widely credited in political circles with helping boost Akin during his GOP primary with negative ads that weren’t really negative. He won the Aug. 7 race against two strong competitors by about 6 points.

Given the strong GOP bent of the Show-Me State and her high unfavorable ratings, McCaskill isn’t a shoo-in. But unless an outside group comes to Akin’s rescue in a big way and soon, the most vulnerable Senator in the country looks to be in pretty good shape to return to Washington, D.C.


2nd district | Open Seat: Todd Akin (R) is running for Senate.

Outlook: Safe Republican

Former Republican National Committee Co-Chairwoman Ann Wagner is a shoo-in to come to Congress from this very conservative district.


Gov. Dave Heineman (R)

Electoral Votes: 5
2008 Presidential Vote: McCain 57%/Obama 42%


Ben Nelson (D) is retiring.

Outlook: Likely Republican

The Senate race, once expected to be one of the top races of the cycle, has slipped away from Democrats ever since state Sen. Deb Fischer surprised many — even some of her own staffers — by winning the GOP nomination.

Former Gov. and Sen. Bob Kerrey has long been considered political royalty in Nebraska. But the last time he was on the ballot was in 1992, and he spent the past decade as a resident of New York City, even contemplating a run for office in the Empire State.

If Kerrey is able to close the gap with Fischer in the final weeks, it is fair to assume that super PACs would come to her aid.

Still, Nebraska is a cheap media market. A year ago, no one would have ever projected Fischer to be her party’s nominee. The Cornhusker State has already proved once this year that underdogs should not always be counted out.


2nd district | Incumbent: Lee Terry (R)

7th term (61 percent) | Outlook: Safe Republican

Terry, the most vulnerable of the state’s three incumbents last cycle, won re-election by about 22 points, and this year is likely to not be much different.

His opponent, Douglas County Treasurer John Ewing (D), has lagged in polling and fundraising. It is hard to see how this seat flips blue in what is becoming one of the most conservative states in the Union.

President Barack Obama narrowly carried this Omaha-based district in 2008. But since then, the Nebraska Legislature redrew the lines to fortify the conservative voter.

North Dakota

Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R)

Electoral Votes: 3
2008 Presidential Vote: McCain 53%/Obama 45%


Incumbent: Kent Conrad (D) is retiring.

Outlook: Tossup

If there is one race this cycle that proves campaigns and candidates matter, it’s this one. After Conrad’s retirement announcement, most perceived this race as a lost cause for Democrats.

But they lured former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp into the contest. She’s proved to be one of the strongest Democratic Senate candidates of the cycle, despite not running for office during the past decade. Even Republicans confess she’s a better candidate than they expected.

A strong early advertisement campaign bolstered Heitkamp too. Vignettes of her small-town upbringing, plus her personal battle with breast cancer, made for some of the best political television advertisements anywhere this cycle.

On the other hand, Rep. Rick Berg’s ad campaign frustrated Republicans who wanted to see a more coherent and polished message. His attacks failed to drive down Heitkamp’s poll numbers over the summer.

This perfect storm for Democrats — in North Dakota, of all places — has been boosted by the state’s small population. Local operatives estimate the voter universe for this race hovers around 350,000. Voters get to know their candidates well before Election Day instead of relying on their partisan laurels.

As a result, this once-sleepy race has become one of the most competitive of the cycle.


At-large | Incumbent: Rick Berg (R) is running for Senate.

Outlook: Likely Republican

In all likelihood, Public Service Commissioner Kevin Cramer (R) is headed to Congress.

A former state party chairman, Cramer defeated his party’s backed candidate in the June primary with some help from national conservative groups. Now Cramer is cruising in the general election.

The Democratic nominee, former state Rep. Pam Gulleson, is fighting a red tide in a presidential year. It’s hard to see how she wins this, even with a competitive Senate race on the ticket.

House Democrats are taking note: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee started paring back its media buys for this race in late September. House Republicans never reserved any time for this race because they never expected it to be competitive.

South Dakota

Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R)

Electoral Votes: 3
2008 Presidential Vote: McCain 53%/Obama 45%


At-large | Incumbent: Kristi Noem (R)

1st term (48 percent) | Outlook: Safe Republican

In this state’s only Congressional race, Noem is on track to win a second term. The Democratic nominee is Matt Varilek, a former staffer for Sen. Tim Johnson (D).

Neither party committee has reserved airtime for this race — a sign that both sides don’t believe it’s competitive. Varilek’s hope lies in his state’s cheap media markets, which make it easy for an outside group to spend big here in the final weeks.

For now, the most damage Varilek can do is cut into Noem’s stockpile of campaign cash for her rumored 2014 Senate bid.

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